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June 29, 2004
Monday at SHRM

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NEW ORLEANS--The second day of the Society for Human Resource Management's 56th-annual conference and exposition was also the first day of what most consider the "meat" of the convention: concurrent sessions, in which experts gave 75-minute talks on a wide array of HR-related topics.

For most of the day, a visitor to the gargantuan Ernest N. Morial Convention Center would have found nearly two dozen of these talks going on simultaneously in the center's various conference rooms. It was a lot of ground to cover, but the BLR editors in attendance caught the sessions they thought were most relevant to you. Below are highlights of what they heard; expect to see full articles soon.

Ethical or unethical?

SHRM ethics officer Keith Greene, always an entertaining and informative speaker, persuaded scores of conference attendees to get to their seats in Auditorium A at the eye-opening hour of 7 a.m. Monday. He shared plenty of disturbing statistics, including this set: Of 1,200 employees surveyed by Watson Wyatt Worldwide in 2003, 72 percent viewed their immediate supervisors as honest (hurray!), 60 percent saw their co-workers as honest (huh?), and only 56 percent felt that their top management was honest (boo!).

SHRM attendees
Some of the more than 10,000 attendees moving between sessions at the SHRM annual conference and exposition in New Orleans on Monday.

In a very interactive session, Greene also presented several ethical dilemmas involving HR, some based on real legal cases. He asked the attendees how they'd handle the situations, awarding them with either a "good answer," or a high five. Greene cautioned that there are usually several different answers to any ethical question, because each of us starts with his or her personal values in making decisions. He cited the Ethics Resource Center, at http://www.ethics.org, as an excellent source of model ethics policies and values statements. He went on to urge organizations to create broad, interdepartmental ethics committees. These have two advantages: members can report where employees meet pressure points that may lead them astray, and members can serve as champions for the company's ethics program. - Catherine Leonard

Dealing with the 'hydra'

It's an HR professional's nightmare: a workplace injury that requires extended time off and then ends up as a disability. This scenario can invoke the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and workers' compensation laws - simultaneously. How is an HR practitioner to get through this maze of laws?

Terry S. Boone, Esq., partner at Haynes and Boone, LLP., in Fort Worth, Texas, provided his wisdom and advice on this predicament in a session entitled, "Hydra, the Three-Headed Dragon: ADA, FMLA, and Workers' Compensation." He stressed the importance of considering each law separately when analyzing a workplace injury. By attempting to consider them all together, an HR practitioner risks confusing the issues and overlooking important factors.

Boone advised HR professionals to begin by remembering the basic purpose of each law. He summed them up this way: The ADA gives people an opportunity, the FMLA gives people time off, and workers' compensation laws give people money. From this simple, basic perspective the analysis will be clearer and the job of HR practitioners a little easier. - Susan Prince, J.D.

Creating an effective compliance program

Does your organization have an effective corporate compliance program? If not, it should, said compliance expert Victoria Nemerson. She explained that even mid-level management is now liable for non-compliance with certain federal laws, like the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.

Nemerson said an effective compliance program includes:

  • Prevention and detection
  • Due diligence standards
  • Hallmarks of effectiveness
  • Disclosure of violations
  • Cooperation of the business entity
  • Compliance maintenance

Once you have a program in place, Nemerson said, establish a committee to address issues of compliance. Members should have expertise in various compliance areas to round out the team's capabilities. A team approach to compliance also allows for a more deliberative process and (usually) more "pull" when it comes time to promote compliance strategies to senior management.

Finally, when establishing good evidence of due diligence, nothing can replace training. In certain circumstances, training is a required element of due diligence. Effective (and diligent) training means a good plan to "roll out" training on an on-going basis. - Susan Schoenfeld, J.D.

Getting to know the pay structure

In a practical workshop on communicating pay practices to front-line supervisors, speaker Ruth Wimberly offered a sample course outline. Wimberly is HR director for Pacific Coast Building Products, a 10-state, 80-location, privately held manufacturer based in Rancho Cordova, California. She has been training supervisors on how to acquaint employees with the organization's pay structure and policies for only four years, saying repeatedly, "We're just beginners at this." It seemed likely that many listeners in her audience, however, have yet to begin the process.

Training supervisors to communicate more and better has many advantages, beginning with higher employee morale and retention. Wimberly outlined a multi-point course designed to be relatively simple, avoid jargon, and last just 90 minutes. It ranges from the organization's compensation philosophy through the role of job descriptions, the company's pay structure, how competitors' practices compare, and moving into the process of how decisions about salary increases are made. A big additional advantage of such a course is that top management, with HR's urging and cooperation, may be led to establish a compensation philosophy and articulate other pieces of the organization's pay structure and practices. - Catherine Leonard

Looking to get sued? Here's how

It has become virtually impossible for an employer to go for long without being sued, but all too often, companies seem to go out of their way to invite litigation. James P. Naughton, a partner in the Norfolk, Virginia, law firm Hunton & Williams, LLP, took a cue from David Letterman and gave his "Top 10 Ways to Get Sued ­ 2004 Edition."

At No. 9: "12 Weeks and Out." The "12 weeks" refers to the maximum unpaid leave allowed under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The "out," according to Naughton, refers to the eagerness many supervisors have to terminate employees once they've exhausted their 12 weeks and haven't returned to work. He likened it to watching the ball descend at midnight in Times Square on New Year's Eve. "At the end of those 12 weeks, they're on the phone to you, saying, 'Time to fire!'"

But not so fast, Naughton advised. Termination could violate other laws that no one thought to consider, including:

  • Your state's family and medical leave law. Not all states have such laws, but many of those that do have stricter requirements (from the employer's perspective) than the federal law.
  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Granting additional unpaid leave is one of the reasonable accommodations under the ADA. Does the employee who uses up his or her FMLA leave automatically qualify for ADA protection? No, but Naughton made this observation: "The greater the difficulty in coming back from FMLA, the greater the chance that an ADA disability is involved."
  • Your state's workers' compensation law. Naughton said it's "crazy" to terminate someone over FMLA when a compensation claim is still pending, for a simple reason: It's impossible to monitor an employee's injury once he or she is out the door.
- Kevin Flood

Do it with mirrors

What can an employer do to reduce the risk of workplace violence by employees, vendors, and customers? Dennis A. Davis, president of The HELP Center Inc., in Vista, California, had a slew of suggestions. One of them: Install lots of mirrors and other reflective surfaces in the workplace. It's not for the purpose of seeing what other people are up to, Davis explained, but to observe our own behavior ­ especially when it's verging on becoming out of control.

"I don't get to see myself behaving like a jerk very often," he said, adding that virtually everyone disapproves of themselves when they do see themselves behaving badly. Because of that, they try harder to get their emotions under control, thus preventing potentially dangerous situations.

Davis also put in a plug for security guards, saying they don't deserve their reputation in some quarters as being less than effective. He compared them to The Club, the cheap anti-theft devices that many people buy for their cars. Though it's been shown that The Club can be easily thwarted by a determined car thief, he said, a thief will still prefer the car that doesn't have one to one that does. "Security guards are a deterrent to crime," he said. - Kevin Flood

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