Balancing Empathy and Accountability with Remote Workers

Written by Hannah Kirkland

Maintaining a supportive environment while still encouraging employees to be productive is a tough balancing act. Requiring employees to work from home with family staying hone as well, adds a new element to the balancing act. However, there are a handful of ways that you can maintain contact with employees this balance and ensure that your employees will come out of this situation productive and happy with your organization. 

Empathize

Staying productive while working through a traumatic event is hard. It’s essential that you and your managers are available to all employees. Leaders can help work through this time of uneasiness by setting a positive tone for employees and creating a calm presence that maintains a composed environment so employees can focus on their work. Additionally, consider encouraging self-care practices while people are working from home. With the daily overabundance of COVID-19 updates, encourage your workers to exercise, establish a routine, and take walks throughout their day. And remember to take this advice for yourself as well.

Initiate stress checks

Many employees will adapt well to working from home. But even in the best of cases, there are distractions, surprises and challenges that all employees will face. This will result in one of two things, added stress or reduction in performance. While HR and Managers need to be flexible and understanding, the work still needs to be done. Ensuring you have some scheduled time to check in on how employees are doing in this difficult time is more important than ever. But time is limited. Try checking in with your whole group using surveys to let your employees know you care. Or set up a group chat where workers can reach out to each other, their manager or HR. so they know they are not alone. There are a number of of different programs that are easy to setup, including Slack or Microsoft Teams. Consider asking questions regarding if they feel like there is enough communication throughout their team, if it is clear what their goals are, and if they have all necessary items to complete their work.

Establish clear performance expectations

We all know that you can’t hold employees accountable for requirements that they do not clearly understand. With remote work, it is easy to miss a message or misunderstand what is meant in a written message as opposed to a discussion. This is a great time for HR to spend some time working with managers on how to effectively communicate direction and clear goals. It is expected and encouraged that they will be empathetic to their employees challenges and fears right now, but that conversation needs to move into what is needed to ensure the work is also getting done. This requires clear communication on a regular basis. These can be one-on-one meetings or in small groups. They can be via email or chat, but expectation communications are best done via video chat to ensure everyone is providing their full attention. These types of meetings will work to provide support while also measuring a worker’s success and productivity. Which will provide a smoother transition when it is time to return to work.

Offer flexible schedules, time management resources, and clear work-from-home rules 

In order for your employees to be productive and reduce time theft, it is important to be flexible with working hours when possible. Employees that are allowed to break up their work day while working from home will often get more work done due to having more time when they can focus. This doesn’t mean that you need to allow employees to work when they want, just to have a means to allow for work outside of the standard 8-5. Providing a time management system Allows managers insight into where employees are spending their time, and allow employees to communicate when they will be working so that teams can schedule proper interaction and ensure workflow is effective. Working with employees to determine hours that will work within their home, especially if they are trying to manage their children’s homeschooling schedules can create loyalty, reduce stress, and make it more likely that the employee will return when this time is behind us. And communicating clear rules of when employees are required to be available and when they can have flexibility will ensure coverage for customers and that deadlines are met.

Make sure your employees have what they need to be productive

For many, working remotely is more difficult than coming into the office. More than likely, your company is already working from home if it is possible due to most states being under Stay-At-Home orders. In order to hold employees accountable at this time, it is up to the employer to provide the tools needed to get the work done. Encourage workers to have a dedicated workspace if there is an area in their home where they can do so. Provide a means of communications for employees who realize they do not have something that they need to do the work. Provide guidance on how to set up an ergonomically friendly workstation at a table or desk. Allow employees a small budget for obtaining items that are generally available at the office, such as file folders or a stapler, that they might not have at home. And most importantly, ensure the proper so software and/or applications needed to discourage employees from downloading solutions that may be damaging to your IT infrastructure or their individual devices. establish a working routine, and ask them if they are unable to fulfill certain aspects of their job because they are not in the office. 

Bring attention to company resources for mental health

Your benefits program is a good place to begin. Ensure employees understand and know how to access medical, and mental health providers covered under their plan or an Employee Assistance Program. Communicate relevant policies such as paid leave, benefit continuation or work-related product reimbursements. Don’t just explain these benefits one time. Provide regular communications regarding local and state provisions avaiable to those who are ahving difficulties managing such as food distribution. Suggest taking mental health breaks including yoga, meditation or walking outside. You may even want to provide a resource for employees to use such as an online exercise program. As uncertainty mounts and we are unsure of when we can go back to the office, workers will need different resources at different times. So ensure communication is plentiful.

Offer opt-in team building activities

Working from home can be isolating and mentally taxing. Offer different ways that employees can continue to interact with each other. Examples could include a virtual “water cooler” lunch every Friday, playing trivia games with each other, and creating humor channels on Slack (or whatever messaging system you use). It will be beneficial for employees to interact with their coworkers in ways that are not solely work-focused. This can help to raise organizational morale. Be mindful that these events should be optional, but available to all. 

Throughout this time, HR and managers should work together, listen to employees’ concerns, and engage everyone individually and also as part of a group, so that productivity and support both remain high. 

Don’t forget to download your FREE copy of the Employers Guide for Post-COVID-19 “Plan to Return Your Employees to Work”.

Can’t We Have Consistency, Compliance AND Compassion?

An article posted yesterday in the SHRM HR Daily Newsletter, took a stand that in HR matters,  “Consistency Might Not Be Worth the Cost.” Although I understand that no two situations are exactly the same, and careful consideration of all the factors should drive reasonable outcomes, taking out the need for consistency seems a bit like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

For literally decades, employment attorneys have been driving into the heads of HR professionals that consistent compliance is everything. Why? Because defending a discrimination, harassment or retaliation claim is extremely difficult when there is no fair and consistent process in place. How can you prove that treatment is unbiased? And liability protection is a big part of the HR function. But I agree, it is not everything.

The dangers of having a culture where it’s okay to decide on an individual basis what is acceptable or allowed and what is not, are more about the impact on culture than about liability. HR professionals and managers are human. And quite frankly, the concern is about leaving the door open to favoritism and unconscious biased based decisions.

The good news is, in this case, you can have it all! You can implement a consistent compliant process that uses organizational beliefs, core values and standards as measurables to determine outcomes. It’s about implementing a consistent, transparent process that is the right fit for your culture and can clearly define and document why and how decisions are made. It doesn’t have to mean the same decision every time. But it does have to mean using the same process to come to the right decision every time, and documenting how that is done.

The benefits of using a consistent, complaint and compassionate process

A consistent, compliant process for handling and/or investigating a situation or incident allows employees to see that:

  • the organization cares about how all people are treated in the workplace.
  • A predictable and transparent process means that employees will be treated fairly and with respect, no matter what the outcome.
  • their voices matter and there are means to begin conversations on things that are not working before they become big issues.

Once employees understand and trust the consistent processes, they will use them earlier and more frequently to resolve issues resulting in:

  • quicker and more respectful resolution to problems large and small.
  • increase in team work efficiencies and enjoyment.
  • peer to peer resolution through more open communication.
  • reduction in fear of bringing issues to the forefront.

Let’s face it, employees who feel they are treated fairly in opportunities, valued in their contribution, and respected in communication and treatment thrive in the work environment.  It is okay to be creative, open to new ideas and practices, but we don’t need to lose consistency in order to do it.

The HR Impact of Gender Quotas on the Board of Directors

Whichever side of the line you stand on, everyone seems to agree that the new California Law requiring at least one board seat be filled by a female for publicly traded companies leaves a lot of room for debate and concern. In fact, Governor Jerry Brown wrote in his signing statement for SB 826, “I don’t minimize the potential flaws that indeed may prove fatal to its ultimate implementation.”  And, as is often the case, it is likely that other states will follow. Although California is the first to have binding regulations, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Illinois and Colorado, and various municipal governments, including the city councils of both Philadelphia and New York, have already passed nonbinding resolutions aimed at increasing female representation on boards.

As with many new business-related laws that take effect, HR should take preemptive steps to determine the impact this may have on their organization. The California Chamber of Commerce has argued that the new policy, “violates constitutional prohibitions against discrimination”, and “prioritizes gender over other aspects of diversity such as race or ethnicity.” When these statements are made publicly, discrimination claims tend to rise.

In light of the potential stir that may arise from the search for a female to add to a board that is already in place, the possible unseating of a current Director, or the placement of a so-called “token female” on the board,  HR may want to proactively consider the following measures as a way to step up to the table and provide added value in the process.

Provide a summary of the potential impact the search for a female Board placement could have on the company. Suggested items to be covered:

  • Reminder that placement without prior communication could create an impression that the Board is simply filling a mandated requirement with the easiest or safest option.
  • Communications early on as to what the Board is searching for including qualifications, experience, strategic vision and leadership capabilities can clarify the company goals for the position and prevent the appearance of bias.
  • Positive communication within the company during the process can create excitement as the company moves toward increased diversity, and the impact that will ultimately have on the company.
  • Clarification on who will own the placement process will prevent duplicated efforts.

Provide a proposal of how HR could assist with creating a positive outlook, such as:

  • Providing staff communications on the search, and how the company is excited to embrace this new opportunity for balance in leadership.
  • Assist with initial search efforts and screening to allow the process to move forward in a timely manner.
  • Suggest that HR could provide guidance to the Board on how to document the process and decision as protective measures against discriminatory claims after the fact.

In the long run, a more diverse and balanced Board of Directors will likely have a positive impact on business performance and company culture. Taking the initiative to shine a positive light from the start can make the process better for everyone involved.

Are You Outsourcing or Insourcing Your Investigations?

According to an article in Bloomberg Law, (Article: Surge in Outside Workplace Investigations in #MeToo Milieuir) there has been a surge in the number or workplace investigations being conducted by third-party investigators. Along with the high level, high dollar cases we read about in the news, these are the cases that are easily measurable. The article quotes Amy Oppenheimer, Law Offices of Amy Oppenheimer, as saying that “only about five out of 100 claims rise to a high level of seriousness.” So, what about the other 95%?

Employers are required to investigate all claims. But more than that, they must investigate any time they become aware that harassment, discrimination or bullying are taking place in the workplace. Even if no one has come forward to complain. At an average cost of $8,000 – $20,000 per investigation for outsourcing to an attorney or investigator, and an average of 1 investigation per 50 employees per year, an employer with 1000 employees could spend $200,000 per year on outsourcing their investigations. This sounds like a significant expense, until you consider the cost of a claim if one investigation is not handled properly.

Most HR professionals know the answer to this ongoing problem.  Companies must have a consistent, compliant and thorough investigation process in place for conducting these investigations in-house. And when you ask them, the first response is that they do have a sound process in place. But when digging a bit further, the majority will say that the process is inconsistent as there are several people who conduct the investigations and they all have their own way of doing things. Or, that their process relies heavily on emails, hand-written notes, and questions that are developed on the fly. So we ask, “18-months from now when you get a notice from the EEOC or state employment agency, do you feel you could adequately defend the investigation you conducted?” The answer is generally not a feeling of confidence.

There is a better alternative available that makes it much easier to prove a consistent and complaint investigation process. InvestiPro, as mentioned in Bloomberg Law, is the first automated investigation solution. Schedule a demo and spend a few minutes learning how technology can help you have confidence in your workplace investigations.

HR Offense -vs- Defense. What’s Your Plan?

It still surprises me when I hear that employees have brought forth a complaint to HR or a company executive, and no investigation was conducted. Although the numbers are reducing over time, some organizations still believe that there is less liability in simply doing nothing. Then, if a claim arises, a quick settlement is the customary resolution. But where does this leave your company culture?

Although you may have a process in place, there must be a plan for actively using the process and communicating it to employees regularly to be effective. When reviewing your policy and process, is the strategy for Offense or Defense? When your favorite sports team takes the field, do you think they just run out on the playing field and start playing? Although that might be hysterical to watch, it would obviously be chaotic and inefficient. And for some of us, I understand that is how our investigation process feels at times. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Taking an Offensive stance can reduce time spent on investigations, reduce potential liability exposure, improve retention and strengthen company culture through accountability and trust. In the SHRM article, “New Tools Aid HR During Workplace Investigations” Aaron Crews, attorney and chief data analytics officer with Littler in Sacramento, CA, confirmed that, “After receiving a notification letter from the EEOC or a state agency that a claim has been lodged, companies can respond before the regulatory body proceeds with the claim. Historically the EEOC has dropped over 53% of claims made based on the employer having performed a prompt and impartial investigation based on a planned, consistent process.

We can provide information that further explains the benefits of an Offensive stance on unwanted workplace behaviors?  Follow our Blog, and we’ll send you a whitepaper that can help.

Ford did their investigation, so what went wrong? Result: $10M Settlement.

When a company is in the news for paying out at large harassment discrimination settlement, the first thought is that they did not conduct an appropriate investigation. But that is not always the case. Last week the EEOC ended an investigation into claims of harassment by employees in two Ford facilities in the Chicago area. (https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/newsroom/release/8-15-17.cfm) Based on the findings, Ford agreed to settle the claim for $10.125M in monetary relief to multiple female and African-American employees who had claimed sexual and racial harassment. Ford chose to voluntarily resolve this issue with the EEOC, without admission of liability, to avoid an extended dispute.

A spokesperson for Ford provided a statement that, “Ford does not tolerate harassment or discrimination of any kind; we are fully committed to a zero-tolerance, harassment-free work environment at all facilities and to ensuring that Ford’s work environment is consistent with our policies in that regard. Ford conducted a thorough investigation and took appropriate action, including disciplinary action up to and including dismissal for individuals who violated the company’s anti-harassment policy.” As such, it appears that they met the legal requirements. So that may have you wondering what went wrong.

It is simply not enough to conduct an investigation once an employee or group of employees comes to HR and files an official complaint. A company must be able to prove that their managers are trained regularly on what behaviors to look and listen for, in order to stop the behaviors before they become systemic or egregious. And take prompt action to investigate immediately at the first sign of a problem. It is equally important to ensure appropriate follow up post investigation to ensure the improper behaviors have stopped and no retaliation is taking place.

In the Ford Motors case, there was reasonable evidence that employees and managers were aware of the behaviors which were claimed to meet the definition of harassment, and that they did not address the issue in a timely manner. Their excuse was that no official complaint was made, even though there was open discussion by employees in the workplace, so no investigation was required. This resulted in the improper conduct continuing, and affecting more employees, until an actual complaint was filed. By the time a formal investigation was conducted, the EEOC found that the company had retaliated against employees who complained about the harassment or discrimination.

In addition to the $10 million to be distributed among the claimants, Ford will be under the scrutiny of the EEOC for a period of five years and will be required to report any employee complaints of harassment and/or related discrimination. They must also provide documentation that they are continuing to disseminate their anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies and procedures to employees and new hires. And provide proof that they are constantly monitoring their workforce for issues of alleged sexual or racial harassment and related discrimination, to include monitoring by managers.

To prevent this from happening to your company, take the following steps:

 Institute a walking management policy. This type of policy requires all supervisory employees to spend a required amount of time each day observing and interacting with their workforce, and noting conversations and behaviors that may signal problems.

 Train supervisory, HR and executive employees on what signs to watch for. For example, the absence of conversation when managers walk in the room, changes in absentee patterns and physical rigidity or avoidance when interaction with a specific employee or employees are required.

 When it is noticed that an employee is acting differently, start a conversation. Even if it only includes small talk to begin with, it will increase the comfort level of the employee in coming forward with a complaint.

 Prove that the company/HR open door policy is effective by making it a priority to stop what you are doing to allow employees to come in and talk. It can be difficult for an employee to come forward, and if they are shut down on the first attempt they will generally not try again. Then follow up on the information you receive, even if there is no formal action to be taken.
For more tips and guidance on Investigations, sign up for the HR Investigator’s Blog and the Workplace Investigations Quarterly Newsletter at www.investipro.com.

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