We don't know what's next for business - but what we do know is how to help you be ready. This blog is all about anticipating the future and positioning you for success.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Colors of the Holiday Season: Red and Green; Pink and Blue

We all know the #1 goal of a for-profit organization is to make a profit. The additional objectives, such as treating employees with respect and fairness and being a good social and global steward, are hopefully priorities met along the way to the profits.

My experience about how executives approach the final quarter of the year echoes what I hear colleagues mentioning - most organizations have their eyes on two things: the financial performance for the year ending, and the strategic goals for the new year. Finding the right balance between profits, quality performance, future consumer demands, staffing levels, workload, and advancing technologies is quite a leadership art. CEOs usually find the solution for balance wrapped in organizational assessments and restructuring activities focused on integrating new processes and technologies in order to provide greater efficiencies while reducing costs. Unfortunately, this often results in cutting jobs.

As if on cue, earlier this month we began to learn of plans within the semiconductor industry to address a downturn in business through layoffs and the closing of plants. The first announcement came from Advanced Micro Devices, Inc. (AMD) on November 3rd; ten percent or approximately 1,400 positions being eliminated through restructuring efforts. Next, Adobe Systems announced it would be restructuring and reducing its workforce by seven percent. Additional semi industry firms are reportedly also anticipating layoffs, and who knows how the domino effect will play out across other direct and indirect industries. To get an idea of how far-reaching the impacts of layoffs can be, check out the creative, interactive Domino Effect posting on my Whiteboard at the end of this blog. It specifically addresses the housing market, but you’ll get the idea.

So What’s Next?

The new norm for annual planning appears to be a hand-in-hand combination of business assessment along with strategic and workforce planning. This newly-established partnership between operating executives together with finance, organization development and human resources leaders seems like a "dream team." Get the right people in the room with the right information about future expectations and facilitate a creative and innovative exploration of practical options for achieving the appropriate balance between financial, stakeholder and employee expectations. As I wrote in my book, Learning to Live With Downsizing, layoffs are not the only solution – but in order to identify others, the team needs the leadership and courage to explore out-of-the box alternatives, along with the likely risks associated with each.

The simultaneous timing of organizations’ strategic planning and restructuring framework with a holiday season of personal reflection and connections with friends and family in a spirit of love and kindness seems ironic. While employees are being thankful for what they have and sharing with others less fortunate, the rug may be about to be ripped out from under their feet.

I believe as a result of this emerging trend in planning and subsequent layoffs during a season framed in kindness and celebration, organizations should pay particular attention to the emotional needs of the employees being let go, as well as those remaining. Both will be impacted by the changes the organization is introducing; albeit in different ways.

As organizational leaders, we have a responsibility to employees who have contributed to the journey so far to be as fair and respectful as possible with the process of separation, and the process they face for moving on. In a blog I published in July 2010, I addressed this specific issue. I felt it might be helpful to repeat it here, so here is a link to Separation – Do It with Grace.

If your Year-End To-Do List includes an event that will impact employees such as restructuring, layoffs, rebranding, mergers, etc., consider these pillars in framing your approach:

  1. Promote honesty and openness – tell the story of why the event is necessary for the success and/or survival of the organization.
  2. Prepare to communicate, communicate, and then communicate some more – not everyone will hear the entire message the first time, or even the third time. Remember, if you don’t tell them, they’ll fill in the gaps with their own ideas.
  3. Don’t ever say "that’s the end, we’re done" – you just can’t know what’s around the corner. So if you have to initiate layoffs, don’t announce that there won’t be more.
  4. Prepare your managers – this type of organizational work gets personal and can be painful. Decisions being made will impact the lives and families of your employees. Managers may need assistance to deal with their own emotions and should be prepared for reactions that most likely will be emotional. Use EAP and outplacement experts, as appropriate.
  5. Offer assistance – the re-employment process is not impossible, but in this market it is very challenging. Offer as much assistance to separating employees as possible. Firms such as ours offer books, coaching, workshops, webinars, and one-on-one sessions to meet the needs of employees and managers. Remember, employees will be watching and judging how friends and colleagues are treated, influencing their future engagement and motivation levels.
Economists are suggesting that 2012 will continue to be a challenging time for business, and perhaps we won’t see any clear signs of a strong recovery until after the November elections. If that’s the case, what advice would you add to improve the success of restructuring and layoff processes?

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Is Your Zero-Tolerance Training Program Working?

This week the topic of harassment is again front and center in our workplaces, schools, and political arenas. As an HR professional dedicated to ensuring that the workplace is welcoming and respectful to everyone, I found myself questioning "Where did we go wrong? After all the years of training, coaching, and sensitivity training, provided by firms of all sizes, why are we still having conversations about inappropriate behaviors? In addition to our training efforts, have the laws also failed?"

As many women who went to work in the 70’s and 80’s can attest to, it was not unusual at that time for bosses (primarily male bosses) to make passes at and disrespectful comments to women in the workplace. The workplace culture up until that time was primarily male dominated, and they didn't seem to think they were doing anything wrong. But the diversity of the workplace changed, and that laid the groundwork for the culture changes to come.

Although the Supreme Court ruled in 1986 that sexual harassment was a discriminatory action and a violation of federal law, organizations didn’t pay much attention. It really wasn’t until 1991 when Anita Hill gave a face and a voice to the oppressive behaviors and negative impacts of harassment in the workplace that organizations began to look in the mirror. What they found was the demographics of employees had changed and the new workforce was demanding a shift in the status quo of male-dominated workplace cultures and behaviors. The workplace could no longer be the "club" for off-color jokes, bad language, inappropriate advances, or promotions for those bullied into granting sexual favors. Analyzing the claims of harassment that began to be more frequently reported, researchers helped us understand that sexual harassment and hostile work environment weren’t really about sex, but more about power.

The Intentional and Unintentional Consequences

The basis for harassment today remains the same, someone with power taking advantage of someone with little or no power. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission website contains information on both harassment and sexual harassment; both illegal and punishable by fines.

With courts seeing many harassment cases over the years, they now place the burden on the employer to prove that the harassment did not occur. The courts have come to the realization that people will be people and therefore, employers should be aware that some form of harassment could be occurring within their workplace at any time. Based on that assumption, each employer is required to take the appropriate steps to ensure their workplace is free of harassing behaviors, and that processes are in place to report it, investigate it and stop it. However, even with clarified roles and responsibilities regarding harassment, the EEOC reports that nearly $100M in legal settlements were paid in 2010.

Although we have gained a greater awareness of actions that make others uncomfortable and behavioral changes have occurred to improve respectful workplace relationships, unintended consequences have also resulted from attempts to stop harassment in the workplace:
  • Individuals often don’t want to report the incident for fear of embarrassment or retaliation.
  • Individuals have learned they can get a lot of people stirred up, create moments of media fame, and often profit financially by reporting false accusations of harassment.
  • Some organizations have adopted the view that "settlements" are a cost of doing business.
  • As our workplaces have grown with diversity, so have the number of ways harassment can occur; as a result, claims of harassment are on the rise.

So What’s Next?

I’m sad to share that a recent national study, to be released next week, conducted by the American Association of University Women finds that 50 percent of 7th to 12th grade students reported experiencing sexual harassment in the last school year! Eighty-seven percent of those who reported being harassed also reported negative effects such as absenteeism, poor sleep and illness. These students, harassed by other students who had more "informal" power at school, will soon be in our candidate pools. What does this growing trend in high schools across the country mean to the orientation, on-boarding, training, mentoring and performance programs in our organization?

We are exposed, if only for a nano-second of a sound bite, to the realities of workplace vulnerabilities when they impact business leaders, celebrities, athletes or schools and universities dealing with claims of hostile environments or sexual harassment. Often our tendencies are to bury our heads in the sand, not wanting to face what might be happening within our own cultures and sub-cultures. Perhaps the reemergence of harassment in the news should be viewed as a wake-up call to investigate what our organization is offering in the form of training, coaching, hotlines, etc.

Yes, people will be people, but every CEO is responsible for setting the tone for appropriate and respectful behaviors. Boards need to be holding the CEO’s responsible, and HR should be orchestrating training, surveys and coaching programs aimed not only at raising awareness but also at helping individuals unable to change behaviors on their own. Certainly offenders who do not improve their behaviors with colleagues should be fired; obviously they are not a match for the values and culture of the organization.

Today the courts are seeing more male-on-male harassment, but that doesn’t mean that women being harassed by males has been eliminated. Nor does it mean that hostile environments due to religion, age, race, color, disability, or national origin have been curtailed. Technology and the journey we have taken to a 24/7 environment also opens up opportunities for harassment in the form of text messages, social media postings, etc. (Don’t miss the Textual Harassment video on my whiteboard below). Some experts speculate that the true picture of harassment is being masked by the recession; people wanting to hold on to their jobs, regardless of the circumstances, are not reporting abuse.

I believe, especially with the conditions of a struggling economy, businesses should not take their eyes off the need to gear up and update zero-tolerance training programs. Harassment or bullying, as it’s called in the schools, is alive and well. Businesses need to be cultivating cultures of respect, engagement, and sustainability. Claims of harassment played out in the courts, newspapers, internet and around the water cooler can quickly call into question and destroy a strong and credible reputation. Strategies to ensure that inappropriate comments, behaviors and practices are not tolerated are an investment in the future.

It’s hard to believe that people don’t know how to respect the differences and values of each other, but statistics show us this problem continues. But you know what they say – if we keep doing the same thing, why should we expect a different outcome? So my question is:

If we haven’t achieved the level of success we were looking for with the training and awareness programs we’re currently utilizing, what other actions should we consider to eliminate harassment in our organizations? What’s your organization doing?

Please share your comments below.

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