Monday, October 14, 2013

Fired for being pretty.

You heard me. In a recent case in Ohio, a guy fired his dental assistant because he'd grown attracted to her and was afraid he'd start cheating on his wife. The all-male court agreed that this was a sensible decision, since the termination was motivated by "feelings" rather than gender. This reminded me of a Canadian case in 2009 in which a woman was terminated after telling her employer she didn't like being called "Boobie girl."

The similarity lies in the fact that in both cases, the issues were deemed not sexual harassment on the basis that the employers did not actively pursue or expect sexual favors. The guy from Ohio fired his dental assistant because he was concerned about his growing feelings towards her, while the woman from Ontario didn't mean "boobie girl" in a sexual way, just a... fun? Cute? Way to refer to her subordinate in front of other employees, superiors, and customers.

Here is my issue with both of these rulings, and why I think they open the door to more harassment in the workplace. In both cases, the person terminated was removed for something they have no control over, and in both cases the sexuality of the plaintiff were at the core of their termination.

The problem is that these decisions intentionally disregard the purpose of legislation meant to prevent discrimination, be it based on race, gender, sexual orientation, or whatever else. The point of such laws is to prevent an employer from mistreating or terminating an employee for reasons outside of their performance. One of the reasons cited in the Ohio case was that since the employee was terminated after the employer's wife saw a few texts the two had exchanged, the employer was justified in terminating her “because of the activities of her consensual personal relationship.” Here in Canada, we'd like to think such a ruling would never be accepted since an employee cannot legally consent to a relationship with a superior because of the authority the employer holds over the employee.

However, the Ontario case does nothing to suggest the rights we have as employees are sacrosanct. In the "boobie girl" case, the supervisor called a subordinate the aforementioned title on a regular basis, supposedly as a joke. Since she had no sexual interest in the person, it was not considered sexual harassment, merely retribution when she complained and was terminated, for which she was compensated. The issue here lies in the fact that while her supervisor was apparently not interested in her subordinate sexually, by calling her that, she was in fact turning her into a sexual object in the workplace.

If someone were to point out a person's body part to you, would your first instinct not be to look? Does it not make it seem to other employees that this may be acceptable behaviour? What if other people in the department began to call her that as well? What if she was sexually harassed as a result of this when another employee took the joke too far? Would the courts still feel this harassment wasn't sexual in nature?

To compare, there was a case prior to this in which a religious woman sued her company for sexual harassment (and won) when the secretary's husband dropped off her forgotten lunch and kissed her on the mouth on his way back out. Since this was considered a sexual element in the workplace, even though the plaintiff was not in any way related to the instance and the contact was between a married employee and her non-employee spouse, she won her suit. 

Granted, the court decided that while she was prima facie right, she wasn't entitled to any damages (and what possible damages could there have been in that case?), but the precedent was set. Bringing in sexual content is not appropriate in the workplace, and retribution against the employee who complains is absolutely against the law, which should mean that neither of the cases above should have happened, but here we are after all, in 2013, still talking about employers being "justified" in firing an employee because they feared their own impulses, as if that is the employee's fault or problem.

Get some therapy, dude.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Predictive HR Analysis

There have been quite a few advancements in business in the past few years, but changes in HR have mostly been legislative or technological in nature. The basics of what we do is still very much the same as it was fifty years ago. Only in the last 10 years have we been able to even begin discussion about our strategic role in the company and our ability to contribute to the bottom line in earnest. Even now many companies don't have a full-fledged HR department, let alone a business partner that has equal say in the direction a firm takes moving forward.

BUT! There is a light at the end of that tunnel, and that light, in my honest opinion, is predictive HR analysis. Change, I feel, must often come from the bottom, and in this case, using predictive tools and the bright minds of many HR professionals, we can solidify our value as more than just a cost centre because we will have proven metrics like never before about the cost and value of the workforce.

Now, this type of thinking has been around for a while. In fact, a couple of years ago I conducted more than one predictive analysis (with varying levels of success). Analysis is where my passion really is, so I dig into such projects with an enthusiasm normally reserved for sporting events and cheesy 80's action movies (my guilty pleasure).

The wonders of HR analysis is that it allows employers, with very little added resources if any, completely reshape they way they do business by changing the way in which they deal with the public (through recruiting), employees, and ex-employees. The best part is that it could very well have dramatic impacts on the bottom line.

Some of the things an HR analysis can tell you:

  • What are the characteristics and traits of your top performers? What credentials, experience, and education do these traits align with?
  • Why do your top performers leave?
  • What are the most effective incentives?
  • How can we get more out of our people?
A lot of these questions are pretty general, which means a good answer will require tremendous amount of data to play with. It is our most important tool. Being able to document every step of the recruiting process, keeping application forms on file, digitalizing any disciplinary action, these are all pieces of the best practices puzzle HR analysts can help you put together.

Some of these questions you can get with other means, but you will never get the full picture without an HR perspective, and HR analysis can help your company use your funds more effectively and turn your employees and HR policies into your competitors' worst nightmare.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Women in the workforce

This is obviously a contentious topic, and like a few others out there (Syria comes to mind), the greatest disparity is in the solution. That's enough preamble, let's get to the good stuff.

A couple of years ago, Harvard Business School decided that while they can't necessarily change the business world, they can change the people going into it by taking a long hard look at their own practices and how women do at their school. The resulting article is quite thorough, but I'll give you the Cole's notes and a few thoughts. I highly recommend giving the original a read if you have time.

The Case Study

A search of "Business Women" gives me this image
of a woman in a suit checking her make up. Seriously?
Image courtesy of mrsiraphol/
The basic line of reasoning used by HBR was what they saw as a hyper competitive environment
(which makes perfect sense considering what it takes to get in) that seemed to foster almost hostile attitudes towards women. Interestingly, both female students and staff commented about the prevalence of this. It came in a variety of shades. Many women felt pressured to find a partner while there, which meant they would refuse to speak up in class to avoid being intimidating to potential spouses, miss out on opportunities to prepare for exams to go on dates with fellow classmates, and put more work into their appearance in school and their social ranking than their academic performance.

There were citations of secret societies that network and get job opportunities that women were locked out of, men who ranked female students by their looks, and a very small number of tenured female professors (even less female professors that were popular with students). In fact, quite a few female lecturers have left in the past over a lack of support from administrative, lack of opportunity to get tenure, and being objectified by their students.

So what did they do with all this information? Among other things, more extreme moves included cracking down on social activities, instituting hand raising in class, putting all female professors under review and auditing every single one of their classes to help them improve as lecturers, putting in stenographers into classes to ensure class participation grades aren't reliant on a professor's memory, and bringing in software that would give a professor a gender breakdown of their grades (to help with individual biases).

A tremendous amount of students felt anything from angry at being guinea pigs (at $50k/year, that's a costly experiment to be a part of), to irritated by being treated like children, to resentful to grateful and every shade of grey in between. There were protests by students and the relationship between then and the administration was publicly very sour.

Of course, by the end of year 2 of the experiment, female professors were receiving substantially better evaluations from students, female participation in class skyrocketed, and the number of women performing at the top 5% of the class was at almost 40%. In fact, in strange contradiction to the public feud, student satisfaction rates were the highest they'd been in years.


What does this all mean though? On the one hand, I am offended by the idea that women need to be babied into performing at the same level as their male counterparts, and that these upper echelon professionals are sacrificing their future for a chance at nabbing themselves a stockbroker husband, but on the other hand it is difficult to argue with results, even when they sort of infuriate me. Of course, even the administrator responsible for jump starting this experiment at HBR noted, when asked about whether it was successful, “We made progress on the first-level things, but what it’s permitting us to do is see, holy cow, how deep-seated the rest of this is.”

First and foremost, I think it's commendable that such a high profile school (with no shortage of applicants) takes such a public and strong stance on its commitment to creating equal opportunity for all their students and staff regardless of gender. Secondly, one of the most powerful ways to influence the business world is to influence the people entering it, especially since the demands of the cream of the crop are more likely to be taken seriously by potential employers. I wish them all the best in their continued efforts to make their campus truly accessible.

Unfortunately, I fear that this experiment deals only with the symptom. The men and women that arrive there have been subjects to decades of social conditioning that affects their behaviour and simply catering to those mental roadblocks will never be enough to achieve legitimate and lasting equality. We as a society learn to treat women as equal members whose primary value is not to be decided based on her looks or male affiliations. Not only that, but we cannot celebrate one gender to the exclusion of the other. Alienating men because we want women to feel better about themselves is no better than the opposite. We need to get beyond gender in the workplace entirely. There are much bigger issues the world needs to deal with than the genitalia our coworkers have.

If nothing else, it certainly opens the door to a greater frankness on the subject I can't say I've seen before.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Incompetence in Leadership

A couple of days ago the Harvard Business Review released a post on their blog that I thought, at first glance, I would likely approve of. The idea behind the article is this: while some people may argue that women are underrepresented in leadership because of disinterest, lack of talent, or an impenetrable glass ceiling (depending on one's political leanings), the actual reason is more to do with our culture attributing symptoms of "hubris" more commonly seen in men to good leadership, when this is often false in practice.

Obviously the topic of women at work continues to be something of a hot button issue. To me, the idea that we still need to have discussions on the skills and roles of men versus those of women is as ridiculous as suggesting that different skin tones or musical preference somehow impacts one's ability to be productive at work, but that's not the point being made here.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici

The article is very specific in targeting research that suggests that while the people who typically get promoted are consistent with people with personality disorders such as narcissism or psychopathy (in fact, there have been several articles over the years that state in no uncertain terms that high functioning psychopaths perform disproportionately well in business), those are not the best types of leaders. Of course, the author then makes the connection that women tend to exhibit these types of destructive personality traits less often than men and as a result are overlooked when promotion time comes around.

Here's my issue with the thesis of the article. If the article merely said that there are traits that get one promoted and traits that make one a good leader, that the two tended to be polar opposites, and that we as a culture need to shift away from overconfident, self promoting jerks as "leaders", I would be in complete agreement. But he doesn't. The author makes the next leap that women, naturally more sensitive and humble, therefore make better leaders.

As a feminist, the suggestion one sex is inherently better than the other immediately puts me on guard. No where in the article is it mentioned that there are certainly large amounts of sensitive, humble, well reasoned men who too are overlooked during promotion time.

We have a strange, somewhat warped view of what makes a good leader. This is absolutely true. The type of person that often reaches management levels are those that self promote and are in general more concerned with their personal success than that of the company they work at. However, and this is a substantial however, there are plenty of excellent managers out there, both men and women, and not all of them are the same because different traits will serve different people and different situations, you guessed it, differently.

Rather than making blanket statements about how one gender does outperforms the other in some way or another (and at least the author made sure to note that whether this is by nature or nurture is unknown), why don't we talk about what qualities we want in our leaders and how to best fill the seats with those people? Women and visible minorities (every culture has their own group of underrepresented people) are woefully lacking in management, yes.

The solution however, isn't to say that white men are simply worse leaders, it is to create holes in that ever present glass ceiling through mentorship programs, social programs that help fill the gaps in cultural expectations (such as child care or local experience), and moving, as a society, towards a culture where aggression or cockiness aren't considered a man's domain, just a jerk's, because they come in all shapes and sizes, and most should never be in charge of anything.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Back from the dead! and HR's role in controlling employee schedules.

Hello world!

After having taken a nearly full year sabbatical from the blog while I focused on work, I am very happy to be back. Part of my return can be accounted for by my decision to pursue my CHRP designation, starting with writing the NKE in November. I'll be posting study tips as I go along since I have found that there doesn't seem to ever quite be enough of that when you're in the midst of studying.

With that out of the way, we might as well jump right back in with some news from across the pond. A young man was found dead in his shower last week. Early reports indicate that this may have been, in some part, brought on by his working hours at Merrill Lynch.
Image courtesy of imagerymajestic/

This has brought on discussion about industries where working hours are less regulated and where the expectation is that the employee essentially devotes themselves to the company until they have earned their stripes, so to speak. This practice is fairly common place here in Canada too. Fields such as medicine, finance, and law have implicit (and sometimes explicit) expectations of their employees that they put in 60, 70, 80, even 100 hours in a given week.

In Ontario, there are strict regulations around how many hours an employee is required to work, as well as how many hours they can be asked to work. That number never exceeds 60 hours a week and anything above 48 requires ministry approval. The Ministry of Labour website is very clear that the onus is on the employer to submit the appropriate documentation and follow the laws, but that it is the responsibility of the employee to come forward if the rules aren't being followed.

The fields where the violations are the greatest tend to be either the ultra competitive, well paying positions such as the young man who's death is now sparking a controversy in the UK, or the type of low paying, low skilled work given to people with little agency over their choice in job.

The question is, since inherently, the types of people who end up in these roles are the least likely to come forward (the fear of losing a hard-fought job being too much for most), how do we as HR professionals play our part?

What would an HR person working in a law firm that mandates 3,000 billable hours (per year) from their associates do? How about simply rewarding the lawyers who pulled in the greatest amount of hours?

Where does an HR person step in if an hourly employee is being encouraged to work more hours than there is ministry approval for? This is especially troubling since in many situations like this there is no HR person involved.

At the end of the day, there is only so much HR can do if the employee isn't willing to come forward, but where do we draw the line?

Follow this link to learn more about Moritz Erhardt and the UK controversy on the Guardian. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Penalizing Employees for Customer Theft

The metro had an interesting article today about a new piece of legislation that will require that customers at gas stations pay before pumping as a way of preventing "gas and run" theft. This method is already used in the US, and frankly while it is deeply inconvenient, I understand the method to the madness.

Having said all that, there was another tidbit that completely appalled me. Some stations owners apparently feel entitled to penalize attendants for this stolen gas by deducting the amounts stolen from their paycheques. That is absolutely unacceptable and I'm pleased that the legislation introduced will make the practice illegal. To suggest that an employee should risk life and limb to prevent a person from driving off with stolen goods just absurd.

How are they expected to prevent this? Should they throw themselves in front of the car to keep it from disappearing into traffic? Perhaps take out a shotgun and riddle the car with holes? Or else use telekinesis to convince the person to turn back around and pay? How on earth does anyone verbalize a logical reasoning for why these minimum-wage employees need to take the brunt of someone's criminal activity?

The whole story has me completely incensed and I will be tracking the legislation on this blog. Hopefully it won't be long before such nonsense is put to rest.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

NBC and poor HR practices

For once I will stray from my typical rants regarding Rob Ford (not that media blackouts and the illegal purchase of municipal land are boring) and the TTC (not that rampant absenteeism and financial irregularities fail to interest) and talk about TV. Mostly because I am both tired of looking at how my city is handling itself, and because sometimes an employer commits such a public faux-pas that it's impossible to think of anything else.

NBC has been known for making fairly poor decisions, and is mostly considered to be justly last in American networks. Since many of my favorite shows air on the peakcock, I was inclined to disagree, but no more. Community is a show, for those who don't know, that has been airing since 2009 when it was created by writer and producer Dan Harmon. He has been in the news quite a bit in the past few months for missteps such as publicizing private voicemails from actors on the show, rumors circulating that he was failing to finish scripts on time, and threw tantrums on set to get his way. It seems the network has decided that they'd had enough, and the value his creative mind generated presumably was outweighed by his behaviour. Whether this is the case or not really isn't relevant here, nor do I feel I know enough about the situation to comment one way or the other (though as a fan, I fear change).

The issue at hand is how he was terminated. Technically, as a writer/producer he was on contract, and that contract expired. They were under no obligation to renew (though the assumption is that if you continue a project, you will keep the driving force behind it) and, it seems, already had a couple of people lined up for the position. They released a press release indicating the new showrunners, suggesting that Mr. Harmon would take on a consulting role, and that, prior to the internet, would have been the end of it. Mr. Harmon posted on his tumbler later that night that he had received no communications from NBC, nor did he agree to any substitute position with the show. Since there had been no indication that he would be removed from his position (even with all the errors in judgement), to terminate a working relationship through the media seems unethical to me. Not only does it disrespect the employee, but it affects the morale of everyone at the company, who now know that their jobs are on the line even if they are not aware of it - perhaps tomorrow they will open the newspaper and their name will be there as an ex-employee. Such poor judgement at the top level can put an entire department at risk as stakeholders lose faith in the project's ability. Where was the HR department to put a stop to this nonsensical level of theatrics before the axe was dropped?

The reaction has been fairly distinct. Fans of the show have panned the decision, TV critics have noted that the decision to continue a creative experiment without the creator was an exercise doomed to fail, and employees have reached out in sympathy. It seems quite a few of the writers will also be moving on, perhaps to an employer that will offer them a little more respect.

While what they did was not illegal, it was downright distasteful, and shines a bad light on everyone involved. Discretion in such situations is paramount, and it is a lesson that NBC and Sony are now being forced to learn through the public lynching they face.

On a side note, if you have not seen this show yet, I suggest you take the time. You will not regret it.