Measuring employer heart quality: How does an organization handle worker departures?

This hit me like a ton of bricks the other day: If you want to know whether an organization is a good place to work, take a look at how it treats people at the end of the employment relationship. In other words, the way in which an employer handles resignations, terminations, and retirements speaks volumes about how it values its workers.

Sure, hiring the right people for the right jobs is challenging work. But it’s usually a positive result and interaction. People are glad to get jobs, and employers are pleased to hire new folks to fill their needs. Most everyone feels good about it.

However, concluding an employment relationship is quite another matter. This is, after all, a separation, and with it goes much of the perceived value the worker offers to the employer. For various reasons, the employer, employee, or both have decided that it’s time to part company.

It may involve a resignation or voluntary departure: A worker retires. Another goes to a competitor. Still another pursues a new vocation.

It also could be in the form of an involuntary termination: Perhaps someone is performing under expectations or isn’t a good fit for the position. Maybe business is bad and layoffs are deemed necessary.

Does the organization handle these myriad departures with class and decency, and maybe even support and kindness when appropriate? Or does it treat people as disposable parts, exhibiting as little grace as possible? In the case of involuntary separations, does it typically use the ritual degradation ceremony of same-day terminations, often with an escort out of the building?

Finally, does the organization conduct a genuine exit interview when an employee decides to leave, or does it simply assume that every departure short of a termination is “voluntary” and for positive reasons? Good employers want honest information about why people leave; bad ones prefer to assume there’s nothing wrong.

Of course, where a forced resignation or involuntary termination is the final piece of an extended period of bullying, mobbing, or harassment, then that says all we need to know about organizational integrity.

In sum: Quality workplaces do their best to conclude employment relationships with humanity and dignity, while less wonderful others treat soon-to-be-former workers as “unpersons,” to be quickly processed, dispatched, and (oftentimes) forgotten in a coldly efficient manner.

***

Free blog subscription

For a free subscription to Minding the Workplace, go to “Follow this blog” at the top right of the home page, and enter your e-mail address.

Recycling: Five years of September

Each month I’m reaching into the archives to highlight a piece from that month of each past year. Especially for those of you who missed them the first time around, I hope they provide interesting and useful reading. For each piece I’m including a short excerpt; you may click on the title for the full article.

September 2013: Does the Dunning-Kruger Effect help to explain bad bosses and overrated co-workers? — “The Dunning-Kruger Effect has major implications for the workplace. It likely translates into incompetent people demanding better pay and perks, and regarding themselves as especially worthy of elevation to management positions. They may be more effective, or at least more assertive, when it comes to self-promotion. By contrast, competent people may well be more modest about touting themselves and their accomplishments. Some may self-select out of opportunities and promotion possibilities, figuring that other more worthy candidates will apply. They may be less likely to see themselves as leaders.”

September 2012: Will workplace bullying behaviors become increasingly covert and indirect? — “…I’d like to offer a reluctant hypothesis: As workplace bullying continues to enter the mainstream of American employee relations, and as advocates for the workplace anti-bullying movement enjoy greater successes in public education, employer awareness, and law reform, bullying behaviors at work will become increasingly covert and indirect.”

September 2011: Should workplace bullying be a criminal offense in the U.S.? —  “I cannot speak with sufficient authority about whether the legal systems in other nations are capable of handling criminal claims for workplace bullying, but I do believe that making standard-brand workplace bullying a criminal offense in the U.S. would create significant challenges for targets seeking justice and seriously disrupt our workplaces.”

September 2010: Can an ethical HR officer survive at a bad company? — “Say you’re a human resources director who honestly and fervently believes that treating employees fairly and with respect is a classic win-win practice. It makes for high productivity and happy workers, right? If you work for an organization that shares your values, you’re a partner in a great match. But what happens if you don’t?”

September 2009: When workplace bullying triggers workplace violence — “In his 1995 book Violence at Work, Joseph A. Kinney, founder of the National Safe Workplace Institute, observed that workplace violence can be a consequence of bullying at work. Kinney noted that ‘there have been numerous instances where abusive supervisors have baited angry and frustrated employees, pushing these individuals to unacceptable levels of violence and aggression.’…Sadly, it appears that a workplace killing in Fresno, California last week was a replay of that scenario.”

Recycling: Five years of August

Each month I’m reaching into the archives to highlight a piece from that month of each past year. Especially for those of you who missed them the first time around, I hope they provide interesting and useful reading. For each piece I’m including a short excerpt; you may click on the title for the full article.

August 2013: Notes on the workplace anti-bullying movement — “If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you’ve figured out that workplace bullying and related issues of human dignity at work have become focal points of my career. …These experiences have been defining ones, personally and professionally. They also have taught me a lot about the challenges of organizing a movement and building public support for it. I’d like to step back for a brief moment to share some of those insights and observations, centering on the types of people who have been drawn to be a part of this. Concededly, these are fairly broad generalizations, and I apologize in advance to anyone who believes I’m overstating my points. But here goes…”

August 2012: Professional schools as incubators for workplace bullying — “You start with ambitious young people who (1) are used to being heralded as academic stars; (2) do not have a lot of life experience; and (3) tend to be driven, Type A achievers. You then put them in high-pressured educational environments that emphasize technical knowledge and skills and a lot of “left-brain” logical thinking. These degree programs don’t place a lot of emphasis on interpersonal skills and the development of emotional intelligence. You then unleash them unto the world of work. Uh oh.”

August 2011: Hiring decisions, hard times, and personal & institutional integrity — “Employers, managers, and HR folks have a lot of power in an economy where jobs are hard to come by. Sometimes, the hiring decisions they make reveal something of their personal and institutional integrity, or lack thereof.”

August 2010: Can an apology help to prevent and settle employment litigation? — “It would take considerable reworking of the commonly assumed role of an employer’s lawyer to encourage, when appropriate, apology and disclosure as a healthy approach toward resolving employment disputes.   Right now, too many management-side lawyers assist their clients in creating a public fiction: We do no wrong — never, ever.  However, is it possible that a different turn will lead to less litigation, less contentious dispute resolution, and — ultimately — better employee morale?”

August 2009: Bully rats, tasers, and stressNew York Times science reporter Natalie Angier has an interesting piece in today’s edition…about an experiment using lab rats to assess the effects of chronic stress, feedback loops in the brain, and how to reverse the damage.  It’s a good report on a thought-provoking study, but for me it confirmed what has become obvious…”

Can neuroscience give us an accurate lie detector for employment disputes?

What if we had the use of a reliable, scientifically trustworthy lie detector test for determining who is telling the truth in employment disputes and litigation?

It’s possible that the field of neuroscience someday will provide a test for doing so.

The fMRI test

Clay Rawlings and Rob Bencini, writing in the current issue of The Futurist magazine published by the World Future Society, explore potential applications of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) tests for the purpose of detecting lies in legal proceedings:

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)—a technique for measuring and mapping brain activity—allows psychologists to observe the brain as it functions in real time. Two companies, No Lie MRI Inc. and Cephos Corporation, claim that they can use fMRI to determine conclusively whether or not an individual is telling the truth.

…This methodology should be foolproof: You either have a real memory, or you do not. If your answer is based in fantasy rather than memory, it is almost certainly a lie.

…At some point, this technology may replace random groups of 12 jurors as the “finders of fact.” We will know with certainty whether someone is telling the truth.

…If technology can tell us with scientific certainty whether a person is telling the truth, why not place a scanner above the witness stand? As witnesses testify, the court will be able to see in real time whether or not the testimony is true.

Applying the fMRI to employment disputes

I’ve written about how the tools of neuroscience can be used to measure post-traumatic stress disorder. For targets of workplace bullying and harassment, someday this test might be utilized to prove damages due to abusive conduct.

Perhaps the fMRI could play a similarly useful role in assessing truth telling in employment disputes, including those that have led to litigation.

Imagine a test that sorts truth from fiction when allegations of bullying, sexual harassment, and other forms of worker misconduct arise. For targets of these behaviors who have had the exasperating, painful experience of being ignored or regarded dismissively, this could be a way of getting to the heart of the matter.

Caution (lots of it)

But let’s not get carried away. Even putting aside expenses, we’re a long way from proclaiming the fMRI test as being sufficiently foolproof for routine use.

We have an excellent example of why caution is advisable: The most commonly recognized electronic “lie detector test” is the polygraph machine, which has a long history of usage in law enforcement settings. Furthermore, until the late 1980s, it was a popular pre-employment screening mechanism for prospective employees.

However, polygraph evidence has never been admissible in criminal proceedings, due to ongoing concerns about its reliability. Furthermore, after the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment raised severe doubts about the polygraph’s reliability as employee screening tool, Congress banned this use through the Employee Polygraph Protection Act of 1988.

Therefore, we should regard the fMRI, or any other scientific test, with reasonable skepticism. Can it detect the lies of a psychopath? Will it falsely identify honest statements as being untrue? These are among the questions that must be answered.

For targets of workplace abuse, a genuine lie detector test may seem like a panacea. We’re not there yet, but perhaps someday scientific technology will deliver a solution.

***

Related posts

Brain science and the workplace: Neuroscience and neuroplasticity (2011)

In recovering from adversity, past adversity can fuel our resilience (2011)

Do organizations suppress our empathy? (2010)

Understanding the bullied brain (2010)

Bully Rats, Tasers, and Stress (2009)

Why concentrated power at work is bad (2009)

Should HR be eliminated?

Lauren Weber and Rachel Feintzeig, in a piece for the Wall Street Journal, examine an emerging trend of employers replacing their human resources departments with outsourced personnel management firms and even software programs that perform basic HR tasks:

Companies seeking flat management structures and more accountability for employees are frequently taking aim at human resources. Executives say the traditional HR department—which claims dominion over everything from hiring and firing to maintaining workplace diversity—stifles innovation and bogs down businesses with inefficient policies and processes. At the same time, a booming HR software industry has made it easier than ever to automate or outsource personnel-related functions such as payroll and benefits administration.

Misguided cheers?

From those who have had terrible experiences with an HR office, I can practically hear the (understandable) cheering. Eliminate HR, and you’ve taken care of the problem.

But it’s not that easy.

In fact, Weber and Feintzeig go on to examine the functions that may fall through the cracks by closing down the HR office, including ensuring that managers comply with employment laws and resolving interpersonal disputes between employees.

In a post for Workplace Prof, law professor Charles Sullivan (Seton Hall) largely concurs with the assessment of the potential downsides:

While outsourcing many of the mechanical operations of HR is much easier today with technological advances, it remains true that both managing “human resources” and complying with the law requires a more sophisticated understanding of both than a typical outside firm can provide.

The real culprits

Long-time readers know that I can be hard on HR, especially HR offices that are complicit in advancing bad, unfair, or abusive management practices. But when it comes to acknowledging the importance of an in-house office charged with implementing employee relations policies and practices, I see the HR function as essential.

Good HR offices serve a valuable training, compliance, and mediating role in the workplace. They do so with a much better understanding of the organization’s people and culture than any outside firm could provide. And they can troubleshoot issues over pay and benefits better than any software program.

Bad HR offices, by contrast, are often tools (negative connotation intended) of bad executive leadership. HR offices may get the lion’s share of blame for poor handling of employee relations, but in reality they may simply reflect and advance the values of their equally terrible (or worse) bosses. Show me a nasty HR director and I’ll show you the organization’s nasty CEO.

In some workplaces with lousy top leaders, “rogue” HR officers with conscience and heart may serve a mitigating presence by helping to stave off or soften the impact of bad personnel decisions and practices that reduce morale and increase liability risks.

As I’ve suggested before, to get to the core of what makes for a good or bad place to work, we typically need to look higher up on the organizational chart. The character and values of those at the top commonly dictate the kind of HR office that you can expect to encounter.

***

Related posts

HR, workplace bullying, and the abandoned target (2013)

Quiet cover-ups (2011)

Can an ethical HR officer survive at a bad company? (2010)

Don’t assume that HR is your buddy (2010)

“HR was useless” (2009)

HR, workplace bullying, and the abandoned target

It’s a recurring story, but sadly worth sharing: A worker who is enduring severe bullying at work confides in a human resources professional and spells out in detail everything that is going on. The HR person seems to be truly listening, nodding at the right times, and exuding concern and empathy when tears flow. At the end of the meeting, the HR person promises to get back to the employee, perhaps with a report or a follow up plan of action.

A few days or weeks later, the HR person responds with a meeting or memo in which the bullied employee is told that they’ve found no inappropriate behavior. The response may include any number of lies or distortions. In some cases, the tables will have turned, and it will be the targeted worker who is feeling scrutinized.

Earlier this week, I heard from someone with a story largely along the lines described above. For various reasons, I trust the individual who provided it. This person even had some legal issues worth raising, which sadly isn’t the case in many bullying situations.

For me this was the latest example of a bullying target being tossed under the bus, with HR supporting their demise.

The role of HR

Unfortunately, HR is often complicit in some of the worst workplace bullying situations. As I wrote in one of this blog’s most popular articles:

In good and bad workplaces alike, HR answers to top management, not to individual employees.  Too many well-meaning team players have learned that lesson painfully, thinking that a seemingly empathetic HR manager is a sort of confidante or counselor. There are plenty of good, supportive HR people out there, but ultimately their job is to support the employer’s hiring and personnel practices and interests.

To tease out this point, here’s one way to look at things when it comes to bullying at work and HR:

  • Good workplace + good HR = Ideal combo, bullying reports likely to be treated fairly. In addition, workplace bullying is much less likely to occur in such organizations.
  • Good workplace + bad HR = Bullying is still less likely to occur, but when it does, HR may impede a just response, while keeping management out of the loop.
  • Bad workplace + good HR = Lousy organizations are petri dishes for bullying. It’s not good for the target or HR. In fact, HR may be bullied if it rallies to help the target.
  • Bad workplace + bad HR = Situation very likely hopeless.

If the workplace is unionized, the presence of a supportive union may help to mitigate the harm wrought by bad companies and bad HR. But if a union is in cahoots with bad management, or otherwise doesn’t take bullying seriously, it creates yet another obstacle and threat for the target.

These are the difficult realities of workplace bullying, HR, and organizations, but they must be grasped by targets in order to assess their situations with clarity and understanding.

***

Related posts

1. Are HR professionals bullied at work? (2011) — Independently-minded HR officers can be potential bullying targets.

2. Quiet cover-ups (2011) — When HR is complicit in covering up bad behavior.

3. Can an ethical HR officer survive at a bad company? (2010) — A very challenging question.

4. SHRM opposes workplace bullying legislation (2010) — Very disappointing.

5. Don’t assume that HR is your buddy (2010) — HR plays a vital role in the workplace, but workers should not mistakenly regard HR as their ally.

6. “HR was useless” (2009) — Understanding the purposes & loyalties of HR.

Dylan’s Candy Bar not so sweet to us, workers say

Workers at Dylan’s Candy Bar in Manhattan, the flagship location of a small chain of boutique candy stores opened by Dylan Lauren (daughter of fashion designer Ralph Lauren), are going public with their efforts to challenge low pay and erratic, part-time work schedules. Their claim: A store that serves as a “required stop” for celebrities and entertainers such as “Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, Katie Holmes, Janet Jackson, and Madonna,” with annual revenues around $25 million, isn’t all that interested in meeting with its workers to discuss their concerns.

After rebuff, a public petition

The workers have posted a public petition to build awareness and support:

Most of us started at less than $10/hour, with some of us even making as low as $8.50. We’re supposed to get annual reviews for raises, but they often forget to give us those.

On top of the low wages, our schedules and hours change week to week. Nearly the entire sales staff is part time, yet they expect us to have open availability, making it nearly impossible for us to juggle other obligations such as second jobs, school, and family. They refuse to give us any guarantee of the amount of hours we will work each week, and yet they get angry with us when we look for a second job.

. . . Unfortunately, when we got together to deliver our own petition to management, they shrugged it off. Ignoring our concerns, they simply told us that any issues regarding compensation could only be addressed in one-on-one meetings with managers and not together as a group.

The company’s willingness to meet only in one-to-one meetings is telling: It speaks of a divide-and-conquer (or perhaps divide-and-intimidate) approach, one that also makes it harder for workers to claim the protections of federal labor laws. These laws extend to employees engaged in “concerted activities for mutual aid and protection” but do not apply to employees acting solely as individuals.

The workers have reached out to the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). This is the latest evidence of an emerging movement coming from members of America’s low-paid retail workforce, and it couldn’t come at a more important time.

Maybe Dylan’s unpaid HR intern can lend insights

It appears that Dylan’s employee relations philosophies apply to its interns as well. Earlier this year, Dylan’s posted a long announcement seeking an unpaid intern for its human resources department:

We are looking for a Human Resources Intern to join our team. The right candidate will be exposed to a dynamic and exciting opportunity for learning and growing in all disciplines in the Human Resources body of knowledge.

. . . Compensation: This is an unpaid internship, MetroCard will be provided

Among the minimum requirements was this ironic nugget: “Knowledge of the US labor regulatory environment and reporting requirements related to Human Resources.” Of course, an intern with such knowledge might rightly comprehend that the unpaid internship, with its long list of anticipated duties, probably violates minimum wage laws, as this U.S. Department of Labor fact sheet suggests. (A New York federal district court’s June decision on a lawsuit against Fox Searchlight Pictures provides further illumination on that point.)

Hmm, even with the huge, generous perk of a MetroCard, if I was the intern, I’d be giving serious consideration to joining the rest of the workers in circulating the petition.

%d bloggers like this: