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An Engaging  Topic

Janice Mazzallo

Janice Mazzallo

Danielle St. Jean

Danielle St. Jean

Elba Houser

Elba Houser

PeoplesBank was in news again recently, bringing more ‘top employer’ honors, this time from both the Boston Globe, again, and the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast, also again. While the awards are newsworthy, the real story is what’s behind them, a culture of employee engagement. In a roundtable discussion, some bank leaders talk about this culture and how other businesses can create one of their own.

They might have to start thinking about securing a bigger display case for the front lobby at PeoplesBank’s headquarters at 330 Whitney Ave. in Holyoke.

It was already crowded with various awards and commendations — many of them in the broad realm we’ll call ‘top employers’ — and now, it is even more so, with some recent additions. Indeed, for the sixth year in a row, the bank has been named a ‘top place to work’ by the Boston Globe, and for the second time, the institution has been named an ‘employer of choice’ by the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast.

But while what’s in the trophy case is significant, it’s what’s behind all that ‘best employer’ hardware (and we don’t mean the wall) that is actually more important to the company.

When asked to talk about all that in the form of advice to other business and owners and managers, Janice Mazzallo, executive vice president and chief Human Resources officer at the bank, paused for a moment.

It was a poignant pause to be sure, and it essentially said what she was about to say before she even said it — that becoming worthy of these ‘best employers’ awards takes time, patience, energy, imagination, and much more than a flex-time policy and allowing people to wear jeans on Friday, although that helps.

It’s about creating an environment where people feel good to come to work every day; it’s not just a place to make a living, but it’s more of a family environment.”

“It’s sounds cliché, but it’s about walking the walk and talking the talk, and it all starts in the C-suite,” she said. “It’s about creating an environment where people feel good to come to work every day; it’s not just a place to make a living, but it’s more of a family environment.

“It’s a place where people don’t just come to do a job, but get involved in the community, get involved with each other,” she went on. “We have a lot of people here who do more work outside, in the community, than they do in their 9-to-5 work.”

It is impossible to sum all this up with one word, she said, but ‘engagement’ does the job as effectively as any other (see sidebar, page 16). There are many types of engagement, she went on — with others at the company, within the community, with mentors, with new team members, and more — and the bank works hard to ensure that employees have experience with all of them.

And this hard work goes a long way toward explaining not only all those plaques in the display case, said Mazzallo, but the bank’s continued growth and success in the local market.

tptw_logo-smallIn an effort to dive deeper into this discussion of culture and employee engagement, Mazzallo was joined in a broad roundtable discussion on this subject by Danielle St. Jean, Human Resources coordinator and training specialist at the bank, and Elba Houser, commercial banking credit analyst, both fairly recent additions to the team.

The stories about how and why they came to the bank and what they’ve experienced since help drive home the importance of culture to a company’s success — not in winning awards, but in building teams, promoting innovation, attracting and retaining talent, and, yes, gaining market share.

The three stressed that a culture of engagement starts at the top — in this case bank President Tom Senecal — and filters down to all levels, and all locations (the institution has 17 branches scattered across Hampden and Hampshire counties), within the company. And it also encompasses a number of other words and phrases, including communication, listening, connecting, mentoring, empowerment, volunteerism, even fun.

“It’s really a personal experience,” said St. Jean as she sliced through all those words and what they mean collectively. “When people feel supported from day one, they perform better and are more likely to be engaged in what they do.”

Houser agreed. “From day one, there have always been people I could reach out to who have guided me through the ropes,” she explained. “It’s a community here, and it’s a family; these are not only people you work with, but people you can depend on.”

Listen Up

To effectively get many of those talking points and bullet points across, Mazzallo recounted Senecal’s recent decision to visit many of the branches personally with the stated desire to meet with employers and listen to them about their work and any issues or concerns they may have.

She said some of the employees were initially intimidated by the notion of the boss coming for a visit, but soon, most fears evaporated.

Manager-employee Engagement Tips

Engagement Is a Word; Being Engaging Is Your Responsibility
Too often managers can develop the bad habit of saying what they want versus doing what they want. Nowhere is this more systemic than with employee engagement.

Managers can have ideals, but they also have to practice them. Here are some suggested strategies to create a true culture of employee engagement.

Read More …

“At first, people were scared and shocked, saying, ‘here’s the CEO coming out to my branch and my department,” she recalled. “But when he came in and genuinely wanted to learn more about what they did, with a mindset of ‘how can I understand your role to make this a better place to work and walk a mile in your shoes?’ the word spread very quickly that not only did he want to understand, he really wanted to hear their ideas.”

Better still, he responded to what he heard.

“He brought some of the ideas to management meetings, and we talked about them,” Mazzallo went on. “And changes were made as a result.”

Senecal’s road trips represent just one of many ways in which the bank’s operating mindset, or culture, has generated benefits in the form of improved communication, idea generation, and continuous improvement.

Others, as noted, include a greater ability to attract and retain talent, which is significant at a time when many in banking can relate their careers through a large stack of business cards they’ve disseminated over the years, and also when individual lenders — and sometimes whole teams of them — are moving from one institution to another with great regularity.

And it’s significant also because, from a big-picture perspective, PeoplesBank is still a relatively small institution (about $2.3 billion in assets) based in Holyoke.

“Were competing with larger banks, and at the end of the day, there are other organizations that can offer more money and probably big bonuses,” said Mazzallo. “And so, I have to be able to answer the question, ‘why should someone be excited work with us? And once they’re here, why should anyone be excited to stay with us?’”

Why indeed? The answer, she said, lies in that fact that, for most people, contentment goes well beyond money and to things that “pull at the heartstrings,” as she put it.

For St. Jean, who was working in Boston before she came to the bank, it was the culture she said was in clear evidence starting with her first interview with the company roughly six months ago.

She and her boyfriend, who is from this area, had made the decision to leave the Hub and relocate to the 413.St. Jean needed a job, but more than that, she needed the “right employer and the right community.” And she found both at the bank.

“The strength of the culture here really does begin before day one; it all begins with the recruitment and onboarding process,” she explained. “For me, personally, leaving behind the city life, I had a lot to do to get ready. When I first started here and accepted the offer, I had to find a car, move all my belongings, and get established. And the team here really helped me with all of that.”

And she said she’s seen that scenario — meaning several layers with assistance with the process of relocating and starting the next chapter in a career — repeat itself several times since she arrived, re-emphasizing that this is the culture at the institution.

“This is a place that can help individuals with that type of transition in their life,” she said, “which speaks greatly to the culture and to what keeps associates engaged.”

Houser tells a somewhat similar story. Her transition involved returning to work after taking some time off to start a family, and, like St. Jean’s, it wasn’t an easy journey, and one for which support was appreciated.

“I started as a management-development trainee, and when I came in, I had a network of colleagues who were management-development trainees prior,” she explained. “That first day, they took me out to lunch, and they discussed what was to be expected of me in that role, and that helped a lot, especially after not being in the workforce for two years and having to build a career again. That help is the reason I succeeded as I did.”

The Not-so-secret Sauce

Returning to the subject of retention, a key ingredient in any company’s success, Mazzallo said one of the main reasons why people leave an organization is a feeling that they’re not being heard, or that their input isn’t entirely welcome or appreciated.

“People get wooed by other companies because they’re getting attention, and often, they don’t feel they’re getting attention from their current employee,” she explained. “So it’s very important, especially with your higher performers, that you’re paying attention, and sometimes it’s just as simple as making time to listen to them and listen to their ideas.”

If that sounds like advice to other business owners and managers, it is. And those we spoke with at the bank had lots of it as they addressed the question of how other companies can become more engaging and, in the process of doing so, become better competition for ‘top employer’ awards.

For starters, they said, repeatedly, that a culture of engagement starts with those at the top setting the tone, walking the walk, and giving employees at all levels a voice.

“Ideas can come from anywhere, and they should be encouraged,” said Mazzallo. “And companies should look to not only implement them when it’s appropriate, but communicate that they’ve been implemented. We do that here, and it takes on a life of its own; people hear about these ideas, they get inspired, and that creates more innovation and involvement.”

But while listening and encouraging ideas and innovation, a company must also take the proper attitude when things don’t go as well as everyone would like. In other words, a company can’t be afraid of — or in any way punish — failure.

“Failure comes with the territory, and you have to be careful with it,”Mazzallo explained. “You don’t want to have too much, obviously, but here, when we work on a project and it runs off course, we take the opportunity to bring the team together, to course-correct, to find out what’s happened, and learn from those experiences.

“You embrace the problem and find out what out what’s happened,” she went on. “That way, people aren’t hesitant or afraid of making a mistake in the future. If you’re in an environment where you’re afraid to make mistakes, that’s where innovation gets squashed.”

Still another big part of the equation, she went on, goes back to that notion of a workplace being more than a place where people go to work.

“Just show people that you care,” Mazzallo said simply. “Show people that they’re more than just there from 9 to 5. Show people you value them as more than just a worker.”

As an example, she said the bank’s leaders, recognizing how stressful the holiday season can be and usually is, scheduled a lunch-and-learn (a healthy lunch) that addressed the many stress-inducing aspects of the holidays and how to deal with them head on.

There’s also that fun factor, which all those we spoke with said cannot be overlooked.

Which brings us to something the bank calls Employee Fest, which is a week, not a day, of what amounts to employee recognition and celebration.

Staged in September to coincide with the United Way’s Day of Caring, Employee Fest involves volunteerism, a luncheon, team games, visits to the branches, and more.

This year, there was a carnival theme, said Houser, adding that activities were designed, many with some assistance from the Internet, to bring the branches and the main office together.

This year’s festival was St. Jean’s first, and she was struck by its ability to connect people, even if they were working in branches separated by miles of asphalt.

“It really strengthens the community,” she told BusinessWest. “It connects different groups within the organization with friendly competition and provides insight into what different people are doing for the institution; it helps keep them productive and engaged.”

Bottom Line

There’s that word again. Engaged.

It’s a simple term, but it covers a lot of ground, said Mazzallo, reiterating that, ideally, employees should be engaged in everything from the community to innovation; from the well-being of their co-workers to the art and science of listening.

Creating such a culture doesn’t happen overnight, and there are absolutely no quick fixes.

But all the hard work that goes into creating and maintaining such a culture and making it part of the company’s DNA pays off in all kinds of ways.

And we’re not even talking about the those plaques in the display case.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Employment Sections

Engagement Is a Word; Being Engaging Is Your Responsibility

By Janice Mazzallo

Too often managers can develop the bad habit of saying what they want versus doing what they want. Nowhere is this more systemic than with employee engagement.

Managers can have ideals, but they also have to practice them. Here are some suggested strategies to create a true culture of employee engagement.

Start at the Top

Company-wide engagement is an important objective, and achieving it starts at the top. It’s critical for senior leadership to communicate and act on employee-engagement values. That means associates at every level need to understand that top management values their input and wants to understand their needs.

Bet on Promise; Double Down in Hard Times

Never hire a person unless you are willing to support them through thick and thin. Being there for an associate during the rough patches is a way of earning trust. Mentoring new associates and helping them overcome obstacles similar to what you faced as a new employee is a way to encourage loyalty and foster the tenacity to stick with a project or task through tough times.

Talk Less, Observe More, Ask Impactful Questions

Effective managers realize that not every assignment will meet with immediate success. And they know that the difference between success and failure might not be making suggestions, but instead asking the right questions. We all want to do the best we can, but we might not have the experience or resources we need to figure out the best solution. A manager who prompts you with the right questions, rather than telling you what to do, is going to help you grow.

Part of an effective employee-engagement commitment is to listen for ideas rather than focus on providing solutions. When you wait to hear from your employees, the idea you didn’t think of can surface. It’s easier to throw out suggestions on a given problem, but assessing a situation and reframing it with impactful questions is going to help your direct reports grow and succeed.

Praise and Forgive

If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not trying hard enough. We were taught that if you focus on blame for mistakes, you’re only encouraging more conservative thinking. There are clear differences between acceptable mistakes and needing to accomplish tasks.

Work will always be challenging, but if your team feels empowered to swing for the fences, yet knows when it’s time to rein it in, you have the best of both worlds.

Give Time

While this could be counterintuitive in some respects, time off is one of the best ways to create employee engagement. When you challenge people to go out and experience the world, they come back refreshed, with new energy and new ideas.

If there is anything that says ‘we value you, not just your contributions,’ it’s a commitment to work-life balance and watching employees grow as people.

Successful employee engagement is not easy. It boils down to commitment — a commitment to people and making sure those at the top are leading the charge. Given that most people seek inspiration, direction, and motivation from their leaders, it is always best to start improving engagement at the top.

Janice Mazzallo is executive vice president and chief Human Resources officer at PeoplesBank.

Employment Sections

Hire Degree of Difficulty


The region’s staffing industry has always been a solid barometer of the overall economy, and that is certainly true in this economy. Firms report that demand for qualified workers is high, and the pool of talent is small and in some respects shrinking. Meeting the demands of various sectors, firm owners and managers say, requires a mix of persistence, imagination, and, well, hard work.

Andrea Hill-Cataldo calls it the ‘Perm Division.’

That’s ‘perm,’ as in permanent-hire, or direct-hire, work. The venture she founded nearly 20 years ago, Johnson & Hill Staffing Services, has always provided such services. But they didn’t comprise a division of the company, and there weren’t staff members dedicated directly to them.

Until recently.

Indeed, the Perm Division is now staffed, and it is quite busy, said Hill-Cataldo, helping companies secure everything from administrative assistants to CFOs and CEOs. And it’s busy for several reasons.

They include the fact that many businesses, bolstered by a prolonged recovery that shows few if any signs of slowing down and challenged by everything from retiring Baby Boomers to on-the-move Millennials, are hiring. And also the fact that many of them need some help with that hiring.

“When businesses aren’t sure what they want to do, they might go temp or temp-to-hire, or they might just wait and see,” Hill-Cataldo explained, noting that the third option involves trying to get by without filling a vacancy. “But when they’re hiring on a permanent basis right off the bat, they’re pretty confident, and they know they need that position filled.”

The creation and consistent growth of Johnson & Hill’s Perm Division — and the reasons for both — are clear examples of how the staffing industry, as it’s called, is an effective economic indicator in its own right, and also how its operations essentially reflect, as a mirror would, what is happening with the local economy.

Andrea Hill-Cataldo

Andrea Hill-Cataldo says her company is meeting client clients and creating effective matches — but it is has never had to work harder to do so.

Discussions with Hill-Cataldo and others in this sector reveal that they are busy virtually across the board, meaning nearly all sectors of the economy; that they are handling increasing volumes of work in temp-to-hire and permanent hiring scenarios; and that they are becoming increasingly challenged when it comes to meeting the needs of their clients for qualified, motivated workers.

“Our work becomes more difficult as the pool of candidates gets smaller,” said Jennifer Brown, a certified staffing professional and vice president of Business Development at Springfield-based United Personnel, noting that, despite these challenges, the firm is meeting growing client needs across two main divisions — manufacturing and ‘professional’ positions.

All these developments reflect what is happening regionally, where companies are reasonably confident, need qualified help, and are having trouble finding it. And also where workers are equally confident, not shy about moving on to different challenges seemingly every few years, and are doing so in huge numbers, leaving their employers with the task of somehow replacing them, a situation that will certainly be exacerbated as MGM Springfield goes about filling roughly 3,000 positions over the next 10 months or so.

They also reflect the unemployment numbers and what’s behind them. This area’s jobless rate is higher than the state’s and the nation’s, which might sound beneficial for staffing agencies. But observers say it’s higher for a reason — most of those out of work lack many of the skills (technical and ‘people’ skills alike) to attain work.

The mirror-like quality of the staffing industry even extends to the broad realm of technology.

Jackie Fallon, president of Springfield-based FIT Staffing, which specializes in finding IT personnel for clients large and small, said a growing number of clients want and often desperately need individuals to collect and mine data, keep their systems safe from hackers, and enable computers (and therefore people) to continue working.

But in addition to now knowing how to find and evaluate good candidates (one big reason FIT is extremely busy these days), they are often surprised by and put off by the sticker price of such qualified individuals. They often want help at lower wages than what the market is often dictating, thereby adding a degree of difficulty to the search process.

“Think about a small manufacturer,” said Fallon while offering an example of what she’s running into. “Someone running a plant doesn’t want to pay an IT guy more than he or she is paying the plant manager. But that’s what the market is like out there; that’s what people are getting, and it’s creating challenges for companies.”

For this issue and its focus on employment, BusinessWest talked at length with several staffing-agency executives about what they’re seeing, hearing, and doing, and how all of that reflects the bigger picture that is the region’s economy.

Getting the Job Done

Hill-Cataldo was asked about how challenging it is to meet the needs of various clients and whether she was, in fact, able to keep up with demand. And with her answer, she probably spoke for not only everyone in her specific sector, but almost every business owner in Western Mass.

“It’s much more challenging to find qualified candidates than it probably ever has been, and I’ve been doing it for 25 years,” she explained. “We’ve never had to work this hard to get the right people; we’re getting them, but we’re just putting tremendous amounts of resources into doing that, and more hours. We have to work very hard.”

Jackie Fallon

Jackie Fallon says the need for data and security specialists continues to soar, making her company extremely busy.

Brown and Fallon used similar language, by and large, and collectively, their words speak volumes about the employment situation and this particular cycle that the region and its staffing agencies find themselves in.

And like all businesses, staffing firms see life change considerably with those cycles.

When times are worse, or much worse, as they were during and just after the Great Recession a decade ago, there are large numbers of skilled people looking for work. The problem is, there isn’t much of it to be had as companies, out of necessity, make do with fewer bodies.

During such cycles, more hiring is done on both a temporary and temp-to-hire basis (providing some work for agencies) because companies generally lack the confidence to bring people on permanently.

When times are better, of course, the situation is reversed. There are more positions to fill as companies staff back up, but fewer qualified individuals to fill them. There are still large amounts of temp-to-hire work because companies generally want to try before they buy (and with good reason), but also considerably more permanent hiring, hence Johnson & Hill’s Perm Division.

If it sounds like there are no easy times for staffing agencies, that’s about how it is, although these would obviously be considered better times, or even, for some, the best of times.

“Technology is always in high demand because everyone needs it,” said Fallon. “We’re really busy; we had our best year ever last year, and this year, we’re continuing that trend.”

Both United and Johnson & Hill are also having a very solid year, continuing a recent run of them, and for a variety of reasons that have to do with the economy and a changing environment when it comes to the process of hiring.

Elaborating, Hill said busy managers often lack the time to recruit and interview candidates. Meanwhile, others aren’t fully up on the methods required to reach younger audiences and assemble a strong pool of candidates. Thus, they’re leaving it to the experts.

“The way companies recruit now has become so complex that, if you don’t need to hire on a large scale, you don’t have the time to invest in social-media campaigns and all the things you need to do to build that pipeline of people coming into your organization,” she explained. “That’s what we do all day; we’re building a pipeline of people for the positions we need to fill. That makes it cost-effective for us, and far less so for small companies that can just offload the whole process.”

Brown agreed, and said this helps explain why United’s Professional Division, as it’s called, is quite busy. But there are other factors, and they include the fact that, in most all respects, the market has shifted in favor of the employees and job seekers, who, like employers, have large amounts of confidence.

“With this economy, there are opportunities,” she explained. “People aren’t fearful about moving from one company to another, whether they want to enhance their skill set to get ready for the next step or relocate, or just earn more money.”

Meanwhile, larger numbers of Baby Boomers are making the decision to retire, leaving companies with the often-challenging task of replacing long-time, valued employees.

Pipeline Projects

In this environment, where agencies have to commit more time, energy, and financial resources to the task of creating solid matches (that’s the operative word in this industry), staffing work requires persistence, resourcefulness, imagination, and often working with partners to help individuals gain the skills needed to enter the workplace and succeed there.

“Before, it might take a few days to find someone; now, it might take a few weeks,” said Hill-Cataldo, as she addressed that persistence part of the equation. “Searches are more difficult and time-consuming.”

Jennifer Brown

Jennifer Brown says the key to making successful matches is to fully understand a company’s culture, and finding individuals who can thrive in that environment.

Brown agreed, but stressed that, while the work is harder and it takes longer, there can be no shortcuts, because a firm can only succeed in this business if client needs are met — that is, if successful matches can be made.

And one key to accomplishing this is understanding not only a firm’s needs, but its culture, and then essentially working in partnership with the client to create what all parties concerned would consider a proverbial good hire.

“We need to make sure that the candidate we’re seeking aligns with what the client is looking to fulfill with the position,” Brown told BusinessWest, adding that this often goes beyond expected technical skill sets and into the realms of teamwork and company culture.

And with both sides of that equation, United is devoting time and resources to many forms of workforce development to help provide candidates with needed skills, she said.

As an example, she said the firm works with Goodwill Industries to present a training program to assist individuals with acquiring the essential skills to succeed in the workplace today.

“We need to make sure that the candidate’s character aligns with what the company is looking for, but also their competency as well,” she explained, adding that this is both an art and a science.

All of these traits are also needed within the broad spectrum of technology, said Fallon, adding that this has proven to be a lucrative, yet still challenging niche for the agency because, as she noted, technology is a critical component in every company’s success quotient, and also because the needs within this realm continue to grow.

This is especially true on the data side of the equation, as evidenced by growing use of the acronym DBA, which still stands for ‘doing business as,’ but increasingly, it also stands for ‘database administrator.’

“These are individuals in high demand,” said Fallon. “Data is a company’s goldmine; they need to protect it, and they need to make sure it’s running smoothly.”

Likewise, system security specialists are in equally high demand, said Fallon, adding that such professionals can and usually do demand a six-figure salary, a number that causes sticker shock in this region, which further complicates that aforementioned process of creating solid matches for both temp-to-hire and, increasingly, permanent-hire scenarios.

Matters are even further complicated by the fact that, increasingly, IT specialists can work remotely, which makes competition for them regional if not national or even international in scope.

“Someone can live here, work for a company in Boston, and maybe go into Boston once a week or maybe even less,” she explained, adding that firms in urban areas not only understand this, but they are generally less intimidated by the salaries such individuals are commanding.

The lesson companies can take from this is to be flexible and, when possible, allow people to work remotely, said Fallon, adding that, for various reasons, including an unwillingness, or inability, to meet those six-figure salaries, FIT has to cast an extremely wide net in its efforts to make matches.

“It’s easier for us to find someone from the Midwest to come here than it is someone from Boston — unless they were originally from this area,” she explained. “There’s more opportunity in Boston and places like it; if something doesn’t work out, they can walk down the street and find something else.”

Body of Work

While there are opportunities for staffing agencies during virtually all economic cycles, it is times like these when firms are particularly busy and when, like FIT, they are likely to record that proverbial ‘best year ever.’

But, as Hill-Cataldo noted, the rewards don’t come easy, and firms like hers must work harder than ever to not only meet the needs of clients, but exceed them.

In this respect, and many others, the staffing industry is reflecting the bigger picture and the economy of this region.

In other words, it’s a work in progress — in all kinds of ways.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Employment Sections

Outside the Silos

Anne Kandilis

Anne Kandilis says collaboration between employers, educators, and economic-development leaders will be the key to the new job portal’s success.

Anne Kandilis spends a lot of time talking with area employers, so she knows there are jobs to be had. How to connect those jobs to people who can perform them — well, that’s an issue that has plagued Western Mass. for a generation.

“One local employer told me, ‘I’m about half the size I could be, but I can’t find enough skilled workers,” said Kandilis, Working Cities Challenge director at the Economic Development Council (EDC) of Western Massachusetts.

Furthermore, she noted, many of these jobs are blue-collar positions that don’t require a college degree, but the disconnect remains due to a perception among job seekers that it’s too difficult to retrain for a new career.

“For Springfield and the whole region, how do we break down those barriers that make it difficult for job seekers to find jobs, and for employers to find quality workers?” she asked. “That’s really the premise of Springfield WORKS.”

Springfield WORKS, a collaboration by city, community, education, and employer leaders to develop strategies to transform the region’s workforce ecosystem, was funded with a three-year grant from the Boston Federal Reserve Bank’s Working Cities Challenge grant. One concrete application of those strategies, an innovative job portal, was launched with fanfare last week during an event at Tower Square.

The event, titled “Innovations in Developing and Delivering a Workforce,” offered the first public presentation of the portal, which aims to connect job seekers and current workers with a roadmap to available positions. Importantly — because this has too often been the missing piece, Kandilis said — the portal will also serve as a resource on where to acquire needed skills with available training.

Statistics bear out why the effort is important. Specifically, the region’s low unemployment rate does not reflect the total number of people not participating in the labor force. Approximately 42 out of 100 Springfield residents aged 16 to 64 are not working, Kandilis said, and the initiative is a response to employers needing more qualified candidates to support operations and growth.

The 14 original partners in Springfield WORKS — the organization boasts more than three times that today — “all came together and said, ‘we have a workforce … not a crisis, but a mismatch between jobs and skilled workforce,” she told BusinessWest.

The problem isn’t isolated to the Pioneer Valley. At a recent meeting of Knowledge Corridor representatives, she noted, a speaker addressed this very skills gap, and CNBC recently called it one of the greatest threats to economic growth.

“The partners are really the key to making this happen,” she said, noting that an employer advisory group meets every month to discuss what’s working, what’s not, and where opportunities might exist to connect employers with job seekers. That’s where the new portal comes in.

Come Together

Springfield WORKS sprang out of a spirit of collaboration, as it explains on its website.

“By bringing together diverse stakeholder groups — including employers, secondary and post-secondary education providers, economic- and workforce-development professionals, workforce-training providers, community-based organizations, municipal government, and residents — the Springfield WORKS initiative holds all of us accountable for making sure the city of Springfield develops a bold and innovative strategy for our residents that have significant barriers towards full participation in the labor force,” the description reads. “This bold goal will be achieved by utilizing technology, collaboration, impact-driven coaching techniques, and data in order to empower residents to understand the opportunities that exist, the skills required to pursue those opportunities, and the training opportunities and support services that will enable them to be successful.”

Jobs are the goal, but check out some of the other words repeated in that mission statement of sorts. Skills. Education. Training. Of all the connections the job portal aims to make, those may be the most important.

When a user logs in, he or she can search for jobs among participating employers (about 20 to date — from major players like MassMutual, Baystate Health, and MGM Springfield to smaller companies — with more expected to join the effort) or by category (there are 17 listed, from sales to food service; from technology to healthcare).

Each job opportunity lists a series of ‘top skills,’ many of them soft skills like effective communication and customer service, and ‘prerequisites,’ including degrees or certifications necessary. Those listings then link to programs at Holyoke Community College, Springfield Technical Community College, and FutureWorks (again, more training partners are expected to sign on in the coming months) where specific programs can help a job seeker achieve those goals. In many cases, Kandilis said, employers are looking for someone with the right soft skills, and can train them for the rest.

“I think this is a game changer. It creates a conversation,” she told BusinessWest. “We don’t always have opportunities like this because of the way we operate in silos. This creates a huge opportunity for connections and strategies that are community-driven, and employers are a huge part of the conversation — because we start with the skills they need.”

Not often, she stressed, have employers, workforce-development agencies, colleges, and job-training entities come together to connect with job seekers at the same time.

“When the partners came together, they had to figure out what the problem was and what to do about it. The goal was to figure out how to collaborate and align our systems so job seekers can find them, and so employers who want quality employees can hire them,” she explained. “We have a skills and education gap, and we have supports, but they have not been aligned.”

The portal, however, is just one prong of a multi-faceted strategy to not only identify needs, but to put a big dent in the region’s unemployment figure, with Springfield WORKS as the backbone organization.

“By driving this through skills that are in demand, we’re able to align training and education in a way that has not been done before,” Kandilis said. “Every job is connected to a skill, and every skill is linked to a training if it’s available. So we’ll see which skills are aligning and matching up with training.”

From there, training programs can be broadened with a specific focus on where the greatest needs are. “We want to expand access to quality training, coaching, and mentoring, and make sure it aligns with the jobs that are in demand,” she went on. “And I’ve asked [employers] about not only the jobs open today, but the ones they hire for all the time.”

In short, she added, “our portal shows what jobs are available, but we also want to be the first step in a career ladder.”

Bridging the Gap

Kandilis did some quick math to show how the availability of quality jobs affects families, noting that a sustainable wage for Western Mass. is around $43,000 for a family of four. An $11-per-hour job comes out to $22,000 a year.

“That’s a big gap,” she said. “But we have a lot of jobs, and we have a lot of jobs that are not just entry-level jobs, but really pay well. Some start at $14 an hour, but you can make $18 within a year. Achieving economic stability, for someone who has been living in poverty, is a life-changing experience for the whole family.”

Springfield WORKS is tackling a number of related issues, from legislation that aims to make it easier to move from public assistance to the workforce to grappling with the need many individuals have for child care and public transportation at odd hours. Again, the partners will seek collaboration, hoping to connect job seekers with not only career opportunities, but the training and education necessary to land them.

“We want to change that number from 42% who aren’t working to 25%, and lower if we can get there,” Kandilis said. “We are excited. Everything is ready. We’ve worked really hard. Employers have been phenomenal in their participation. At the end of the day, we want to be the region that companies want to move to because of our workforce.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Employment Sections

Hire Power

Wanda Gispert, regional vice president of Talent & Workforce Development for MGM Resorts International.

Wanda Gispert, regional vice president of Talent & Workforce Development for MGM Resorts International.

The final countdown has begun at MGM Springfield; the $950 million casino will be open for business in just over a year. That means roughly 3,000 people must be hired between now and then, a massive task that falls to a team that has already been hard at work for months.


That’s the number of applications that Wanda Gispert is expecting for the 3,000 or so positions that MGM Springfield must fill between now and opening night roughly a year from now — actually, well before opening night.

Doing the quick math, Gispert, who takes the title of regional vice president of Talent and Workforce Development for MGM Resorts International, acknowledges that this number equates to just over 40 applicants per job.

That might be the average, but the number of applicants will vary wildly with the position, she told BusinessWest, adding that, for top-level positions, like vice president of table games, there might be hundreds of candidates.

And then, for some positions, 40 applicants for each posting would be a blessing, but certainly not a reality.

“Being a butcher is a lost art — a lot of people don’t have that specific skill,” she said, adding that the casino will need a handful of such individuals. The same is true of pastry chefs and security personnel specifically trained to work with canines.

Filling the hundreds of different kinds of positions needed to operate MGM’s $959 million casino in Springfield’s South End is now Gispert’s responsibility. Actually, she leads a team of people that will handle this assignment, one she is still building.

As she goes about her work, she will draw on years of experience with meeting the considerable workforce challenges of major corporations within the broad hospitality sector.

Her specialty is opening new properties, and her résumé includes considerable work within the hotel industry, specifically with Marriott Hilton, opening more than 200 properties within the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean, while serving on what is known as the ‘new-opening team.’

She later went to work for MGM Resorts International, and took the lead role in assembling the team of roughly 4,000 for the company’s National Harbor casino, which opened earlier this year.

She will also draw on a host of resources, everything from the area’s community colleges and workforce-related agencies to websites that can tell her which companies are downsizing across the country and, therefore, what types of talented individuals might be looking for work.

Overall, she said assembling a workforce for MGM Springfield will pose some challenges, but nothing out of the ordinary for such assignments.

The region boasts a large, qualified workforce, she noted, and it has the resources in place to train those who will need specific training, such as dealers. Meanwhile, MGM’s name and reputation within the gaming industry will bring a number of experienced workers into this market, giving the new casino ample talent to draw from as its fills out its team.

“With every market that we service, we see challenges in certain areas,” she explained, noting that this region would certainly not boast many experienced casino workers because legalized gaming only came to this state a year ago. “What’s encouraging about this area is that there are professions that easily transfer over to what we need; the banking industry is huge here, for example. From a cage-operations standpoint and how you run a casino behind the scenes — meaning accounting, finance, human resources, and other areas — we have a lot of positions there, but we know skills will transfer over.”

For this issue and its focus on employment, BusinessWest talked at length with Gispert about the hiring process for MGM Springfield and how things will unfold over the next year.

Surveying the Situation

As she assessed the challenge of staffing up at MGM Springfield, Gispert made a number of observations.

Among them is the fact this is a good time to be in a culinary-arts program, and for fairly obvious reasons made clear by her reference to pastry chefs and how hard it will be to find them. It’s also a good time to be a math teacher or a retired math teacher, for less-obvious reasons she would explain. And it’s a good time to be a bank teller, especially one who might be downsized in this time when there is need for fewer of those professionals.

As for math teachers and those who have retired from that profession, Gispert said they are the perfect sorts for the behind-the-scenes positions in surveillance.

“Those jobs are very different from security positions,” she explained. “Everyone in surveillance is given a math test; they have to understand all the games — poker, blackjack, craps, everything that we offer — and they need to be able to do math in their head very well, because if I’m watching a play, how do I know if an odd is being paid out properly?

“They catch mistakes; they catch possible cheating,” she went on. “They’re the eyes and ears of the casino. They must be really sharp, and their facial-recognition skills must be really strong.”

Loss-prevention specialists for major retailers would obviously be good candidates for such positions, she continued, but those math teachers and former math teachers are also ideal.

And teachers, in general, are good candidates for jobs through the casino, and for many reasons.

“They’re off every night, they’re off every weekend, they’re off for Christmas,” she said while listing some. “We love school teachers; many of our employers teach school because they have the perfect schedule.”

As noted, Gispert can talk about filling such positions from experience — lots of it.

A graduate of Georgia State’s respected hospitality program (the school is located in Atlanta, a popular site for conventions), she said she started her career on the front desk of a Holiday Inn at age 18 and has worked in a host of different positions within the hotel sector.

“I think that’s what’s given me my edge,” she told BusinessWest. “I’ve worked all of those jobs — I’ve washed dishes, I’ve made beds, I’ve worked in sales. You’re a jack of all trades at that point, and when you’re recruiting for those positions or training for them, you know what to look for, and you know how to train better because you’ve been in that position.”

Jason Randall

Jason Randall says the process of onboarding MGM employees is well underway.

As noted, she’s taken all that experience in hotels and added casino staffing to her résumé, assignments that are similar to hotels but have some additional wrinkles, such as host-community agreements, which stipulate commitments that the casino will make to hiring people from the specific host community and region surrounding it.

With MGM Springfield, that commitment is to have more than one-third (35%) of the workforce be comprised of people living in Springfield or from Springfield.

That last consideration is a very important one, said Gispert, adding that one of the things Springfield officials hoped to do by luring a casino here was to bring back some of those young people (with ‘young’ being a relative term) who decided they needed to go elsewhere to find fulfillment of their career aspirations.

That commitment to designate a third of the jobs to those with Springfield roots, as well as other commitments (to hire veterans, for example) is essentially a starting point for this assignment, said Gispert.

“That’s how I start crafting how I will approach my workforce-development game plan for the area,” she explained, adding that 90% of the workforce must come from this region, which is defined loosely as Greater Springfield.

Counting Down

Running down some of the numbers involved with her assignment (there are always lots of numbers to consider when talking about a casino), Gispert said the largest specific team, or department, will be dealers; roughly 600 of them will be needed for blackjack, poker, and other games. A large security force will also be needed, she went on, noting that roughly 200 individuals will be required for such work.

There will be a number of restaurants and catering operations, so about 150 culinary artists will be required, she said, adding that there are subsets within that broad realm (pastry chef, for example), and there will be about 80 cashier, or ‘cage,’ positions, as they’re called; these are people who will be handling money.

There are also a number of positions for which the casino will need just a few talented individuals, or perhaps even one. Butcher falls in that category, as does locksmith, security people that can work with dogs, and ‘master tailor’ (there will likely be just one of those).

When asked about the schedule moving forward when it comes to the process of putting a team in place, Gispert said the hiring has already begun in many areas, especially within the higher levels of management, meaning those who will lead the teams that will be assembled.

The matter of when specific positions will be filled will be determined by several factors, she went on, but especially how much training is involved and, obviously, when the employees in question will be needed.

As an example, she noted security personnel. This will be a large force, as noted, and one that will need extensive training. Also, in many cases, individuals will be needed long before the doors to the casino actually open.

“January is the month when a lot of positions will come on board,” she explained. “Because security and surveillance come in first; they take the longest to train, and you need them on the premises earlier than anyone else.

“Once equipment starts to be delivered, surveillance has to be there from that point on,” she went on. “Once slot machines and other equipment start to arrive, it cannot be left unsupervised; it’s 24 hours a day once they’re on the premises.”

And bringing someone onboard, if you will, is a lengthy process, said Jason Randall, who just went through it himself while being hired as director of Talent Acquisition & Development.

A veteran of the tourism industry in the human resources realm — he was a member of BusinessWest’s 40 Under 40 Class of 2014 as director of Human Resources for Peter Pan Bus Lines — he joined MGM in May. He said one of his primary responsibilities is taking new hires “from A to Z,” as he put it.

“Soon, we’ll start building out our human-resources team to start managing that on a volume scale,” he explained. “We’ll have a team that will take over halfway through the process to help initiate drug and background checks, complete offer letters, assisting with gaming-license processing, and eventually queueing everyone up for the big orientation dates.”

Those will be coming after some large hiring events late next spring and into the summer, he went on, leaving ample time for training before the casino opens.

As jobs need to be filled, the positions are posted on LinkedIn and job boards, said Gispert, adding that the response has thus far been solid, and it points toward overall numbers similar to what was experienced with National Harbor — thus that projection for 126,000 applications.

People can apply for as many as three jobs, and many do, she explained, which will be a factor in how many applications MGM receives, but overall, she’s expecting a very strong response, and from people of all ages.

“We reach out to AARP,” Gispert explained, “because a lot of people thought they wanted to be retired, then they retired and they decided, ‘no, I really want something back in the workforce.’”

Odds Are

As she talked about the process of creating a workforce for MGM Springfield, Gispert noted one challenge that might not be apparent to all.

“Not everyone will want to work for us,” she said with laugh, “because if you work for us, you can’t gamble here. Some people would rather be a customer than an employee.”

Perhaps, but she’s quite confident that this obstacle can be overcome as she goes about hiring dealers, security personnel, and even butchers and pastry chefs.

A year from now, roughly 3,000 people will be wearing ‘MGM Springfield’ nametags as part of the work attire. Getting to that point will be a challenge, but the casino and its workforce will be ready, she said.

You can bet on it.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Employment Sections

The Process Begins with an Important Shift in Focus

By Brian Braudis

Senior leadership at the corporate headquarters of a large retail chain was entertaining succession planning. What started out as an exercise turned into a sweeping new protocol for transitioning managers into leaders.

For the organization, it’s vitally important to get this right. Managers sometimes trip on their way up. Senior leaders can mitigate stumbling with an aggressive strategy.

Managers are typically promoted into leadership roles with the thought that their effectiveness will continue, but rather than assume, senior leaders are wise to put into place a two-pronged approach. The first prong is to place the right candidate. The old cliché applies: “hire for attitude and train for ability.”

The second prong is to cultivate the well-selected candidate. This involves extensive training opportunities and environments that promote growth.

Transitioning managers into leaders should ideally start long before the switch is flipped. Early on, candidates should be ‘groomed’ through extensive training, cross-program experiences, and leadership development. Preferably the training, experience, and development will culminate by equipping the candidate-leader with a view and an understanding of the ‘leadership landscape.’

Placing an incumbent leader in a productive environment is less precise.

The context of leadership can be polarizing, ambiguous, volatile, and complex, so, out of necessity, strong support systems must be in place. A network of colleagues to model the way and offer reassurance along with mentors, coaches, and careful monitoring will serve as the classic challenge/support system to promote a productive transition while cultivating new leaders.

The biggest difference to grasp for new leaders is the change in role that entails a focused shift in five broad areas:

1. Production to Outcomes

The immediate challenge for managers is to shift their thinking and operating from a ‘making widgets’ mindset to an ‘influencing outcomes’ mindset. It is inherent in the leadership process that the leader influences the outcome. As the new leader begins working with department heads and stakeholders, they need to be operating from a new perspective, a long-term view with idea of short-term, stepping-stone implementation. The role of the leader is to influence the long term with organizational strategy in mind.

Rather than making and counting widgets, a new leader must have both eyes toward efficiencies now and necessary adaptations toward the future.

2. Specialist to Visionary

Managers thrive as specialists. They know their department, their people, and their function. That’s not enough for a leader. Leaders must know the language of all departments. They must be able to translate information, patterns, and trends from departments into the language of efficiencies, profit, and direction. The vision of the organization is up to the leadership. No one else will take the reins here. Leaders must harness what is known now with the trends they see in the telescope and provide direction.  Vision can be complex and multi-faceted, but nothing can beat everyone pulling in the same direction. This is one big advantage that is difficult for competitors to duplicate.

3. One to All

Managers have the responsibility to manage the day-to-day on the floor. They are embedded with the staff. Leaders don’t manage things as much as they lead direction. Whereas a manager focuses on employee engagement, a leader has a focus of workforce engagement.

A new leader may have lingering departmental biases that show up as baggage that slows meetings and other processes down. The classic mistake is for new leaders to over-manage and under-lead, especially their previous function. Colleagues need to give the new leader their patience while he or she cultivates an open-minded shift from managing one department to serving all departments in the organization.

4. Solving Problems to Predicting Problems

Strictly speaking, managers and leaders are keen problem solvers. But one of the finer points of leadership — and where leaders earn their keep — is seeing problems before they happen. If a leader can identify slowed growth or a decline in earnings early on and proactively put things in place to avoid the dreaded ‘workforce planning,’ this ‘seeing’ can save everyone.

5. Worker to Learner

Leadership is not about knowing — it’s about learning. New leaders typify the shift from a working manager to a learning leader. As they work to cultivate an open mind and flexibility, they must also demonstrate a commitment to relentless self-improvement — that means applying continuous learning toward competency, excellence, and greatness.

Bottom Line

When new, developing leaders are hand-selected, cultivated, and afforded the organizational backing necessary for success, it’s more than an exercise in succession. It’s a testament to a leadership strategy and the state-of-the-art demonstration of a leadership culture. Over time, the effort builds into the ultimate competitive advantage.

Brian Braudis is a human-potential expert, certified coach, speaker, and author of High Impact Leadership: 10 Action Strategies for Your Ascent. He has also authored several audio programs from executive leadership development to stress management; www.thebraudisgroup.com   

Employment Sections

Accommodating Attitude

pregnantatworkdpMassachusetts lawmakers are attempting a novel approach to pregnant workers, by requiring employers to offer them accommodations similar to those given to disabled workers. The bill is a popular one and seems assured of becoming law, but some questions about implementation — and what companies will have to do to comply — remain.

Pregnancy is not a disability, and the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act doesn’t classify it as one.

But if the bill, passed unanimously by the Massachusetts House of Representatives in March and expected to sail through the Senate, becomes law — Gov. Charlie Baker has said he will sign it — employers will be required to offer the same types of accommodations disabled workers are promised under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

“While this bill doesn’t technically classify pregnancy as a disability, per se, it does create the requirement that employers treat pregnancy the same way they treat employees with a disability, providing reasonable accommodation and undertaking a dialogue about what those accommodations should be,” said Daniel Carr, an attorney with Royal P.C. in Northampton.

If the bill becomes law, an employer would not be able to fire, demote, or deny a job to a worker due to pregnancy. The employer could not force the worker to accept certain conditions or take a leave from the workplace as long as she were able to perform the essential functions of her job.

While charges of discrimination based on pregnancy or maternity are currently considered an aspect of gender discrimination, the new bill changes the playing field in potentially significant ways, Carr noted.

Daniel Carr says the bill currently leaves several questions unanswered

Daniel Carr says the bill currently leaves several questions unanswered, which he hopes will be addressed by the state Senate before heading to the governor’s desk.

Specifically, employers will be required to engage in an interactive process with pregnant employees to provide reasonable accommodations, such as more frequent and/or longer breaks, modified equipment or seating, job and responsibility restructuring, modified schedules, and private, non-bathroom space to express breast milk — accommodations that, in the abstract, seem like a logical recognition of the need to provide equitable conditions for pregnant women in the workplace.

While this bill doesn’t technically classify pregnancy as a disability, per se, it does create the requirement that employers treat pregnancy the same way they treat employees with a disability, providing reasonable accommodation and undertaking a dialogue about what those accommodations should be.”

“Generally speaking, everyone is in agreement,” Carr said, “but for this bill to become law, there are some issues that need to be ironed out, hopefully before it gets to the governor for his signature.”

Meghan Sullivan, managing partner at Sullivan, Hayes & Quinn, LLC in Springfield, noted that the ADA provides no basis for equating a normal pregnancy with a disability, but Massachusetts lawmakers have, for several years, been discussing the idea that some of the same accommodations available to disabled workers, particularly related to changes in their duties and working conditions, could also benefit pregnant workers.

One of the reasons the bill has found little legislative resistance so far is that it was crafted with significant input from both women’s rights groups and the employer lobby, notably Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM).

“I sit on the steering committee for AIM, and they took the position that this was not a bill they were going to oppose on behalf of employers,” Sullivan said. “But how do we approach the idea of reasonable accommodation while avoiding issues that are typically problematic for employers?”

Working out many of those issues was key to moving the bill forward, but, as Carr noted, plenty of unanswered questions remain.

Taking Aim

AIM opposed early versions of the bill during the 2015-16 legislative session because employers worried it gave employees unlimited power to reject multiple and reasonable offers of accommodation by an employer. The compromise bill addresses that concern and others, the organization noted. Specifically, it accomplishes the following:

• Provides clarity regarding definitions and terms related to current employees in need of accommodations related to pregnancy;

• Aligns state and federal laws regarding reasonable accommodation as it relates to the essential functions of the job;

• Provides flexibility rather than mandating specific types of accommodations for employers and employees;

• Provides a reasonable mechanism for employees and the employer to achieve a reasonable accommodation by engaging in a defined process, eliminating a concern by businesses that an employee could reject multiple reasonable offers of accommodation;

• Adds language allowing the employer to evaluate undue hardship of an accommodation and the ability of employee to perform the essential functions of the job as it relates to an employer’s program, enterprise or business;

• Provides opportunity for an employer to request documentation for certain cases to ensure that accommodations are reasonable for both employees and employers;

• Limits provisions to current employees instead of employees and job applicants;

• Reduces unnecessary burdens and allows for electronic or other means other than a “poster” for notifying employees; and

• Allows for certain accommodations to be either paid or unpaid.

Employers worry, Sullivan told BusinessWest, about any new legal protections for workers that are different, and sometimes conflicting, with existing laws — conflicts that are typically hashed out through litigation, which companies certainly want to avoid.

Meghan Sullivan

Meghan Sullivan says the bill was crafted after much negotiation and compromise between women’s rights advocates and employer organizations.

“There was an incredibly cooperative approach to drafting the bill passed by the House, an effort to use very similar language and concepts related to the disability laws as we know them,” she noted.

She recalled a summer job she had during her college years, as a bank teller. She was required to stand at her workstation for eight hours, but under the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, an employee would have a strong argument that allowing her to sit while serving customers would not hinder her from getting her work done.

Pretty straightforward, right? Not so fast, Carr said.

“The problem with any legislation is that sometimes the most popular laws are the worst-drafted,” he noted. “I think every reasonable person agrees with the principles of this law, that pregnant employees shouldn’t be discriminated against. No legislator wants to be seen as against it, so no one’s really changing it — but there are issues with this law that come into play.”

Take the coffee shop across the street from Carr’s office, which employs a handful of workers in one open space, with a bathroom. Where, exactly, can that business designate a private, non-restroom space for expressing breast milk? If an employee brought litigation, he argued, the shop would have a strong argument that such a private space doesn’t exist, and it would be an undue hardship to somehow construct one.

“Another issue is job restructuring. If an employee walks into my business and says, ‘we have to restructure my job because the law says so,’ how can I prove that’s an undue burden or financial hardship to do so?” he said. “That’s my concern. It’s not the wisdom of the law in general; it’s the drafting and details that have to be addressed.”

In a recent blog post, Carr went so far as to say the bill, if passed as is, will cause chaos for employers, for a couple of reasons. One is that it has no specified effective date, and would therefore, by default, become law only 90 days after Baker signs it.

Another question is the duration of accommodations. “The lactation provisions imply that the accommodations can continue after an employee has given birth,” he noted. “However, the bill does not address for how long after giving birth an employee is entitled to reasonable accommodations. As drafted, employers have no way of knowing if they must provide modified schedules and/or job restructuring to new mothers for four weeks, four months, or four years. It would be in every employer’s best interest to undertake a self-assessment of their readiness to implement these policies sooner rather than later.”

Working It Out

Carr also noted that the Affordable Care Act — which, despite GOP attempts to kill it, is still the law — already provides for private, non-bathroom space to breastfeed in certain situations, and other protections exist for breastfeeding employees. However, the new bill will apply to more employers in the state, and may be interpreted more broadly.

“The term ‘job restructuring’ worries me the most,” he said. “So if the breastfeeding provisions of this law are interpreted to be consistent with the breastfeeding protections of the ACA, does that mean that job restructuring would continue for a full year? Or, if [the new bill] is interpreted to provide greater duration, how long would that last?”

Sullivan agreed that the vague concept of accommodation could become more significant than employers expect, especially if the worker experiences complications with the pregnancy.

“It’s potentially a new lawsuit, and it’s something employers will have to take note of, but the two sides, as well as legislative officials, worked very cooperatively and diligently to make sure it would be a manageable and workable process,” she noted. “A lot of employers are concerned about any new law being introduced: ‘how do we manage another accommodation on top of all the other ones that already exist, and how do these new legal provisions interact with all of the existing laws?’ Without a doubt, it’s another instance where HR and managers and supervisors are going to need education and training so there isn’t an inadvertent violation.”

If employers will have only a few months to get up to speed with compliance, as appears to be the case, Sullivan said, every employer will have to examine the company’s workplace rules, break-time rules, and other details so they can anticipate what policies might need to be modified if an employee becomes pregnant.

She stressed, however, that employer groups understand the bill’s appeal.

“It is easy to confuse opposition to a draft of a bill with opposition to the issue itself,” AIM President Richard Lord said just before the House passed the bill. “AIM is always willing to work with those seeking honest and effective compromise. That is exactly what happened with this legislation.”

That doesn’t mean it’s easy to add another layer of employee protections, of course.

“A common concern is that Massachusetts will not be competitive enough with other states that aren’t as accommodating to employees,” Sullivan told BusinessWest. “At what point will Massachusetts create an incentive for businesses to leave? That’s always a concern among employers, the cost of doing business.”

Still, she said, “despite the rhetoric of ‘us vs. them’ that’s so common in the political landscape, so many employers are motivated to do the right thing and do it in the right way.”

Even if they’re still hazy on the details.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Employment Sections

Women Only

By Daniel C. Carr, Esq.

Daniel C. Carr, Esq.

Daniel C. Carr, Esq.

In recent weeks, a Texas movie theatre sparked controversy by holding several women-only screenings of the new Wonder Woman movie, including a promise that only female employees would be scheduled to work during these screenings. The theatre was the target of a great deal of criticism, and many alleged that the theatre was discriminating against men.

Much of the rage came from the usual suspects — men’s rights activists, misogynists, and other groups prone to Internet trolling.  Also among the aggrieved was a less-expected party: University of Albany Law Professor Stephen Clark. According to his statement, Clark wasn’t offended that a screening was held specifically for women, but, rather, that the theatre advertised “No Guys Allowed.”

Particularly maddening was the fact that the theatre actively barred male patrons and promised that only female staff would be allowed to work during the screening. “It’s the principle of the thing,” Clark said. “I’m a gay man, and I’ve studied and taught gay rights for years. Our gay bars have long said that you do not exclude people because they’re gay or straight or transgender — you just can’t do that for any reason … It’s discrimination.”

For many, the special screening made sense. Wonder Woman is not only the first female-led superhero film since 2005’s critically-panned Elektra, but also the first female-led superhero film directed by a female. This, combined with its strong critical and financial performance in the wake of its underwhelming male-led predecessors, has given advocates of equitable representation of women in the film industry cause for celebration. The women-only screenings sold out quickly.

This conflict illustrates an important point: the law still permits single-gender organizations and services in certain contexts, but when do gender-exclusive organizations or services cross the line into actual, illegal discrimination?

The law still permits single-gender organizations and services in certain contexts, but when do gender-exclusive organizations or services cross the line into actual, illegal discrimination?”

The law generally weighs an individual’s First Amendment right to expressive association against the state’s compelling interest in eliminating discrimination. In genuinely private settings, the individual’s First Amendment rights will almost always prevail. Alamo Drafthouse’s women-only screenings would not have been a big deal if the theater had been rented out by a private entity. In fact, in response to one Facebook question concerning whether there would be men-only screenings, Alamo Drafthouse responded with a link to its ‘private events’ booking page.

However, in public-accommodation cases like the one above, Massachusetts and federal law generally find that the state’s interest in eliminating discrimination outweighs an individual’s First Amendment right to expressive association. Massachusetts state law specifically prohibits making any distinction, discrimination, or restriction in admission to or treatment in a place of public accommodation, based on race, color, religious creed, national origin, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical or mental disability, or ancestry. No distinction is made between historically dominant groups and historically disadvantaged ones. Discrimination is discrimination.

But what is a place of public accommodation? According to the law, a place of public accommodation is an entity which is open to and accepts or solicits the patronage of the general public. Common examples include theaters, hotels, restaurants, stores, banks, hospitals, transportation services, parks, childcare centers, and the like. This is not a complete list. There are no complete lists because there are simply too many unique contexts to draw a clear line.

In contrast to places of public accommodation, genuinely private entities’ right to expressive association is considered to outweigh the public interest in eliminating discrimination, and, therefore, private entities are not bound by the same anti-discrimination laws. An organization’s status as a private entity, and therefore the legality of maintaining a gender-exclusive policy, depends primarily on whether the organization exercises “genuine selectivity” with respect to applicants or members.

For example, in 1997 the Mass. Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) ruled that a female divorce attorney was liable for gender discrimination for refusing to represent male clients in divorce proceedings. In determining that her law practice qualified as a place of public accommodation, the MCAD noted that she advertised her services to the public, did not have any particular criteria for selecting her clients, and admitted that she refused to represent the complainant solely because of his gender.  In short, there was a lack of “genuine selectivity.”

By way of comparison, in 2014, the MCAD applied the same standard to reach a different result in a case brought by a male victim of domestic violence against a nonprofit organization for female victims of domestic violence. The MCAD ruled that the charity had not violated anti-discrimination law by refusing to provide male victims of domestic violence the low-cost facial reconstructive surgery offered to female victims of domestic violence. The MCAD ruled that the charity had adhered to a policy of “genuine selectivity” because it was not open to the public and it applied an array of eligibility criteria, including economic status, type of injury, anticipated period of recovery, and residency restrictions.

Additionally, under Massachusetts law, certain entities may be places of public accommodations at certain times and not others. For example, in 2002, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled that a publicly owned building, when booked for an event sponsored by a religious group for the purpose of religious meetings, does not qualify as place of public accommodation during that time; therefore, the group was allowed to ban women from attending the meeting.

Conversely, Massachusetts has recently announced that the reciprocal is true: religious institutions, such as churches, temples, or mosques, are considered places of public accommodations when being used for secular purposes, such as a spaghetti dinner open to the public.

If your business or organization intends to maintain a gender-exclusive policy, it is important that you analyze these factors to ensure the policy’s legality. The law can be tricky, and lawsuits are costly. u

Daniel C. Carr, Esq. specializes exclusively in management-side labor and employment law at Royal P.C., a woman-owned, NAMWOLF-certified, boutique, management-side labor and employment law firm; (413) 586-2288; [email protected]

Employment Sections

A Legislative Update

By Peter Vickery



A number of business-related pieces of legislation are in various stages of review on Beacon Hill, covering matters ranging from non-competes to earned sick time to credit reports. The common denominator is that they all deserve the attention of area business owners.

There are a number of bills currently under consideration within the Massachusetts Legislature that impact business owners and managers and how they run their operations. What follows is a quick look at several measures that bear watching.


Among the bills filed in the Massachusetts Legislature at the start of its current two-year session was one already familiar to employers, namely the Act to Protect Trade Secrets and Eliminate Non-Compete Agreements. As its title suggests, this refiled measure (originally championed by former Gov. Deval Patrick) would render null and void non-compete agreements between employers and employees.

In Massachusetts, non-competes are already unenforceable in a range of professions and occupations. In 1977, the Legislature made non-competes unenforceable against physicians; in 1983, it added nurses; in 1998, the broadcast industry; in 2004, psychologists; and most recently, in 2008, social workers.

SEE: Chart of Largest Employers

Lawyers are barred from entering into non-competition agreements under the Rules of Professional Conduct. Similarly, internal rules and regulations prohibit them in the financial-services industry. This bill would ban them across the board.

Pregnant Workers Fairness Act

Another re-filed bill of interest to employers is the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, and this one seems to be garnering widespread support. After the end of the last session, advocates reached agreement with some employers’ organizations, which suggests that, this time around, the bill will make it over the finish line.

If enacted, the measure would require employers to accommodate pregnancy and baby-related requests for longer breaks, private non-bathroom space to express milk, modified schedules, and time off to recover from childbirth. It is important to note that the time off would be in addition to leave already available under other applicable laws.

Earned Sick Time

On the subject of time off, H. 3155 would re-write significant pieces of the Earned Sick Time Law, which the voters approved in 2014. As well as providing that overtime should not count toward sick-time accumulation and clarifying those workers who should not be included in calculating the total number of employees (e.g. the CEO, CFO, COO, independent contractors, and employees working fewer than 20 hours per week), the bill includes a novel fact-finding provision.

Many employers use credit reports to help gauge a job applicant’s reliability and trustworthiness … But Massachusetts might be poised to join the 11 or so states that ban the practice of looking at credit reports, which advocates refer to as ‘credit discrimination’ because of its alleged disparate impact on people of color.”

Because of the effect of sick time on the bottom line, the bill would require the secretary of Labor and Workforce Development to conduct an annual survey asking employers whether the law has led them to change staffing levels, or to move their operations out of state. The bill does not say what the secretary should do with the survey results. But knowledge is power, as the saying goes.

Credit-report Ban

Some knowledge gives too much power, apparently, so efforts are under way to put it behind a statutory veil. Many employers use credit reports to help gauge a job applicant’s reliability and trustworthiness. This is perfectly legal under the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (for now, at least), so long as the employer obtains the applicant’s permission.

But Massachusetts might be poised to join the 11 or so states that ban the practice of looking at credit reports, which advocates refer to as ‘credit discrimination’ because of its alleged disparate impact on people of color. U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey are pushing for a nationwide ban via their bill called the Equal Employment for All Act. In the meantime, a state-level measure sponsored by State Rep. Elizabeth Malia would prohibit Massachusetts employers from using credit reports in their hiring decisions and even from asking applicants for permission to do so.

Although it would exempt certain categories of jobs from the ban (e.g. law enforcement, executive/managerial positions in financial institutions, and positions requiring national-security clearance) the proposal would strip most employers of the ability to lawfully review a would-be employee’s credit report. Violating the statute would constitute an unfair practice under Chapter 93A, the Consumer Protection Act, which generally does not apply to employment disputes, and thereby allow plaintiffs to seek multiple damages and attorney’s fees.

EEOC Transgender Enforcement

At the federal level, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has issued guidelines stating that sex-based harassment includes harassment based on “transgender status” and the “intent to transition.” Examples of such harassment include “using a name or pronoun inconsistent with the individual’s gender identity in a persistent and offensive manner.”

The new guidelines purport to apply Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits sex discrimination in employment and contains this definition:

“The terms ‘because of sex’ or ‘on the basis of sex’ include, but are not limited to, because of or on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions; and women affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions shall be treated the same for all employment-related purposes, including receipt of benefits under fringe benefit programs, as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work, and nothing in section 2000e-2(h) of this title shall be interpreted to permit otherwise.”

This definition does not, on the face of it, include transgender status, and the equivalent provision in Title IX (regarding education) is the subject of ongoing litigation. Nevertheless, the EEOC has made gender-identity enforcement a priority in its Strategic Enforcement Plan for 2017-21.

The federal guidelines and enforcement plans will not change customs and practices for employers in Massachusetts, where — long before Gov. Baker signed the 2016 Act Relative to Transgender Discrimination — the MCAD had treated discrimination on the basis of transgender status as a violation of Chapter 151B, the Commonwealth’s anti-discrimination statute.

For example, in 2016, the MCAD issued its decision in Tinker v. Securitas Security Services USA and Najeeb Hussain. In October 2009, the complainant, at that point Rebecca (Becky) Tinker, started work as a part-time security officer reporting to Najeeb Hussain. About two years later, during Tinker’s gender transition, Tinker informed Hussain that he wished to be known as Alyx and that Hussain should refer to him with male pronouns. Hussain seems to have not complied.

The MCAD found that Hussain continued to refer to Tinker as Becky and with female pronouns, and to include Tinker in statements that he directed to female employees, e.g. “you girls.” Hussain also informed Tinker of the Koran’s pronouncements regarding homosexuality. Including annual statutory interest of 12% interest, the total award for emotional distress came to approximately $86,000.

Peter Vickery is an employment-law attorney with offices in Amherst; (413) 230-3323.

Employment Sections

Understanding EPLI

By Timothy M. Netkovick, Esq.

Timothy Netkovick

Timothy Netkovick

A primary reason people (and businesses) buy insurance is peace of mind — to have protection from financial loss due to something bad.  Most businesses buy insurance to protect themselves from a variety of potential disputes. Employment practices liability insurance (EPLI) covers certain types of disputes arising out of employment.

How do you know if an EPLI policy is right for your business?  While the answer is “it depends,” there are several factors to consider when deciding to purchase EPLI or not.

What Does EPLI Cover?

EPLI provides insurance coverage for discrimination, wrongful termination, and other workplace issues. EPLI is different than traditional liability insurance, and is being purchased by more and more companies due to an increasing amount of discrimination claims filed by job applicants and employees.

EPLI typically covers discrimination claims based upon sex, race, national origin, age, and all other characteristics prohibited by law. This includes claims made under the Americans with Disabilities Act and Family Medical Leave Act, among other federal laws, as well as associated state discrimination statutes. EPLI policies usually provide coverage to the company, management, supervisors, and employees from claims that arise under the policy.

EPLI typically does not cover wage-and-hour law violations, unemployment issues, or ERISA and COBRA matters. In fact, some claims that you think are covered may not be covered by your EPLI insurance. For instance, in Cracker Barrel Old Country Store Inc. v. Cincinnati Insurance Company, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee agreed with the insurance company’s position when it declined to cover a claim against Cracker Barrel because it was filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The terms of Cracker Barrel’s EPLI policy said that claims by “employees” were covered.  The insurance carrier argued that the EEOC was not an employee, and therefore declined to provide coverage under the policy.

Cracker Barrel appealed the decision, and the decision was overturned on appeal.  While coverage was ultimately provided to Cracker Barrel under the policy, the case demonstrates that not all scenarios will qualify as a claim under an EPLI policy.

What Time Period Is Covered?

EPLI can be either a ‘claims-made’ or an ‘occurrence’ policy.  It is important to understand the difference between the two types of policies so that you do not have an unintended lapse in coverage. In a claims-made policy, the policy must be in effect when the allegation took place and when the claim was filed. In an occurrence policy, claims that are made during the policy period are covered, regardless of when they arose.

Costs and Benefits of EPLI

The costs and benefits of an EPLI policy will vary from business to business. The first obvious cost is the cost of purchasing the policy. In addition, businesses will also need to factor in the cost of retention, which is similar to a deductible in other insurance policies, and is the amount of expenses the business is responsible for before the insurer will begin paying for the cost of defense.

Insurers use retention as a way to avoid incurring the expense of defending against nominal or frivolous claims by passing on that expense to the business. Conversely, the business will also want to evaluate the amount of their retention prior to obtaining EPLI. A business will need to evaluate its options if it is faced with high retention and a small amount of discrimination claims that are usually resolved at the administrative level.

Has your business had EPLI for several years and never exhausted its retention? Or does your business have a high volume of discrimination cases at the administrative level and also never exhausted your retention? If so, your business could also evaluate the option of self-insuring.

What Is Your Approach to Employment Lawsuits?

Businesses will need to have a consistent strategy when it comes to employment lawsuits. The business should have a clear plan ahead of time as to whether it will report all claims to its EPLI carrier, no matter how nominal they may appear on their face. The more claims are reported, the more the business’ retention amount will increase.

The increased retention will have an impact on the business’ budget for the next policy period. If a business is going to vigorously defend against apparent small claims on its own, it will need to budget for legal fees and possible settlement amounts. A business will therefore need to make a strategic decision when faced with a seemingly small claim as to how it will proceed.

Who Controls the Claim?

EPLI policies typically require the insured’s consent to settle a claim.  EPLI policies also typically include a ‘hammer clause.’ This serves to transfer the burden of paying legal fees and any potential judgment from the insurer to the employer in the event the employer does not agree with the insurer’s decision to settle the matter.

For instance, let’s assume an employer believes that a claim is meritless, and the employer does not want to settle the matter. The insurer has assigned a settlement value to the claim, which is calculated based upon its legal fees and expenses that will be incurred in continuing the defense of the matter. If the employer refuses to settle, the insurer can invoke the hammer clause, and the employer would be responsible for legal fees associated with continuing the defense of the matter.

The employer would also be responsible for any judgment that may be entered against it over and above the insurer’s approved settlement figure. The hammer clause gives an insurer significant leverage in negotiating settlement with its insured.

If the employer agrees to settle a claim against an EPLI policy, the settlement would bring an end to that particular claim. However, any settlement can have long-lasting repercussions for the employer. Similar to auto insurance, any amount the insurer pays out under an EPLI policy will impact your rates for the next policy. Even if an employer switches insurance carriers, a new insurance carrier could view the employer as an increased risk and increase the employer’s rates and the cost of the premium of their next EPLI policy.

Another common feature of EPLI is that it is a ‘wasting policy,’ meaning that, in the event a claim is filed and legal fees are incurred in defending the claim, the amount of the available insurance coverage is decreased by the amount of legal fees incurred by the insurer.

The longer a claim goes on, and the more legal fees are incurred, the less insurance coverage you will have available to settle the claim. This situation becomes even more complicated in the event there are multiple discrimination claims filed against the same policy. The employer will need to be aware of the legal fees incurred in each case, and the amount of settlement, as the policy limits will decrease.

Can I Have My Own Counsel?

Oftentimes, insurance companies want to use their attorneys to defend against a claim. The insurance-company attorneys usually have no familiarity with the business and no knowledge of its business practices. However, the business may have been represented by its own counsel for a prolonged period of time and prefers to use its own counsel due to ease of communication and familiarity with its business practices.

A proactive employer may be able to have their choice of counsel entered as an endorsement to the EPLI policy at the time the policy is purchased. This preventive measure would alleviate the employer’s potential future headache over choice of counsel.

EPLI is not a panacea; as an employer, it is important to understand what you are purchasing when you purchase insurance coverage. Failing to understand the coverage you are purchasing could leave your company out in the cold when you need coverage the most. Irrespective of EPLI, prevention is your best defense against a lawsuit.

There are several steps you can take to insulate yourself from liability, including ensuring that your employee handbook is current, having written policies that are consistently enforced, imposing consistent discipline, and making sure your managers and supervisors have periodic training to ensure they are aware of all employment laws. These are all ways to minimize your exposure if you face a lawsuit.

Timothy M. Netkovick, Esq. specializes exclusively in management-side labor and employment law at Royal, P.C., a woman-owned, boutique, management-side labor and employment law firm, which is certified as a Women’s Business Enterprise with the Massachusetts Supplier Diversity Office and the National Assoc. of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms; (413) 586-2288; [email protected]