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Opinion

Opinion

By Kim Dunn

 

Many organizations face the challenge of creating and keeping their workplaces free from conflict and drama. Although drama comes from many places and in many forms, the only sure way to rid your organization of it is to get to its true source.

Identifying the cause or source is where you get to put your detective skills to work. Digging down to the root of the problem starts with asking deep and meaningful questions to draw out what the true issues are that are creating the conflict. To do this, you will need to become an expert fact finder, which is often easier said than done. In many instances, there is not just one issue, but many, and the path to identifying what has created the tension or conflict between employees is murky and blurred with emotions.

It is interesting that there are some organizational cultures that seem to breed drama and others where there is rarely an issue. My research and experience with managing conflict in the workplace has reinforced that failing to address the following items will almost always lead to workplace drama.

• Inauthentic Leadership. A lack of authenticity creates a belief that management is hypocritical and that they only talk the talk, but do not walk the walk. In this environment, employees lose enthusiasm for their jobs, passion for what the company represents, and, most dangerously, they lose trust.

• Lack of Transparency. Misguided attempts at confidentiality can create the sense that everything is a secret. In the face of lacking information, employees will write their own story, which is almost always dangerous. Remember, employees usually know more than you think they know. Old-fashioned though it may sound, it pays to be open with as much information as possible.

• Not Addressing Bad Behavior. Many leaders hope drama will just go away if they ignore it. We know all too well that bad behavior never goes away on its own. The fact that the drama exists must be acknowledged and accepted so that action can be taken to address it. Inconsistency in dealing with conflict not only leads to the erosion of trust, but also increases the chance that it will return for a second act.

What all of these causes have in common is that they lead to a lack of trust in leadership. When employees do not trust and respect leadership, they will quickly become disengaged.

Drama can be created from many sources, and once you have identified the ‘what’ and the ‘why,’ you can begin to take the action necessary to repair the damage or at least stop the bleeding.

If drama is alive and well in your organization, do not wait to take action to uncover and address the issues that are creating or feeding it. Drama impacts the bottom line because it takes up time, and time costs organizations money. That alone is reason enough to make it a top leadership priority.

In taking the steps to address workplace drama, it is important to remember that not all drama is created intentionally. It can be driven by insecurity, fear, or other emotional issues that have not been identified and dealt with. In many organizations, drama is created because people simply do not have the skills to manage conflict. Not many of us wake up in the morning looking forward to managing conflict; however, not having the skills to deal with it can lead to disastrous and expensive drama-filled workplaces.

The culture that you and the leaders are creating and cultivating in your organization must be a priority. By modeling the behaviors of collaboration, support, and customer focus, you will create a foundation where destructive behaviors are quickly identified and corrected. You can even take it a step further and build these behaviors into your performance-management system, which will help reward the best and address the rest.

The one thing we know for sure is that if conflict, aka drama, is not dealt with quickly, thoroughly, and consistently, it will never go away.

 

Kim Dunn is a Strategic Human Resources consultant at the Employers Assoc. of the Northeast. This article first appeared on the EANE blog; eane.org

Special Coverage Workforce Development

Culture Shift

Nicole Polite, CEO of the MH Group. (Staff Photo)

 

Diversity, equity, and inclusion — commonly known as DEI — has become a well-recognized expression in the world of employment, human resources, and executive suites.

But Nicole Polite prefers the term DEIB, which incorporates the word belonging, and there’s a reason for that.

“The belonging factor is making sure that your employees feel like they’re part of a community or environment where they all feel connected, regardless of race, color, creed, and everything else,” said Polite, CEO of the MH Group, which provides a range of staffing services to client employers. “I’m glad belonging is being emphasized; I believe that’s a key factor. Because if you don’t feel like you belong somewhere, then it’s not a good space for you.”

While the term DEI has become politicized in some corners, Polite doesn’t see the concepts behind it fading in importance.

“We’re not going to move away from it. The world has changed so radically,” she said. “And the employees are the ones driving it. They’re the ones asking, ‘how are you supporting me? How do I belong here? What are the steps you’ve been taking to make sure that there’s representation here?’”

John Henderson, director of Learning and Development at the Employers Assoc. of the Northeast (EANE), agrees.

“In this politically and socially divisive world, how do we create a culture where people feel valued? That stems from the diversity, equity, and inclusion piece,” he said, before explaining what each of those terms means for EANE.

“As employees are more educated, they’re more authentic with themselves. And that creates a culture of self-value for employees, a stronger sense of belonging, which makes it easier for them to be fully engaged with the workforce.”

Specifically, he explained, diversity is about representation — not only in terms of race and gender, but in backgrounds, viewpoints, and experiences.

Then, “when you look at equity, it’s about recognition — recognizing what people need in order to be successful. As a business, what do my people need in order to be successful? And what you need and what I need might be totally different. That’s why equity is so important.”

Inclusion, meanwhile, is about the actions a business takes to make people feel like they’re included.

Dan Moriarty

Dan Moriarty says efforts to create a more diverse, inclusive workplace have to start at the top.
Staff Photo

“All three of those really create a sense of belonging. So it’s diversity, equity, and inclusion, and then you have the B, the belonging piece,” Henderson explained. “If I feel valued, if I feel trusted, if I feel I can be my authentic self at work, I feel like I belong.”

It’s a message more and more companies seem to be getting — and even reaching out for help in implementing, he added. “We do get a lot of calls and do trainings around that piece. We want people to understand that differences bring creativity and increased productivity. And when you foster a culture of respect and people feel that they belong, it increases retention rates, and it makes it easier to recruit people.”

Monson Savings Bank President Dan Moriarty has been actively been involved in DEI strategy for some time, not only at his own institution, but his past co-leadership of an executive council established by the Massachusetts Bankers Assoc. to promote DEI efforts across member institutions.

Adopting some best practices recommended by Mass Bankers, Monson Savings has created a DEI commitment statement, developed and implemented a DEI program that continues to evolve, provided DEI training to board members and employees, identified and monitored key performance metrics, and conducted periodic self-assessments of the program.

In addition, he said, the bank has reviewed numerous documents, including its strategic plan, along with communications, processes, and facilities, to ensure that potential barriers are identified and removed and that DEI expectations are reflected, while also conducting outreach and expanding the bank’s relationships with key community members and organizations.

John Henderson

John Henderson says businesses increasingly want to create a culture where people feel valued.
Staff Photo

“We’ve developed a program which is a lot about education and training, from board members to senior management to the entire staff,” Moriarty said, adding that the bank conducted an employee summit a few weeks ago to discuss topics aroud DEI that some might not be familiar with, and explaining the reasons why they’re important.

“As employees are more educated, they’re more authentic with themselves. And that creates a culture of self-value for employees, a stronger sense of belonging, which makes it easier for them to be fully engaged with the workforce,” he added. “If they feel valued, feel like they belong, they’ll be better employees and better people. I just want to enhance those communications and make DEI more transparent, both internally and externally.”

 

Welcomed, Valued, and Heard

Jackson Davis, who heads up the DEI program for MassMutual, said that organization’s strategy is focused on creating an environment that is equitable and inclusive for its employees, customers, business partners, and the communities it serves.

“When it comes to our workforce, we strive to create teams that reflect our customers and communities, fostering an environment where all employees are welcomed, valued, and heard,” Davis explained. “To do this, we’ve integrated DEI into all that we do, taking specific actions like monitoring and being transparent about our progress in increasing the overall diversity of our workforce, encouraging both a diverse candidate pool and interview panel for open positions, and providing employee benefits and supports that will help us attract and retain a diverse workforce.”

These benefits include a variety of things, from eight employee business resource groups to holistic, flexible benefits that are designed to meet the diverse, evolving needs of employees. And that investment in DEI isn’t just the right thing to do, he added; it pays off in many ways from a business perspective.

“Having a diverse workforce is important because it brings together different perspectives, which in turn can help us solve problems faster, innovate with more success, and go above and beyond for our customers in order to deliver them the best possible experience.”

“Having a diverse workforce is important because it brings together different perspectives, which in turn can help us solve problems faster, innovate with more success, and go above and beyond for our customers in order to deliver them the best possible experience,” Davis noted. “From a customer perspective, having a diverse and inclusive workforce allows us to better understand and meet the needs of those we serve.”

Bob Belitz, president and CEO of Tighe & Bond (see related story on page 20), agreed, noting that the civil-engineering firm’s roster of projects is so broad and affects so many different communities and demographics that it’s important to have team with backgrounds and experiences that are equally varied.

“I think that makes a difference, and we’re really committed to that because of the project portfolio we have,” he said. “We’re also trying to expand the schools that we recruit from, expanding our reach to produce more talent.”

A company that wants to be truly diverse may approach its strategy through many goals, Polite said, from training employees to recognize and prevent unconscious bias in their actions and comments to using gender-neutral language in outward communication, to making sure job postings and promotion opportunities reflect a commitment to diversity.

That doesn’t mean hiring based on checking demographic boxes, she added, but it may mean considering where and how employees are recruited — such as recruiting from a broader range of colleges or partnering with cultural organizations in the community or reaching out to staffing agencies that specialize in DEI.

“I also love it when I see employers have supplier diversity goals,” Polite said. “That tells an employee that they’re committed to diversity; that really shows inclusiveness as a organization. And that makes you, as a minority or someone from a different culture, feel more relaxed. It’s like, ‘OK, there is some commitment here.’ But if you don’t have those types of mechanisms set up, like how do you convey that to the job seeker? How do you convey that to your organization?”

 

Leading by Example

The answer to that question takes many forms, Polite said, but it has to begin at the top.

“You’ve got to start on the leadership level. Starting from the bottom up doesn’t typically work; you have to start from the top down. And you have to have some accountability with your initiatives, too.”

There, she paused for a moment to add that she’s trying to stay away from the word ‘initiatives’ when she talks to clients because it lacks a key sense of permanence.

“We’re trying to weave it into the employer mission, what they do every day. Initiatives change all the time, correct? So we want to make sure we’re not just doing initiatives; what can we can do on a daily basis?”

Henderson also spoke to the importance of executive leadership in crafting effective DEI strategies.

“We know it increases productivity, it increases employee engagement, it increases retention, and it makes it easier to recruit,” he said. “But some companies don’t know where to start; they’ll say to the HR person, ‘hey, create a DEI plan and implement it.’ And then the HR person has that responsibility.

“But it really has to come from the leadership,” he went on. “If the leadership is not a champion for any initiative, including DEI, it’s not going to stick. You can’t change the culture from the middle up or the bottom up. It has to come from leadership. When a leadership team decides it wants to focus on diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging, that’s a step in the right direction because it has to come from the top, not the middle.”

Moriarty agreed. “It has to start at the top. I had to start by providing leadership, advocating, training for DEI, and actively trying to foster a bank culture where we promote and support an environment where everyone feels valued and respected and has a strong sense of belonging. The goal is to have everyone be their authentic self at work.”

As Polite noted, it’s something companies of all types and sizes are taking seriously.

“I think employers are more committed than they’ve ever been. Even now, we still get a lot of requests for DEI training,” she said, adding quickly that the result must go beyond mere lip service.

“It still goes back to the commitment. As the leader of an organization, you have to draw the line and say, ‘this is what I’m going to commit to.’ A lot of employers have started to engage the topic of diversity and discrimination, and others have been too scared to touch it — not because they don’t believe in it, but they don’t want to offend, and they don’t know how to approach it.”

She recommends connecting with a consultant on hard questions — and, importantly, conducting internal surveys to gauge the workplace culture and reactions to any changes.

After all, Moriarty said, by creating a workplace where all feel welcome, the bank should become a more attractive employer for people from a variety of backgrounds.

“We’re fostering that culture where we can inspire our existing workforce, but also attract the diversity of experience from outside our walls, so they say, ‘hey, Monson Savings Bank is committed. They talk the talk and walk the walk.’”

The end goal, he noted, is a more diverse workplace, a more diverse vendor profile, and a more diverse customer base. “It’s definitely an ongoing journey along the path to do what’s right.”

Opinion

Opinion

By John Henderson

Let’s face it: we are living and working in a socially and politically divisive world that can have a negative impact on a company’s culture. So what can an organization do about this in order to create and sustain a culture of respect in their workplace?

It really comes down to courtesy — being polite and aware of other’s concerns and feelings, and practicing the good manners of saying “hello,” asking “how are you?” and actually waiting for the person to respond rather than continuing to walk by them.

We foster a culture of respect by appreciating everyone for their uniqueness and intrinsic worth as a person — what they bring to the team and organization. We realize that we must create a place where people can be their authentic self at work. We show that we value and support others. And the most important thing is that we accept people for who they are and what they do, but we don’t necessarily need to agree with their opinions or values.

The last one is where many organizations fall short by allowing people’s differences to get in the way of having a productive and positive environment where people feel valued and feel that they belong.

As in real estate, where the most important things are location, location, and location, the things that are most important to creating a respectful workplace are communication, communication, and communication. We must lead by example and communicate openly and constructively.

We must also have embedded in our culture the willingness to effectively address disrespectful behavior, not turn and walk away from it. When communicating, make sure it is clear, specific, and understood by the recipient by asking them to repeat back what they heard and what you agree upon. Most importantly, remember that our non-verbal communication is 70% of what is conveyed.

To foster a culture of respect does not have to be a difficult undertaking. Ensuring that the values and norms of the organization are understood by all is the first step, but living them is the next step that needs to be part of everyday life in your organization.

 

John Henderson is director of Learning and Development at the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast. This article first appeared on the EANE blog; eane.org

Law

Gainful Employment

By Abby M. Warren, Esq. and Virginia E. McGarrity, Esq.

 

Whether you are picking up a well-respected periodical or a celebrity newsmagazine, you cannot avoid reading about semaglutide injection drugs — drugs used to control blood-sugar levels for individuals with type-2 diabetes and weight loss.

‘Ubiquitous’ is the only word to describe the news coverage of these ‘miracle medications.’ As news has spread about these medications, their use has expanded far outside of Hollywood to individuals across the country, ultimately leading to a reported shortage. So, what impact, if any, does weight, weight loss, or the spread of such medications have on the workplace?

 

Weighty Considerations

First, studies have long concluded that discrimination based on appearance, including weight, occurs in employment and other areas of life and that it may disproportionally impact a specific group or groups of individuals. Likely in response to such evidence, effective Nov. 26, 2023, New York City passed a law protecting individuals who live in, work in, or visit the city from discrimination based on their height or weight regarding employment, housing, and public accommodations.

While New York City may be an early adopter of such a law, there may be more jurisdictions that follow this trend. Further, on the federal level, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has long taken the position that height and weight are generally unacceptable pre-employment inquiries as they may disproportionately impact employees of different protected characteristics. In short, weight has always impacted the workplace, including workplace decisions.

Second, there may be harassment or workplace bullying related to appearance, including weight. Harassment, whether sexual or based on other protected characteristics, can involve comments or actions related to the physical body and appearance. The same is true of bullying and targeting in the workplace. In today’s climate, where millions of employees are being prescribed or taking weight-loss drugs, this may include employees asking questions of a co-worker who has lost weight, asking whether a co-worker is taking a weight-loss drug, making judgmental statements, stigmatizing such individuals, and similar behavior.

While harassment and bullying related to appearance may not be new, such treatment based on the perception that an employee may be taking a weight-loss drug could be a more recent area with which human resources must grapple.

Third, workplace culture may be impacted by the recent focus on weight and weight-loss medications, and the level of such impact may depend on several factors. For example, the employer’s geographic location, the industry, the overall focus on health and wellness in the workplace, and the employer’s commitment to inclusivity and belonging may all impact how weight and height will be viewed, including using such weight-loss medications.

In light of these workplace considerations and the attention that these weight-loss medications have received in recent months, a number of employers have opted to implement clinical lifestyle programs and personalized weight-loss management plans. The goal of these programs is to reduce the number of employees who might benefit from weight-loss medications like Wegovy.

To the extent employers have control over their healthcare coverage (fully insured plans are typically subject to state insurance laws and individual determinations made by insurance carriers), the decision of whether to cover these weight-loss medications is a challenging one. While these drugs have potential for long-term improvement in the health of employees and can drive future cost savings for the health plan, the cost of covering them today may not align with budget constraints and sustained increases in healthcare spending over the long term.

For example, the current list price of Wegovy is more than $1,300 per month, and most patients take it indefinitely to maintain their weight loss. North Carolina recently announced it would no longer cover Wegovy and other similar weight-loss medications for its employees, estimating that such continued coverage would cause premiums to double for all employees (not just those who are taking the medications). While it is difficult to determine how many private-employer health plans are covering these weight-loss medications, it does not appear that such coverage matches the rampant surge in popularity these medications have experienced in the past year.

 

Advice for Employers

At this juncture in history, where celebrities, media, and the American public are hyper-focused on weight, including weight-loss medications, what actions can employers consider?

First, it is essential to continue fostering a positive and inclusive work environment that extends to weight, height, body shape, and appearance. Trainings, policies, town halls and education, and other visible commitments to such inclusivity can all support such a culture.

Second, businesses should establish specific training of managers, supervisors, and individuals involved in recruiting and hiring about weight and height discrimination and bias (including studies that have demonstrated the existence of this bias), and how these employees can foster an inclusive work environment, and remove any relevant barriers that may exist.

Lastly, employers may wish to review their current culture, policies, and benefits to determine if the employer is supporting the health and well-being of employees and their health journeys, and whether there are potential areas of improvement.

 

Abby Warren and Virginia McGarrity are partners at Robinson+Cole in Hartford, Conn. Warren is a member of the firm’s Labor, Employment, Benefits, and Immigration Group, while McGarrity is a member of the Employee Benefits and Compensation Group.

BusinessWest Anniversary

The Pendulum Has Shifted — Maybe for Good

Allison Ebner recalls that, when she first entered the workplace just over 30 years ago, the overriding question still concerned what the employee could do for the employer.

Over the years, and especially over the past decade, the pendulum has certainly shifted to where it’s now more about what the employer can do for the employee.

Indeed, while there have been cycles with the economy and the job market — and, thus, times when the employer and employee have alternated when it comes to having the proverbial upper hand, if you will — the employee has been in control for a while, and will probably remain so for the foreseeable future.

“It’s been flipped on its head, and I don’t think it’s necessarily going to flip back that much moving ahead,” Ebner said. “As employers, we’re constantly trying to figure out ways to retain top talent, and I think that is something we’ll see continuing into the future.”

This is just one of many changes that have come to the workplace over the past four decades, and especially the past four years, as the pandemic created a new paradigm. Others involve everything from how people work and where to dress codes; from technology and the emergence of AI to how to maintain a company culture when people are all together maybe, as in maybe, a day or two a week.

Drew Andrews, managing partner and CEO of the accounting firm Whittlesey, touched on many of these trends and issues as he flashed back almost exactly 40 years to when he started with the firm in June 1984.

“There was one computer in the corner of the office; it was a desktop that no one knew how to use. I was the bright, young kid who came out of college and somehow took a course my senior year on how to use that software, Lotus 1-2-3,” he recalled. “I was the only one who knew how to use it, so they had me start to train people on how to do spreadsheets on it. It was so slow and so ineffective that I can remember partners saying, ‘we’ll never be using this … I can do in 10 minutes what you just did in an hour.’”

Meanwhile, he was doing this work in a three-piece suit. “My first day, it was about 85 degrees out, and I’ve got this suit and tie on, and I’m thinking to myself, ‘why am I doing this?’” he recalled. “I was thinking that I should have taken the summer off and worked at the beach.”

Flash ahead to late last month, and he was doing this interview with BusinessWest via Zoom, from his home, wearing an unbuttoned collared shirt, and marveling at just how much things have changed — not just since he was that kid fresh out of school, but since the start of this decade.

And he’s certainly not alone.

Indeed, one of the common threads running through the stories in this 40th-anniversary issue is the dramatic changes that have come to the workplace in recent years, what they mean, and what might come next.

Allison Ebner

Allison Ebner

“It’s been flipped on its head, and I don’t think it’s necessarily going to flip back that much moving ahead.”

Many of those we spoke with have been working for three or four decades and referred to themselves as ‘old timers’ or even, in one case, a ‘dinosaur.’

And while some admit to being a bit stubborn when it came to those changes that have come in realms from relaxed dress codes to remote work, in almost every case, reason — driven by many factors, but especially the need to attract and retain talent — has won out over stubbornness.

“I’m a suit kind of guy,” said Tom Senecal, chairman of Holyoke-based PeoplesBank. “And it’s taken me a while, but the pandemic changed things. People wanted to go to casual; I said ‘no,’ but finally acquiesced. Then they wanted jeans on Friday, and I acquiesced. And then they wanted jeans every day, and I acquiesced, and it hasn’t really changed.

“I acquiesced on all of them,” he went on, “because who wants to go work at a stodgy, old-perceived institution versus one that’s flexible? I’m competing against tech companies and insurance companies and financial-services companies. You want to wear jeans? You want to work at home? I have to compete, so I have to acquiesce to what the market is doing.”

Moving forward, Ebner and others are seeing some slight movement toward returning to the office, or at least strong efforts in that direction. What they don’t see is the pendulum (meaning that upper hand) swinging back to the employer any time soon.

 

Is This Work in Progress?

As he talked about all the changes that have come to the workplace, Andrews put things in poignant perspective when he said he would prefer to visit his firm’s three offices, scattered across Northern Conn. and Western Mass., on Monday or Friday, because there are noticeably fewer people on the road those days courtesy of hybrid work schedules and a desire to be home those days.

His own employees are among those who fall into these categories. “So, if I went on Monday or Friday, I’d be visiting myself,” he said with a laugh.

Drew Andrews

Drew Andrews

“I was the bright, young kid who came out of college and somehow took a course my senior year on how to use that software, Lotus 1-2-3. I was the only one who knew how to use it, so they had me start to train people on how to do spreadsheets on it.”

So he winds up visiting toward the middle of the week, when people are around — at Whittlesey and most other larger places of business across sectors and jobs in which hybrid schedules are feasible.

And that’s a large list, said Ebner, noting that, while profound changes have come to the workplace since the pandemic arrived in 2020, there were already shifts in those directions years before COVID. The pandemic simply accelerated the process, and on many levels.

Also, the period just after the height of COVID became one of the most competitive in recent memory when it came to talent, the shortage thereof, and the lengths that employers would go to attract talent and then retain it.

“Employers pulled out all the stops to keep their people and attract talent, in terms of raising wages, enhancing benefits, and working on ways to keep their people happy,” she said. “It’s settling down just a little bit; we’re seeing a little bit of a cooling on wages — increases for 2024 were not predicted to be as high as they were in 2023 — and benefits are scaling back, especially in terms of employers sharing the increased cost of healthcare. And some of the other benefits around wellness have gone away.

“We’re trying to find that next normal,” she went on, acknowledging a dislike of the phrase ‘new normal.’ “And we’re still settling into that; we’re trying to find the right balance of productivity expectations for employees versus what we’re offering — the employee value proposition. What does that look like?”

Meanwhile, the workplace has changed in other ways, again mimicking society in many respects.

Today, Ebner said, it’s a less tolerant place than it was years ago, with co-workers becoming seemingly less willing to accept points of view — on a wide of topics — other than their own.

“There’s a lack of respect in our workplaces today for ideas, thoughts, basically anything that someone has that differs from yours,” she explained. “There’s a very confrontational undertone in our workplaces today.

Tom Senecal

Tom Senecal

“You want to wear jeans? You want to work at home? I have to compete, so I have to acquiesce to what the market is doing.”

“The congenial tone of our workplaces where we were more accepting of people who don’t think and do things like us has really diminished, and it’s causing a lot of chaos for employers trying to manage a respectful workplace,” she went on, adding that this chaos has manifested in everything from microaggressions — stealing coworkers’ lunches and messing with their workstations — to sharp rises in requests at EANE for conflict-resolution training and coaching for people who can’t get along.

 

Remote Possibilities

Certainly, the biggest change to come to the workplace involves fewer people being in the workplace day in and day out.

We all know what happened. COVID forced most people to work remotely, and over the course of weeks that eventually turned into months, people found they liked it, and they were, by and large, just as productive. And when it came time to go back to the office, many weren’t ready to do so. At least not every day.

Over the past few years, remote work and hybrid schedules have ceased being a perk, if that’s even the right word. They became a demand, or an expectation.

As noted earlier, this was not the first preference for the old timers, who came into a world where everyone worked 9 to 5, or something close, and couldn’t work remotely even if they wanted to, because the technology wasn’t there.

It’s certainly there now, and in recent months, two camps have seemed to develop, at opposite extremes.

“There’s a camp on one side that says everyone has to be in the office, and there’s no remote work, and they don’t want to offer any flexibility. And then, you have the other group that says everyone should be virtual, and if you’re not virtual, you’re not a modern employer,” said Ebner, adding that there is room in the middle and one size (or two) does not fit all.

Meanwhile, many of those who recognize this middle ground still believe something important is missing when people are not in the office, even a few days a week.

Dave Glidden, president and CEO of Middletown, Conn.-based Liberty Bank, said his institution has largely solved the issues involving productivity when it comes to remote work. But he worries about culture and the overall development of younger team members.

“When I came up, I don’t know how many times I sat in the conference room and listened to grizzled veterans talk about problem commercial credits and about how you go to market,” he recalled. “That learning was invaluable to me as I came up, and there are now fewer opportunities for young people coming up to experience that.”

As a result, the bank puts great emphasis on ways to maintain culture when people are not in the office every day, because of its importance to the institution’s overall well-being. Initiatives include everything from professional-development programs to outings where teammates can come together, such as a recent ‘bring your kid to work day’; from food trucks and ice-cream trucks to an all-employee gathering at Mohegan Sun.

“I’ve always said that if a company has no culture, it has no soul, and it takes years to build a good culture,” Glidden told BusinessWest. “But you can lose a culture in minutes or 30 days, you really can.”

Andrews agreed.

“Going back to 1984, my seat was outside the boss’s office; just listening to how he talked to clients … I learned so much,” he recalled. “I was a 21-year-old kid; all I knew how to talk to was other 21-year-old kids. Listening to how that person was interacting with clients and handling situations … I just learned from that.

“I’ve been saying this for a while … we as leaders need to get people back into the office more, and for the right reasons — not just to sit there and talk with people who are remote,” Andrews went on. “We have more fulfilling days when we’re together.”

 

Law

Walking a Fine Line

By Trevor Brice, Esq.

 

As Massachusetts employers know, one of the best defenses to a discrimination or retaliation suit is to implement preventive measures. One of the most commonplace of these preventive measures is anti-harassment training courses for the workforce that can show the employer is in compliance with state and federal law.

However, a recent case shows that this preventive measure, while it is virtually always a helpful addition to an employer’s preventive measures against discrimination and retaliation, can go too far if not managed or implemented properly.

 

Anti-harassment Training Can Benefit the Workplace

Generally, anti-harassment training is a helpful addition the employer’s tool chest for preventive measures against discrimination and harassment. It gives employees the tools to be able to identify situations in which employees are harassed, discriminated against, and/or retaliated against; identify the classes upon which discrimination, harassment, and retaliation are illegal; and utilize the employer’s reporting procedures to prevent further discrimination, harassment, and retaliation when it is identified.

When deployed properly, anti-harassment training has the effect of creating, at the very least, a discussion in an educational environment about the influence of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation within the workplace.

“Generally, anti-harassment training is a helpful addition the employer’s tool chest for preventive measures against discrimination and harassment.”

Anti-harassment training also makes for an open forum in which employees can learn basic concepts that will make for a safer and inclusive environment that will help to prevent illegal discrimination, harassment, and retaliation. The court in the recent case of De Piero v. Pennsylvania State University acknowledged the positives in anti-harassment trainings, stating that “training on concepts such as ‘white privilege,’ ‘white fragility,’ implicit bias, or critical race theory can contribute positively to nuanced, important conversations about how to form a healthy and inclusive working environment.”

 

Anti-harassment Training Can Create a Hostile Work Environment

However, the court in De Piero also pointed to a more novel concept, that anti-harassment training can make for a hostile work environment. The plaintiff in De Piero sued on the hostile work environment theory, stating that he had to attend at least five conferences or trainings that discussed racial issues in “essentialist and deterministic terms, ascribing negative traits to white people or white teachers without exception and as flowing inevitably from their race.”

In order to prove hostile work environment, the plaintiff had to prove that he suffered intentional discrimination because of his protected status; the discrimination was severe or pervasive, it detrimentally affected him, and it would detrimentally affect a reasonable person in like circumstances (Castleberry v. STI Grp.).

In this case, the defendant employer moved to dismiss the plaintiff’s complaint, stating that the anti-harassment training did not create a severe or pervasive work environment and that it did not interfere with the plaintiff’s work performance.

However, the plaintiff succeeded, with the court ruling that the plaintiff had pled sufficient facts to go forward with his hostile work environment claim. Specifically, the court stated that the plaintiff “was obligated to attend conferences or trainings that discussed racial issues in essentialist or deterministic term, ascribing negative traits to white people or white teachers without exception.”

The court pointed out a training in which the trainer in the anti-harassment conference forced the plaintiff and other white and non-Black people to hold their breath longer to feel pain. It is this and other examples from the defendant’s anti-harassment training that led the court to conclude that the plaintiff’s hostile work environment claim could survive.

 

Conclusion

While the De Piero decision points to how employers can have possible liability when implementing preventive measures, employers should not abandon anti-harassment training and other preventive measures. The court specifically stated that anti-harassment training can aid employers and that “discussing in an educational environment the influence of racism on our society does not violate federal law.”

The takeaway from the De Piero decision is therefore not to eliminate anti-harassment training, but to instead emphasize that the communication and substance of these trainings matter and that anti-harassment trainings can violate federal law if not implemented properly. If employers have questions or concerns about their anti-harassment training following this decision, it is prudent to contact employment counsel.

 

Trevor Brice is an attorney who specializes in labor and employment-law matters at the Royal Law Firm LLP, a woman-owned, women-managed corporate law firm that is certified as a women’s business enterprise with the Massachusetts Supplier Diversity Office, the National Assoc. of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms, and the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council.

Modern Office Special Coverage

Critical Conversations

 

It’s easy to tell when someone is struggling with asthma, Krista Mazzuca said.

“If I come to work with bad asthma, you see me breathing hard. My supervisor says, ‘hey, Krista, take a minute,’” said Mazzuca, first vice president of Human Resources at PeoplesBank.

But mental distress, she noted, can be tougher to spot.

“It’s important for managers in an organization to understand how mental health impacts their employees. If I’m stressed out, you have to know how to recognize that, too, and say, ‘hey, you look stressed. Maybe take a walk. Maybe take tomorrow off.’”

Shana Hendrikse agrees. As senior advisor at Giombetti Associates, a Wilbraham-based consulting firm that specializes in building high-performance companies, she said employees’ mental wellness is a key factor in that effort, and one more companies are becoming aware of.

Shana Hendrikse

Shana Hendrikse

“While it’s gotten better, I don’t think we’re there yet. There’s more conversation and more awareness from businesses. But there’s work to do.”

“Burnout is a real thing, especially after COVID, and there’s been a definite increase in mental-health issues in the workplace,” she told BusinessWest. “We definitely touch on that a lot in our team-building conversations, our one-on-ones with managers and supervisors, making sure they create a safe space and an environment where you feel comfortable sharing what you’re feeling, which ultimately reduces the stigma around mental-health issues.”

At a time when employers across the country, and across all sectors, are still grappling with a workforce crunch that has made talent recruitment and retention more challenging than ever, many businesses say keeping their workers happy is key. And happiness is, very often, tied to mental wellness and stress reduction — hence, a greater willingness by employers to directly talk about it.

“While it’s gotten better, I don’t think we’re there yet,” Hendrikse said. “There’s more conversation and more awareness from businesses. But there’s work to do.”

One key to that work is what Pam Thornton, director of Strategic HR Services at the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast, calls “empathetic leadership.”

“We’re in this extreme talent crunch, with not enough people to do the work, and people are stressed; they’re leaving the workforce in droves, retiring early, or leaving a full-time job and taking two part-time jobs. There’s so much pressure, and employees have so many choices.”

In such an environment, she went on, “empathetic leadership is the driving force behind retention. It’s about individualized conversations, understanding where people are. ‘Is there too much work?’ ‘Are you happy here?’ ‘Do you have balance?’ Maybe they can’t focus on work because of what happens at home. We might not have all the answers, but we may be able to make all kinds of accommodations. We need to try. At the end of the day, if we don’t make space for the things they’re asking for, we won’t be able to get our work done.”

Pam Thornton

Pam Thornton

“We might not have all the answers, but we may be able to make all kinds of accommodations. We need to try.”

And that’s the heart of the issue — employee wellness isn’t just good for the employee; it benefits the business, too, and it’s worth investing in for both reasons.

“The stress of the workplace has definitely been exacerbated over the past few years, and that stress is something employers have recognized,” said Joel Doolin, executive vice president of MiraVista Behavioral Health Center in Holyoke and its sister facility in Devens, TaraVista. He added that a positive employee experience is directly tied to a positive business outcome, so employers would do well to be open about mental and emotional wellness at work.

“It starts with the culture of an organization and buy-in from the leadership,” he explained. “Mental health is like any other employee factor. If someone has the flu, you make sure they have days off. Well, if they’re overwhelmed, they should have a mental-health day — a sick day like any other sick day. Ten years ago, talking about that was taboo; you just called in sick and did what you had to do. Now people are more open about it. Employees should still have rules and regulations, but days off for mental health are important.”

 

Help Is on the Way

Mazzuca cited statistics suggesting one in five people struggle with mental illness, but only about a third of them seek help. And that can be a problem at work.

“It’s a real thing, and I think it’s more present now than it’s ever been,” she said. “If you have anxiety or depression, it’s an invisible disability. But people don’t want to miss work.”

That leads to the phenomenon called ‘presenteeism,’ she noted, which connotes people who come to work but aren’t fully invested because of what else they’re dealing with, affecting both their wellness and the company’s productivity. Mental health can also affect physical health, she added, which makes the situation even worse.

There are resources companies can offer, however. At PeoplesBank, she cited a well-attended class on burnout and resilience, robust mental-health coverage in employee health plans, and free subsciptions to online resources like Calm.com, a meditation and mindfulness app, and Care.com, a resource for finding dependent care.

Joel Doolin

Joel Doolin

“If someone has the flu, you make sure they have days off. Well, if they’re overwhelmed, they should have a mental-health day — a sick day like any other sick day.”

“The important thing is, we’re trying to promote well-being,” she said, also noting that the bank has invested in its employee-assistance program (EAP). “We’ve done a lot to get people to use our EAP and give them access to mental-health professionals. The EAP is open to not only them, but their family. It’s also important that people know it’s confidential and free of charge.”

Thornton agreed that EAPs are a valuable tool to help employees with issues that company leadership might not be suited to deal with. “It’s confidential, and it provides a resource for them to connect with someone who can help them.”

Doolin noted that, while EAPs have been around for some time, he sees them getting more attention now. In some sectors, they’ve long been a key resource for employees, Hendrikse added.

“I was in banking for 25 years, and the EAP was always a thing in banking. It was part of the onboarding process,” she said, adding that companies should emphasize such resources up front, during onboarding and even recruitment, because they hold value for plenty of people.

“I don’t think a lot of companies stress that enough in terms of onboarding people. It’s important to have these conversations with people: ‘hey, we have these resources for you. If you’re feeling burned out, if something’s going on at home, here are the resources we have for you.’ It sets the tone, knowing that you’re taking a job where you can be vulnerable about what you’re going through. It reduces stigma.”

After all, Hendrikse added, while employees certainly want good pay, a solid benefits package, and paid time off, they also value a culture that recognizes the damaging effects of stress and the need for work-life balance. “It would make me feel like this company cares about me and my well-being. And I think you might get a lot more engagement from employees when they feel valued and safe. I mean, we’re all human.”

That positive engagement means having conversations with employees and building trust between the leadership and workforce, Thornton said. That might involve surveying employees on what they need and — even more critically — following up. That might mean more scheduling flexibility or mental-health days off, or recognizing when there’s just too much on an employee’s plate.

“Hearing nothing, it’s easy to keep going along and assume we’re doing everything right. You have to get feedback,” she said. “When there’s turnover, sometimes you don’t replace a person, and now there’s more on someone else’s plate. That’s a real thing.

“Without good leaders — not just at the top of the business, but good, empathetic leaders throughout the company — you won’t be successful,” she added. “You have to invest in your leaders.”

 

Support System

Getting back to her initial asthma analogy, Mazzuca said employees need to feel supported at work when they’re grappling with mental-health issues and stress, whether that means being allowed to take a leave of absence without penalty or being encouraged to access other resources without fear of stigma.

“People are more vulnerable to the negative impacts of stress outside the workplace if they don’t have positive relationships at work,” she said, noting that conversations around these issues — followed, again, by real action — benefit everyone. “It increases retention, and it increases productivity. It’s worth investing in helping them be their best self.”

As long as they’re not abusing the privilege and taking time off every week, Doolin said employees should be able to use paid sick time for legitimate mental-health struggles, and be open about it. And employers need to recognize that it’s tougher than ever to escape the stresses of life — at home or at work.

“Today, we have cellphones and laptops. Twenty-five years ago, you went to work and dealt with work, and then you went home and dealt with home. Now, everything follows you wherever you go. I think it’s important to recognize that and talk about how we can mitigate some of that. Maybe put in a no-email-on-vacation policy to make sure people get the rest they need. I’m a fan of technology, but it can also be a hindrance.

“Being a leader in an organization that works with people that have mental-health situations, it’s important for us to recognize the need for flexibility,” he added. “Even as a hospital, we still have situations where people can work from home — not direct-care staff, but we’ve adapted to that flexibility. We recognize that employees and employers are in it together. In order to be successful, to have great employees, we need to be able to pivot and give them what they need.”

Hendrikse said there’s often a gap between what employers think they’re providing and what employees feel like they’re getting when it comes to resources and benefits, and closing that gap often comes down to simply starting conversations.

“It’s about creating a culture where it’s OK to talk about these things,” she said. “You can have trainings and workshops, provide resources like EAPs, bring in experts. But the supervisor can also have these conversations directly with the team. Make it relatable: ‘hey, this is what I struggle with myself.’ When supervisors are more transparent with their own struggles, when they’re being vulnerable, employees will feel safer sharing.”

There has been an uptick in this vulnerability and openness in organizations since COVID, Hendrikse added, but much more common, even now, is a persistent unwillingness to share certain things with the boss.

“It’s seen as a weakness,” she said. “A lot of places are doing better with that, but I think we still have a ways to go.”

Law Special Coverage

Implementing Such an Initiative Can Provide a Number of Benefits

By Kylie Brown and Tanzania Cannon-Eckerle

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) initiatives are being discussed more than ever in conference rooms, boardrooms, human-resources departments, and administrative offices. This is exciting, and for companies implementing these initiatives, one of the benefits incurred will be the creation of internal processes and procedures that will mitigate perceptions of discrimination and harassment in the workplace.

Massachusetts law requires that businesses maintain a harassment- and discrimination-free workplace. The law states, in summary, that it is unlawful to discriminate or harass in the workplace because of race, color, religious creed, national origin, or sex.

According to the related laws, a Massachusetts company has a duty to maintain a workplace that is free of discrimination and harassment. It would be fiction to state that it is possible for a company to ensure that it maintains an idyllic workplace for everyone. There are too many unique and diverse humans, too many variables. The good thing is the law does not require a company create an idyllic retreat.

However, it does require companies to do their due diligence to create and maintain a discrimination- and harassment-free workplace, and if something does occur that might meet the definition of discrimination or harassment, a company must address the matter in a timely fashion and implement remedial measures when and where necessary. As such, companies must prepare to manage the possibility of these occurrences. It would be most beneficial if a company did not wait to implement remedial measures in response to wrongdoing or after an incident has occurred; the programs should already be in place.

DE&I initiatives provide a multitude of benefits to an organization with returns that are both ethically and financially calculable, including assisting in the creation of discrimination- and harassment-free workplaces.

It can be difficult to calculate a financial return on prevention; however, in the realm of discrimination and harassment, prevention can be calculated by the declining costs of litigation. Creating a workplace that assures that policies are created to prevent harassment and discrimination, and that procedures are implemented to enable the consistent and equitable application of policies to all employees, will cause a decline in the appearance of harassment and discrimination and will diminish legal costs to a company — and costs to the company’s reputation.

The reason why DE&I initiatives work so well in this manner is because DE&I initiatives foster equity in the application of all workplace mechanisms and thus, once firmly established, naturally create a workplace environment free of discrimination and harassment, to the extent practicable. This is because, once DE&I initiatives are firmly established, most employees will feel a sense of belonging as they will feel heard and have a sense of empathy for their colleagues which fosters a team-oriented culture and problem-solving mindset. That not only prevents lawsuits, but it will also save money in the form of retention. Furthermore, data has shown that productivity and creativity increase, as does employee wellness.

Kylie Brown

Kylie Brown

Tanzania Cannon-Eckerle

Tanzania Cannon-Eckerle

“It can be difficult to calculate a financial return on prevention; however, in the realm of discrimination and harassment, prevention can be calculated by the declining costs of litigation.”

Unfortunately, many companies have leaders who have not identified DE&I as a cost-savings measure, or many leaders don’t know where to start. This article cannot, in the limited space provided, cover the entirety of what can be discussed in the realm of DE&I. However, we seek to plant a ‘can-do’ seed of desire to create DE&I initiatives in one’s workplace as a means of creating safe and discrimination- and harassment-free workplaces, by showing that creating such a workplace just takes a plan and a commitment to execute.

This article is one of a series that seeks to assist businesses with an inside-out approach, using existing resources to set up a sound foundation to grow a robust DE&I initiative within their company, and to create a workplace that is discrimination- and harassment-free while also becoming more ethical and more financially successful. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It can be tweaked along the way.

First, we start at the beginning. Let’s demystify DE&I.

 

What Does DE&I Even Mean? And What About Belonging?

Let’s broaden the concept to DE&I and B, or belonging.

Diversity means to be composed of different elements or offer variety. In application to the workplace, this translates to different people, through race, gender, and/or sexual orientation, with different cultural, social, and economic backgrounds, bringing their thoughts and ideas to the table.

Equity is the act of giving everyone in your pool of diversity fair treatment in access, opportunity, and advancement in the workplace, through processes and procedures implemented in a consistent manner. It’s recognizing we don’t all start from the same playing field and carries an idea of fairness and neutrality. That’s the difference between equity and equality.

Inclusion means being included in or involved in material decision making in the workplace at the appropriate level, and having the freedom or enterprise-level permission to weigh in on items of import that are relevant to one’s job and actually being heard. Identification of stakeholders are important here.

Belonging is what happens when a company has a strong foundation of continued diversity, equity, and inclusion processes, protocols, habits, and other customs of practice, and having a sense of being accepted as one’s authentic self at work that is supported by equity and inclusion. The goal should be to have an engrained DE&I model that is engrained in every aspect of the company so that it becomes common practice.

 

Where to Start?

First and foremost, focusing on DE&I must be in line with the overall business mission, values, and objectives in order to be successful. Second, there must be buy-in from all levels of the organization. Identifying what it will take to get that buy-in is important and will vary depending upon the audience. Third, identify the DE&I goals and why these are the goals. This is most likely dependent on what industry your company belongs to and how your company is structured.

Fourth, create a DE&I committee and identify who should be on the committee, and provide them with defined authority to act. This will create company accountability for continuing on with the initiatives. Fifth, do gap assessment. Where is the company now? Where does the company hope to be? What needs to be accomplished get there? What are the potential obstacles? How will they be overcome?

 

Gather Data

Focus on the return on the investment (know your audience). The return on investment might look different for the frontline supervisors than it does for procurement or accounting. Analyze the upfront costs, such as change in recruitment tactics, utilizing more networking forums, and potentially creating new roles to support the new business outlook

Where can we implement DE&I initiatives? DE&I can be external, by using diverse vendors, or internal, by establishing an equitable approach to handing out assignments. Every time a new business development is discussed, whether internally or externally, it creates another opportunity to include DE&I.

Identify stakeholders and talk to them. Encourage discussion on the topic of DE&I. Discuss their opinions on issues that impact them in the workplace. Gathering employee opinions and concerns will enable the company to make positive changes that will prevent issues and increase employee engagement. Hold open-forum discussions such as town-hall listening sessions — not talking sessions, where company executives talk at employees. These are great opportunities to listen to others and allow all staff to be heard.

A review of company documentation should be conducted to find existing areas where improvements may be needed. Obtaining statistical knowledge and data of the current demographics throughout the general workplace, as well as upper-level management, will help assist you in realizing where there is a need to implement DE&I.

 

Sell It

Make DE&I identifiable in the company mission. Make it a part of the company brand if possible. Involve company leaders in the celebration of meeting goals around DE&I initiatives. It is vital to get leadership support for the success of any DE&I initiative. Sell it to all employees. Create a well-thought-out communication plan. It is important that companies are knowledgeable about the prospective initiatives so they can answer any and all questions that may arise.

The company should support its initiatives by marketing them internally and externally to the general population, which could lead to potential exposure to overall business growth and development.

 

Implement It

At the core of implementing a successful DE&I program is implementing it in a manner consistent with the company mission, vision, and strategy. Including DE&I initiatives in your business model provides business growth opportunities and positive employee relations.

Implementation can start with recruitment, attracting different people from different backgrounds in order to bring new ideas to the table. Infuse DE&I in the employee-relations program by creating policies that are developed with the input of a cross-section of stakeholders and are consistently applied in an equitable manner.

Infusing all company mechanisms with DE&I approaches will be justified by the quantifiable growth and development it produces, as well as the prevention of discrimination and harassment lawsuits — and by the sense of belonging the company’s workforce maintains.

 

Kylie Brown is an associate attorney at the Royal Law Firm who specializes in labor and employment-law, and Tanzania Cannon-Eckerle is the firm’s chief administrative and litigation officer, who specializes in business and labor and employment law with certifications in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and Workplace Investigations. The Royal Law Firm is a woman-owned, women-managed corporate law firm that is certified as a women’s business enterprise with the Massachusetts Supplier Diversity Office, the National Assoc. of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms, and the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council.

Features

A Changing Dynamic

By Amy Roberts

It is no secret that the workplace has changed significantly over the past several years, requiring employers to adjust their operating principles to keep pace with what employees need and want. While many have labeled this time as the Great Resignation, this movement might better be explained by the term…the Great Re-evaluation!

For whatever the reason, and there have been plenty in these last few years, people are re-looking at how they work, what they do for work, and the impact their work has on the world around them. Employees expect that their job brings purpose to their lives and expect an employer to help them meet this need. If they review their current job and don’t find the connection with their own purpose, they are leaving for a role in an organization that they feel can provide them with this crucial requirement.

Amy Roberts

Amy Roberts

When attracting candidates and holding on to talent, Employers are being challenged to improve their impact on just about everything. The people they employ, the people they serve and the value they bring to the greater good. This challenge has led many employers to look at their impact on the world and revamp their entire value system in order to compete.

Attractive benefit programs and competitive pay will only get an organization so far in an evolution of their value. Organizations have to consider more broadly their impact on the lives of people. All the people! Not just the people who buy their products or services or their shareholders or the people that work for them. This means caring about the communities in which they are a part and also caring about the world beyond their headquarters, subsidiaries, and offices.

While there are many ways to create an employer value proposition that helps an organization stand out and compete for talent, perhaps the most impactful is to establish a corporate purpose that considers the company’s role and contribution to society. In the development and communication of this purpose an organization can articulate their value to an employee and in turn attract people who see value in being a part of the work being done by the organization.

Once established it is critical to provide employees with meaningful ways to reflect on the company’s efforts and their impact as well as ways to participate in these efforts. In other words, employees want to be a part of a company that strives to make the world a better place and they want to do the work that helps to make it so.

Another aspect for employers to consider is how work gets done within the organization and the systems and structure around work. While more a practical component of an employer value proposition than a corporate purpose, this area of work has become increasingly scrutinized by the workforce. People want to be challenged in their work, excited by the mission of an organization, and contribute to the outcomes of the organization in a way that makes sense for them.

In order to do this, an employer has to consider the person doing the work as an important aspect of how the work will be done. This represents a huge paradigm shift in workforce planning and it requires an organization to examine its policies and procedures of work to determine how to go about this in a consistent and sustainable way.

We all know it would be impossible for an organization to design its work structure to handle all of the elements of a person, so one approach an employer can take is to set some basic tenets of how work gets done, usually in the form of establishing goals and outcomes required of each role in the organization and then be flexible enough to meet people where they are when it comes to how that work gets done. This can look different depending on the organization type and can vary even within an organization depending on the position. Flexibility in the workplace isn’t new, but the fact that it is a requirement for many people in the workplace has caused many organizations to rethink work hours, days of work, and the location of work.

In different times companies were doing great things to provide an inviting and calm workspace with nice desks, décor that complimented the values of the organization and convenience amenities like a café, gym or dry cleaner. Now an employer is seriously considering four-day work weeks, 35-hour schedules, remote work, hybrid work, work from anywhere, and unlimited time off, just to name a few.

The stakes are higher than ever to implement programs that provide an organization with the desired outcomes to be successful in a way that allows employees to live a meaningful and well-balanced life. u

 

Amy Roberts is executive vice president and chief human resources officer at PeoplesBank.

Opinion

Editorial

 

Flash back exactly two years ago, to a time when employees of companies across the region — from banks to nonprofits; hospitals to health plans — packed up their computers and whatever else they needed and went home to work.

Initially, we thought two things that never really happened the way we expected. The first was that these workers wouldn’t be gone for long — maybe a few weeks, maybe a few months, depending on how things went. The second was that, just as everyone left en masse, so would everyone return en masse.

Indeed, two years later, many still haven’t returned. And they certainly haven’t returned all at once.

And most importantly, most of those who have returned — and will return in the coming weeks and months — won’t be going to the office five days a week.

Suffice it to say the world of work has changed considerably since COVID-19 entered our lives — and there is simply no way things will go back to the way they were. The genie is out of the bottle, if you will, and there is no getting it back in.

But except for the long-term implications of this new world order on office properties, the restaurants and bars located around them that count these workers as patrons, and cities like Boston, New York, and even Springfield — and that’s another story — these developments are mostly positive.

In many ways, the move to flexible schedules and greater concern for the needs of employees is something businesses should have been thinking about long ago — and a few of the more progressive ones certainly were.

What the pandemic did, among other things, was show the business community that it could be done — that employees could work remotely and be just as effective as they were in the office, if not more effective — and that it should be done.

Miriam Siegel, first senior vice president and chief culture officer at Ware-based Country Bank, probably said it best when she told BusinessWest, “one of the big things we’ve learned at the bank is that we have to recognize that we don’t live in a one-size-fits-all working world anymore.”

For the 200 or so years leading up to the pandemic, one size did fit all — at least in most cases. Almost everyone worked at the office. Almost everyone worked Monday through Friday. Almost everyone worked roughly 9 to 5.

One-size-fits-all worked for employers before the pandemic, and it worked for most employees, although they learned over the past two years that flexible schedules work better.

And what employers are learning now is that flexible schedules work better for them as well. They work because employees are generally happier. They work because, in some cases, productivity actually improves when people work remotely or in hybrid schedules. And they work because the biggest challenge facing all employers right now is attracting and retaining talent, and they’ve already found that they fare much better with those challenges if they can be accommodating to their employees.

Six months into the pandemic, most workers were still looking forward to the day when they could return to the office full-time. Not long after that, most were looking forward to perhaps not returning at all.

That’s how much the world of work has changed. And while we can’t say definitively what the future will bring, it seems almost certain that these changes are here to stay.

Opinion

Opinion

By Chris Geehern

The unprecedented upheaval of 2020 will change the way we live and work for years to come, says John Regan, president and CEO of Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM).

Regan punctuated his annual State of Massachusetts Business Address with a call for state policymakers to support the recovery of an economy that remains fragile in the wake of the ongoing public-health crisis.

“Hundreds of thousands of our friends and neighbors in Massachusetts remain out of work because of the pandemic. Many have left the workforce altogether,” Regan said during a virtual speech to the AIM Executive Forum. “Addressing the COVID crisis by shutting down the economy again and impeding the ability of people to support their families is not a solution. Neither is imposing Draconian tax increases to address the state’s fiscal issues on the backs of businesspeople trying to keep people employed amid permanent, structural changes to the way we live and work.”

Regan noted that the unprecedented convergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, a cataclysmic recession, and a reckoning on racial equity combined to alter the economy, the workplace, healthcare, manufacturing supply chains, and transportation. It affected schools, government, family life, shopping patterns, the housing market, race relations, and social interactions.

The upheaval has accelerated ongoing seismic shifts in the nature of the workplace, Regan noted. “What the e-commerce revolution did for physical stores, the telepresence revolution could do for office-adjacent employment. Some of the repercussions are positive — less traffic in major urban areas, more flexibility for workers, and expanded opportunities for employers to hire talented people virtually anywhere.”

The bad news? “Cities like Boston that have thrived on proximity-driven innovation and community intellectual energy could see that energy dissipate as companies accelerate the move toward virtual operations,” he said. “Given the OK to go remote, workers may use their freedom to move to cheaper metros where they can afford more space, inside and outside.”

“What the e-commerce revolution did for physical stores, the telepresence revolution could do for office-adjacent employment. Some of the repercussions are positive — less traffic in major urban areas, more flexibility for workers, and expanded opportunities for employers to hire talented people virtually anywhere.”

Four distinguished economic experts offered commentary about which changes generated by the pandemic might be lasting. Pamela Everhart of Fidelity Investments, Edward Glaeser of Harvard University, Dr. Lee Schwamm of Mass General Brigham, and Nada Sanders of Northeastern University said the nature of any long-term structural economic shifts will become evident only after governments moderate the spread of the pandemic.

Regan said AIM and its 3,300 members look forward to working with state and federal leaders to craft a long-term economic recovery for the Commonwealth.

“Massachusetts businesses have responded responsibly to the pandemic by prioritizing their employees and customers, investing in workplace-safety protocols, adapting operations to ensure compliance with business-specific requirements, and finding creative ways to offer services and goods while remaining operational,” Regan said. “Businesses prioritized these things because this is what our businesses do. They invest, they change, and they adapt. These are the qualities that have made Massachusetts an economic leader for decades.” v

 

Chris Geehern is executive vice president of Associated Industries of Massachusetts.

Coronavirus

Back on the Clock

By Mark Morris

Meredith Wise

Meredith Wise says companies should regard older workers as valuable assets that can help them ramp up.

David Cruise knows how to help people navigate tough economic times, but admits COVID-19 is a different kind of event.

“Quite frankly, we’re doing this live,” he told BusinessWest. “We have no playbook.”

Since February, more than 1 million workers in Massachusetts have lost jobs as a result of COVID-19, according to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). Cruise, president of MassHire Hampden County Workforce Board, said nearly 35,000 workers filed new unemployment claims between February and May in Hampden County alone. One group in particular, workers age 55 and older, accounted for 20% of those new claims.

Job loss due to COVID-19 presents particular challenges for the 55-plus crowd. On top of the concern about finding a new job as an older worker, many worry that, because of their age, they face a higher risk of serious illness if they catch coronavirus.

Cruise expects many older workers will have an opportunity to go back to their prior jobs, but it may take time for that to happen. Because COVID-19 is still actively infecting people, he noted, career conversations with older workers must take into account a “fear factor” many have about returning to work.

“Our staff are trained to help people develop their career plans, and while they can be supportive, they’re not psychologists,” he said, adding that it can be a tough decision whether or not to return to work — one that’s ultimately up to each individual.

Cruise expects there will be more job search activity in July by older workers, but their prospects will depend largely on how successful the phased reopening has been and if employers are ready to start hiring again.

“Going forward, the whole notion of doing work away from the workplace could benefit many older workers, especially in industries where that type of work is encouraged and fostered. It could extend a person’s career and help maintain their financial, as well as their personal, health.”

As a first step, he recommends workers talk to the employer they recently separated from to see what kind of opportunities might be there, even in a different role. If it’s not possible to return to that employer, openings in other industries might be available.

“There are certain industries where I think older workers will find themselves in significant demand, if not full-time, certainly part-time,” he said.

He also thinks many people will seek out training in new fields, including ones that allow working from home. Those who have health concerns about returning to the workplace may find their next opportunity in a remote job. Cruise said this would be good fit for older people with a good work ethic, time-management skills, and self-discipline.

“Going forward, the whole notion of doing work away from the workplace could benefit many older workers, especially in industries where that type of work is encouraged and fostered,” he said. “It could extend a person’s career and help maintain their financial, as well as their personal, health.”

With so many Baby Boomers retiring, experienced workers are wanted and needed, according to Tricia Canavan, president and CEO of United Personnel. Hiring managers recognize that workers in their 50s still have 10 to 15 years of good work ahead of them.

“Employers are interested in people who bring a good work ethic, have skills, and are reliable,” Canavan said. “We have no issue placing older workers because our clients want employees who have those characteristics.”

Cruise advises older workers to think about who in their personal and professional networks are in a position to help them, or at least provide some guidance to finding work. “It’s essential for people to stay connected and to not leave any person untapped who might be helpful, even your dentist or your barber.”

Maintaining technology skills are another key for older workers. If a person was using technology before being laid off, Cruise said their skills are most likely in good shape. On the other hand, those who did not use technology in their job and now only use it socially may want to consider training to boost their skills and expand their job prospects.

“Technology keeps changing, and it’s possible that we all may need to develop new skills in the way we work because of the pandemic,” he added.

Because these skills can be easily updated, Canavan said a person’s “tech savvy” should not be a deal breaker when they are looking for work. “The hiring philosophy I share with my clients is: hire smart, hire the right person for the job. You can teach someone how to use Slack, but finding someone with initiative and the right mindset is harder to teach.”

When to Return?

For now, many careers are up in the air, at least until the state’s reopening progresses further. And in many cases, some are choosing not to return to work immediately.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the DOL encouraged some flexibility with unemployment claims to make it easier to comply with social-distancing guidelines. As a result, the Massachusetts Department of Unemployment Assistance (DUA) put in place emergency regulations that allowed those who could return to work to keep receiving unemployment benefits for personal health reasons or concern about the health of others in their home, even if they had not been diagnosed with COVID-19.

That emergency regulation expired on June 14. As shuttered businesses begin to reopen, workers who are offered their jobs by their prior employer are expected to accept them. Refusal — unless that refusal is deemed reasonable — would mean losing their unemployment benefits and termination by their employer. The DUA said determining what’s reasonable involves a fact-specific inquiry into the person’s health situation and whether they work with or near other employees or the public.

In addition to fear, finances are another disincentive to return to work. Those who lost jobs at the beginning of the pandemic could apply for traditional unemployment benefits, which cover roughly 50% of a person’s average earnings. Then in March, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which added $600 a week in addition to state unemployment benefits.

Business owners who depend on seasonal workers during the spring and summer months have told BusinessWest they are having trouble filling open positions because of the generous payments from the CARES Act. They say it creates a situation where people can make more money unemployed than if they took the seasonal jobs that are available. Unless it’s reauthorized by Congress, however, the CARES Act is scheduled to expire at the end of July.

A company’s ability to reopen — and quickly get back up to speed — may depend in part on how they acted before COVID-19 hit. Meredith Wise, president of the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast, said some of her organization’s member companies are easily getting people to come back to work because of a well-established culture that keeps people engaged.

“The leaders have stayed in touch with people, they respect their employees, and they’re trying to do everything they can to create a safe environment for them,” she said, adding that, when employees are engaged, they want to be back at work because there is a mutual trust.

It’s a different story when a company has not communicated well and has allowed distrust to take root.

“For example, if a company has done a shoddy job of keeping up their facilities before COVID hit, why should employees trust them with proper cleaning and sanitizing now?”

Canavan echoed the importance of paying attention to worker safety. After visiting several manufacturing clients, she was impressed with the transformation they’ve done to comply with pandemic-related guidelines.

“They’ve completely retooled their facilities to ensure social distancing, and when that’s not possible, they’re putting up physical barriers,” she said. “Many have extensive policies in place regarding hygiene at work, frequency of washing your hands, and even how to get water out of the water cooler.”

Added Value

The impact of COVID-19 on older workers’ employment is something Cruise predicts will become clearer over the next six months. He is concerned that not just older workers, but younger ones — in the 18-to-24 group — may be more likely to permanently lose their jobs due to the pandemic than other groups.

With three and even four generations in some workplaces, Canavan stressed the opportunity to take a collaborative approach and learn from each other. “The members of my team are of different ages, and they all contribute different strengths based on their life and work experience,” she said.

Might companies use COVID-19 as an excuse to shed older workers? Wise said a few might, but many companies will not because they need the institutional knowledge that older individuals bring to the job. She said very few companies have effective succession planning or make a concerted effort to transfer knowledge, so they need experienced workers to get them back up to speed.

“Whether it’s an operator who knows the ins and outs of a machine or a salesperson who knows what certain customers like, companies need these people to come back to the workplace.”

Coronavirus

Coronavirus in the Workplace

By John Gannon and Andrew Adams

John S. Gannon

John S. Gannon

Andrew Adams

Andrew Adams

For those of you not living under a rock or in Antarctica, COVID-19 (the novel coronavirus), has become a topic of everyday discourse. As the number of reported COVID-19 cases rise, so do the concerns for businesses and their employees.

Employers are wondering what, if anything, they can do to help their workplace remain safe. At the same time, employees may fear coming into the office and working alongside sick colleagues or customers. Can these folks stay home? Can employers force them to stay home? Do businesses have to pay employees who stay home? Should they pay them? These are some of the questions we tried to answer during this rapidly evolving situation.

How Does Coronavirus Relate to Workplace Laws?

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is tasked with enforcing workplace anti-discrimination laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Several years ago, the EEOC put out guidance explaining that the ADA is relevant for employers to consider during pandemic preparation because it regulates the types of questions and actions employers can take when dealing with employees suffering from medical impairments.

“Employers should maintain flexible policies that permit employees to stay home to care for a sick family member. Employers should be aware that more employees may need to stay at home to care for sick children or other sick family members than usual.”

Recently, the EEOC referenced this guidance when discussing coronavirus, and also stated that the guidance does not interfere with or prevent employers from following the guidelines and suggestions made the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) about steps employers should take regarding coronavirus.

CDC’s Recommended Strategies for Employers

The CDC’s “Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19): Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers” lists several suggestions for employers to implement in their practices. We summarize the most relevant recommendations below:

• Actively encourage sick employees to stay home.

• Ensure sick-leave policies are flexible and consistent with public health guidance. Employers should maintain flexible policies that permit employees to stay home to care for a sick family member. Employers should be aware that more employees may need to stay at home to care for sick children or other sick family members than usual.

• Separate sick employees. Employees who appear to have acute respiratory illness symptoms (i.e. cough, shortness of breath) upon arrival to work or become sick during the day should be separated from other employees and be sent home immediately.

• Emphasize staying home when sick, respiratory etiquette, and hand hygiene by all employees. The CDC recommends that employers provide soap and water and alcohol-based hand rubs in the workplace, and instruct employees to clean their hands often with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% to 95% alcohol, or wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.

• Advise employees to take certain steps before traveling, including checking the CDC’s Traveler’s Health Notices for the latest guidance and recommendations for each country to which employees will travel.

• Employees who are well but have a sick family member at home with COVID-19 should notify their supervisor and refer to CDC guidance for how to conduct a risk assessment of their potential exposure.

• If an employee is confirmed to have COVID-19, employers should inform fellow employees of their possible exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace but maintain confidentiality as required by the ADA.

Some Questions and Answers

Here are some of the most common questions we have been getting from businesses in connection with the coronavirus outbreak:

Can employers ask for more information from employees who call out sick? Yes, employers can ask employees if they are experiencing flu-like symptoms, as long as they treat all information about sickness as confidential.

Can employers request that employees stay home if they are experiencing flu-like symptoms? Yes, but employers should consider whether they will pay employees who are asked to stay home due to possible coronavirus exposure. Also, absenteeism policies should be relaxed if you require an employee to remain at home, or if the employee is required to stay at home due to a mandatory requirement. Employers should be mindful of employment laws that speak to sick-time usage, including the Massachusetts Earned Sick Time Law.

When an employee returns from travel during a pandemic, must an employer wait until the employee develops influenza symptoms to ask questions about exposure to pandemic influenza during the trip? No. If the CDC or state or local public health officials recommend that people who visit specified locations remain at home for several days until it is clear they do not have pandemic influenza symptoms, an employer may ask whether employees are returning from these locations, even if the travel was personal.

May an employer encourage employees to telework (i.e., work from an alternative location such as home) as an infection-control strategy during a pandemic? Yes. The EEOC states that telework is an effective infection-control strategy. In addition, employees with disabilities that put them at high risk for complications of coronavirus may request telework as a reasonable accommodation to reduce their chances of infection.

Do we have to pay employees who stay home sick? As a general rule, non-exempt/hourly employees are only required to be paid for any time they perform work. If a non-exempt employee is required by you or a public health authority to stay home, they do not need to be compensated for that time, unless they have company-provided sick-time benefits. However, businesses need to consider fairness in this situation.

Employers should encourage the use of unused vacation or personal time if the employee is out of sick time, and also be wary of employee morale problems that could arise if employees are required to remain out of the office and are forced to go without pay. This is especially true given the comments that members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have made regarding the need for American businesses to step up and pay workers for time out that may be occasioned in a pandemic scenario.

In short, employers without telecommuting options should consider paying employees for time spent under self-quarantine, even if the employee is out of sick-time benefits. Employers should also remember that their exempt employees should be paid full salaries if they perform any work during a work week, even if it is done at home.

Employers should be carefully monitoring the CDC website for updates and information. In addition, now is a good time to review your company sick-leave policy and consider whether you will allow for more time off during pandemics. We also recommend that employers consult with labor and employment counsel on this complex situation if they are planning to take action against sick employees or instituting any new policies.

John Gannon is a partner with Springfield-based Skoler, Abbott & Presser. He specializes in employment law and regularly counsels employers on compliance with state and federal laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the Occupational Health and Safety Act. He is a frequent speaker on employment-related legal topics for a wide variety of associations and organizations. Andrew Adams is an associate with the firm and specializes in labor and employment law; (413) 737-4753.

Workforce Development

More Than Clothes

Maria Pelletier found confidence — and a job — with the help of Dress for Success.

Applying for jobs can be a daunting task, especially if one does not have the right tools or preparation to nail the interview. Dress for Success, an international not-for-profit organization, is working toward helping low- to middle-income women achieve economic independence by boosting confidence and providing valuable skills, a network of support, and the right suit to get the job done — literally.

When Maria Pelletier lost her job in August 2017 — the first time she had ever been fired in her life — she felt like she hit rock bottom.

“It was the last thing I was expecting,” she said. “It really set me back and made me question who I am and what I’m able to do.”

Pelletier began collecting unemployment, and although she was applying for jobs, she wasn’t getting hired, and she couldn’t figure out why.

“I was just doubting myself,” she said. “I kept thinking, ‘why are they not hiring me? What is going on?’”

“We’re finding out where they want to work, how we can get them in the door, and what’s their path to move up the ladder and have career success, because ultimately, our goal is to help women gain economic independence.”

Fortunately, she stumbled upon a program called Dress for Success Western Massachusetts, which she says gave her the confidence she needed to get back on track. When asked about her journey through the program, Pelletier had three short words: “where to begin?”

The most important thing Dress for Success did for her was get her confidence back up. Pelletier applied and went through the Foot in the Door program, a course that helps women enter the workforce. She was able to get a job part-time at the Post Office while going to classes for the program.

Then, in April 2018, she got a full-time job as lead Client Service specialist at Baystate Medical Center, and has been working there ever since. In that role, she answers phone calls coming into the hospital, and hopes to continue to learn more about her department and grow into new responsibilities.

“The interview skills and the classes we were taught reinforced on my skills I already had,” she said. “It was just bringing it back out to the forefront and saying, ‘yes, you can do this.’”

Sense of Sisterhood

That, said Executive Director Margaret Tantillo, is exactly what Dress for Success is about — giving women the confidence they need to get into the workforce, whether it is their first time or they need a little help to get back out there.

While the name entails part of the organization’s mission, to supply women with clothing for a job interview — or a few days of outfits once a job is secured — from the Dress for Success boutique at the Eastfield Mall, this is only part of the mission. “The suit is the vehicle, or just one aspect of what we’re able to do,” Tantillo said.

She told BusinessWest there are two workforce-development programs, and a third on the way, designed to help women become financially independent and confident in themselves.

Foot in the Door, launched in 2016 to help underemployed and unemployed women enter the workforce, is a collaboration between Springfield Technical Community College and Holyoke Community College instructors, who provide training on the interpersonal skills that are necessary for any workplace.

Margaret Tantillo says Dress for Success offers women a community of support — a sisterhood of sorts.

Within three months of graduating from this program, 70% of women, on average, are either in school and/or working, Tantillo explained. Program directors also make sure to prioritize putting women in jobs that are the right fit for them.

“We really work with our participants to find out what their interest is and what their skillset is,” said Tantillo. “We’re finding out where they want to work, how we can get them in the door, and what’s their path to move up the ladder and have career success, because ultimately, our goal is to help women gain economic independence.”

Having a good relationship with employers and referring agencies in the region is a big part of this, and Tantillo said practice interviews are available for women who finish the program successfully so they can receive feedback before going into the real interview. Some even get jobs right from the practice round.

On a more personal level, Dress for Success offers the Margaret Fitzgerald one-on-one mentorship program for women who are looking for jobs or recently entered the workforce. Each participant is paired with a professional woman in the community to work with on an individual basis.

“They are able to form a relationship so they can guide and support women in terms of whatever their unique, individual need is,” said Tantillo, adding that the program recently received an anonymous donation of $25,000. “The women who have come through that have had some really good results.”

She added that having a role model is a big part of women finding success in the programs, as many of them have not been fortunate enough to have role models in their lives.

The name of the program comes from a female mentor herself. Margaret Fitzgerald was a secretary and the only woman in the Physics department at Mount Holyoke College in the 1970s. She was called “mom” by many of the women enrolled in that program and acted as a mentor, advocate, and friend to the students. The female leaders in this program hope to do the same thing for their participants.

The newest program, The Professional Women’s Group, is set to launch in January 2020 with help from Eversource. It will focus on promoting employment retention and career advancement by providing valuable information, tools, and resources while creating a safe environment for participants to network with other professionals.

“They have a real sense of responsibility because what they do doesn’t just impact them, it impacts the next person we refer to that employer. It’s interesting to see how people respond when they feel like they’re part of something bigger.”

This group of women will be recruited from other programs and aims to help them especially in the first six months of a job, which are critical in terms of how people perform.

“The unemployment rate is lower, so there are more people in jobs that need the instruction and guidance about how to retain a job,” Tantillo said.

This new program, she explained, is intended to supplement the ones already in place at Dress for Success, and is framed around five pillars: workplace etiquette, work/life balance, financial health, health and wellness, and leadership and civic responsibility.

“We provide them with a community of support,” she noted. “We’ve had women talk about how they feel like this is a sisterhood and that they’ve never felt so supported before in their lives.”

Opening New Doors

Confidence. Community. Sisterhood.

These key words mentioned above several times are what Dress for Success instills in women utilizing its programs. And these women want to succeed not only for themselves, but for each other.

“The flip side is, now, when they’re in a job, they have a real sense of responsibility because what they do doesn’t just impact them, it impacts the next person we refer to that employer,” Tantillo said. “It’s interesting to see how people respond when they feel like they’re part of something bigger.”

For Pelletier, she gained not only a community of support, but a second chance.

“I was at rock bottom, and I said, ‘OK, let me try this. Let me see where it goes from there,’” she said. “They can either kick me to the curb or they can say, ‘hey, come on in.’ And luckily, they said, ‘come on in.’”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Veterans in Business

Soldier Stories

As the nation honors those who have served on Veterans Day, BusinessWest does the same with a special section on veterans in business. It includes an in-depth look at why some companies make the hiring of veterans a priority, and why others should follow suit. But we’ll start with several profiles of individuals who have made the transition from military service to business management, and how they’re taking lessons from their years of service into the workplace.


 

Corey Murphy, President, First American Insurance

Retired Marine Corps Major Stresses Teamwork, Accountability

 

 


 

Dorothy Ostrowski, President, Adams & Ruxton Construction

Her Afghanistan Tour Brought Many Lessons for Life, Business

 

 


 

Andrew Anderlonis, President, Rediker Software

His Time in the Navy Provided an Education on Many Levels

 

 


 

Smith Executive Education invites you to leverage your organization’s unique mission and function to align with the growing knowledge base for sustainability practices in the workplace. Four weeks of online learning and a one-hour virtual live session with expert Dano Weisbord, Executive Director of Sustainability and Campus Planning at Smith College. This course is designed for your busy schedule, with four weeks of online learning and a one-hour virtual live session with faculty. Take advantage of this special introductory pricing

Law

A Sometimes Fine Line

By Marylou Fabbo, Esq.

There’s no doubt the #MeToo movement has brought positive change to the business world by creating a safer environment for women (and men) to come forward with accounts of sexual harassment. But what if the claims aren’t true, either because they don’t rise to the legal definition of harassment or they’re completely fabricated? The damage, to both individual and company reputations, can be significant.

Make no mistake. Subjecting an employee to sexual harassment in the workplace, at a company-sponsored event, or on a business trip is unacceptable and should be punished.

#MeToo has had a strong, positive impact on encouraging victims to come forward with valid claims that had been unreported or overlooked. Everyone who complains of sexual harassment should be heard, but should everyone be believed? Most people — men and women — are not sexual abusers, and yet most individuals would say they have experienced some form of sexual misconduct. Most also would agree that some sexual behavior, such as grabbing a co-worker’s breast, exposing oneself to another employee, or telling an employee that he or she will get a promotion if he or she sleeps with the boss are clear-cut cases of sexual harassment.

Marylou Fabbo, Esq

Still, even if sexual comments or behaviors are inappropriate for the workplace, not everything of a sexual nature rises to the level of illegal sexual harassment under the law. This leaves the door open to unfounded and/or, in some cases, intentionally false claims, which can have a damaging impact on company image and the accused person’s professional and personal life.

Sexual Harassment Defined

Title VII and Massachusetts law prohibit sex discrimination in the workplace, and sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination. The harasser and the victim of sexual harassment can be the same or opposite gender and have the same or different sexual orientations.

Although this article addresses sexual harassment in the workplace, sexual harassment is also prohibited in places of public accommodation, educational facilities, and housing.

“Even if sexual comments or behaviors are inappropriate for the workplace, not everything of a sexual nature rises to the level of illegal sexual harassment under the law.”

There are two types of sexual harassment: ‘quid pro quo’ harassment and ‘hostile work environment’ harassment. Quid pro quo harassment includes sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when a term of employment or employment decision depends on whether an employee accepts or rejects those advances.

Many of the accusations asserted against producer Harvey Weinstein fall into the quid pro quo category. Actors have come forward stating that Weinstein promised them career advances in exchange for a positive response to his sexual advances; they also have stated that Weinstein failed to help them out if they chose not to meet his sexual demands. That’s unambiguous quid pro quo harassment.

In Massachusetts, employers are strictly liable for quid pro quo harassment, which means the business is on the hook for damages even if it did not know about the harassment.

The other type of sexual harassment is hostile work environment sexual harassment. Under Massachusetts law, illegal sexual harassment occurs when “requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance by creating an intimidating, hostile, humiliating, or sexually offensive work environment.”

Complaints about Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose’s actions fall into the sexually hostile work environment category. Lauer is accused of exposing himself to staff, and the accusations against Rose included making lewd phone calls and groping women’s breasts. In both cases, the individuals’ employers have been accused of knowing about the harassment and doing little to stop it.

Subjective and Objectively Offensive

An employee who is offended by sexual behavior may file a claim of harassment with the Mass. Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD), believing that the actions were illegal simply because they were of a sexual nature.

However, to constitute illegal sexual harassment in the workplace, the behavior must be offensive both to the recipient and the general public. Ask yourself this question: if an employee shows co-workers vacation pictures on his phone that include friends in bikinis, is that sexual harassment? What about the long-term manager who refers to women as ‘girls,’ gives hugs occasionally, and makes jokes about the lack of sex in his long-term marriage?

Some may find those comments and actions offensive, and others may not. Is the manager just ‘old school’? If an employee subjectively perceives the behavior as hostile, intimidating, humiliating, or offensive, then the conduct may constitute sexual harassment. But that’s not enough — the question becomes whether a reasonable person in the employee’s position would find the conduct offensive.

“To constitute illegal sexual harassment in the workplace, the behavior must be offensive both to the recipient and the general public.”

Conduct of a sexual nature also must be unwelcome in order to constitute illegal sexual harassment, but it is almost impossible to be absolutely sure whether the conduct is welcome or unwelcome. The fact that an employee appears to be a willing participant in sexual discussions about weekend conquests may suggest that the employee was not opposed to the sexual discussions by the water cooler on Monday mornings. Yet, the employee may have actually been cringing on the inside.

Under the law, even if an employee makes sexual comments or jokes, or engages in sexual conduct, those actions do not automatically mean that all behavior is welcome. A disgruntled employee who appeared to be a willing participant may later claim that behavior that was welcome was in fact unwelcome.

Nimrod Reitman, a former NYU graduate student, accused his school adviser, Avita Ronell, of sexually harassing him over a three-year period. He claimed that she referred to him in e-mails by names such as “my most adored one” and “sweet cuddly baby,” and kissed and touched him repeatedly and required him to lie in her bed, among other things. Ronell did not deny the behavior but denied the harassment and claimed that the behavior had been welcomed.

While that case doesn’t arise in the employment context, it provides an example of one reason employers should implement zero-tolerance policies when it comes to sexual banter in the workplace. What may have been considered welcome sexual commentary or behavior may have actually have been unwelcome and could subject them to a lawsuit.

False Accusations of Sexual Harassment

Why would one make a false accusation of having been sexually harassed at work? It cannot be disputed that some people fabricate claims of sexual harassment in the workplace because alleged victims have admitted to making up allegations against co-workers or management for many different reasons.

In some cases, sexual-harassment claims may be made to ward off terminations because employers are fearful of being accused of illegal retaliation if they take (warranted) disciplinary action after an employee has come forward with a sexual-harassment complaint. Disgruntled employees have been found to have made false accusations against someone they believe is responsible for an adverse personnel action the employee received, such as a demotion or termination from employment.

Employees have admitted that they have intentionally made sexual-harassment complaints against co-workers for vindictive reasons or for attention.

Unfortunately, it is often difficult to determine whether specific allegations are true or false, as there usually are no witnesses or hard evidence. Because of this, businesses may overreact or react harshly without having all of the facts.

Nev Shulman, star of MTV’s Catfish, was accused of sexual assault. He denied the claims, but the show was suspended anyway. Upon a later investigation, the claims were deemed not credible, and the show was reinstated. A Sacred Heart University student falsely reported having been raped by two school football players and has since faced criminal charges. The leader of the New York City Ballet was accused of sexual harassment and retired. He was later cleared of any wrongdoing.

Collateral damage follows baseless accusations of sexual harassment. Valid harassment claims are devalued and may be looked upon skeptically. When it becomes known that an accusation was false, it raises the possibility in individual’s minds that the next allegation of a similar nature may also not be credible.

Being falsely accused of sexual harassment is also a downfall to the accused’s career. Prior to having their names cleared, alleged harassers may quit or be required to resign, and they sometimes remain under suspicion even after the complaint is found to have been fabricated. The fact that a sexual harassment lawsuit has been filed against a company may be covered in the media, but when, years later, it is dismissed by the court before it gets to the jury stage because the case is without factual support, that information often is not made available to the public — perhaps forever leaving a bad mark on the employer in the eyes of its customers as well as employees. u

Marylou Fabbo is an attorney with Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C., one of the largest law firms in New England exclusively practicing labor and employment law. She specializes in employment litigation, immigration, wage-and-hour compliance, and leaves of absence. Fabbo devotes much of her practice to defending employers in state and federal courts and administrative agencies. She also regularly assists her clients with day-to-day employment issues, including disciplinary matters, leave management, and compliance; (413) 737-4753; [email protected]

Opinion

Opinion

 By Associated Industries of Massachusetts

Late winter and early spring is high workplace gambling season. College basketball’s March Madness playoff brackets mean many workers will be talking about, gambling on, and even watching the games at work. 

What does workplace gambling look like? Betting pools, online betting, cellphone calls, and texting are some of the common methods employees use to gamble during the workday. All this may lead to a significant reduction in job performance by some employees.

On the other hand, many employers regard employee gambling as a harmless distraction that creates a little excitement, a diversion from the humdrum of the long winter and workday routines. Most employees treat it as a lark that, win or lose, will not impact them very much. In most workplaces, the single-pool proceeds are relatively small dollars, ranging anywhere from a couple of hundred dollars to perhaps a few thousand.

That said, workplace gambling is a big deal and likely to get bigger. The American Gaming Assoc. estimates that employees may bet up to $10 billion alone on the college basketball tournament. And, by the way, sports betting remains illegal in Massachusetts. 

If you are concerned about workplace gambling or feel that your current policies are insufficient, here are some questions to consider:

• Does gambling disrupt the workplace? Is the gambling behavior interfering with production? Are arguments between employees over games and gambling taking place? Is bad blood festering over unpaid debts? Is there a spike in wallet or purse thefts among co-workers? 

• Are you seeing betting take up an unreasonable amount of work time? Are workers leaving their work stations throughout the day to discuss gambling? Are they gathering during work time to discuss betting options?

• Are gambling employees asking co-workers or the company for loans on wages or from 401Ks, or are there delays in repaying debts? 

• Are your supervisors running the gambling pool, raising disparate treatment issues across the business?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, you may want to consider establishing a gambling policy.

There are a number of options:

• Adopt a no-gambling policy. Define gambling or the type of behavior that is restricted. Employers are free to establish such a policy. The key factor, as always, will be how consistently will it be enforced by your supervisors.

• Determine what constitutes appropriate disciplinary action against any employee who violates the policy.

• Consider adopting a limited no-gambling policy. One method would be to prohibit gambling above a certain dollar figure or value. Such a policy would recognize that small-stakes gambling such as a few dollars or a lunch is reasonable and will be tolerated even though it remains illegal under state law. The problem — will employees disclose they are doing it? There is also the question of determining what is a reasonable dollar value threshold and how to enforce it.

While it is unlikely any company would face any serious civil or criminal liability for a small-time gambling pool, if its operation makes some employees feel uncomfortable, it may make sense to end the practice as soon as you become aware of it, or before it gets going. Whatever policy you choose to adopt, make sure it is one that is enforceable for your workplace. 

The Fourth Installment of BusinessWest’s Future Tense Lecture Series!
Future Tense – Power of the Pause
Thursday, November 8, 2018
8 a.m.-9:30 a.m.
Cost: $25 donation to Tech Foundry
Presenter: Susan O’Connor, Esq.: Health New England, Director & General Counsel

It’s not easy managing in today’s fast-paced, complex, dynamic work environments. Leaders are required to remain focused in the face of a myriad of commitments, to have clarity of mind, to ensure they are doing the right things (not just doing ‘things’), and maintain calm in the midst of daily storms. But what if we as leaders could hit the “pause” button during our day, step back, and meet challenges with a sense of space, clarity and focus? What if there was a way to not just “get things done,” but ensure that what does get done connects us with ourselves, with the people we work with and ultimately, with our organization’s deepest values? Mindfulness is a compelling tool for performance, teamwork and effectiveness as well as presence, kindness and balance. Moira Garvey, Senior Consultant and Facilitator with the Potential Project, will share why mindfulness is relevant in the workplace and why companies around the globe are incorporating mindfulness to support workplace performance and employee well-being.

In this session you will hear how Springfield-based Health New England brought mindfulness training to its Associates. In 2015, HNE ran a pilot to enhance their high performance culture – 30 leaders participated in a 4 month course. HNE leadership knows the key to success is the ability to work at a high level of mental effectiveness, while also remaining resilient in the face of stress. In many industries including health care, the velocity of change, competition and complexity are constant challenges. Since the successful 2015 pilot HNE has continued to invest in Mindfulness training as a way to fortify a culture of high performance that is focused and intentional. In 2017, 63% of the participants held leadership positions

In the foundational session Moira will provide an overview of the nature of the mind and attention, while sharing information on the most recent scientific findings regarding how the brain works and how it can be rewired to enable us to be more focused, calm and effective at work every single day. She will teach a basic mindfulness practice and offer a focus strategy for immediate application.

Presenters:
Moira Garvey, Senior Consultant and Facilitator, Potential Project
Susan O’Connor, Esq., Vice President and General Counsel, Health New England

Employment

Talking Pot

By Erica E. Flores, Esq.

It took almost two years, but Massachusetts regulators have finally started to issue licenses to businesses looking to grow, manufacture, distribute, and sell recreational marijuana products in the Commonwealth.

The first license went to a cultivation facility in Milford back in June; since then, the Cannabis Control Commission has issued licenses to six other businesses, including provisional licenses for retail locations in Northampton and Easthampton.

Erica E. Flores, Esq.

Erica E. Flores, Esq.

Despite this progress, however, retailers cannot open their doors just yet — retail marijuana products must be tested for various contaminants before they can be sold, and the commission has yet to issue a license to a testing facility. But with the licensing process finally picking up steam, and public pressure on the commission to allow the voter-approved industry to take root, Western Massachusetts employers may be wondering how these changes will affect their workplace and what they can or should be doing to prepare.

Here’s what you need to know now:

Marijuana in the breakroom?

The recreational marijuana law specifically provides that it “shall not require an employer to permit or accommodate conduct otherwise allowed by [the law] in the workplace,” and further, that it “shall not affect the authority of employers to enact and enforce workplace policies restricting the consumption of marijuana by employees.”

This means that employers who pre-screen job applicants for marijuana, have drug-free workplace policies that prohibit employees from working under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and who conduct other lawful drug tests of employees may continue their current practices, and need not accommodate an employee’s use of marijuana for recreational purposes, even when they are off duty.

That being said, the availability of marijuana products for sale at retail locations (and, eventually, at so-called “cannabis cafes”) will likely drive an increase in marijuana use by adults across the state. This means that employers may see a rise in positive drug-test results by applicants and those who are subject to random testing. Employers may also see an uptick in employees arriving to work impaired and/or using marijuana products on the job.

To combat these potential problems, employers who have drug-free workplace policies might consider issuing reminder notices to employees making clear that their policies apply to marijuana just like they do to alcohol, which is also legal.

Employers may also want to adopt a reasonable-suspicion drug-testing program, if they do not have one already, and train their managers and human resources professionals about how to recognize the signs and symptoms of marijuana impairment and how to properly document their observations. Such evidence, in combination with a positive test result, can help an employer prove that its reasons for disciplining or terminating an employee were legitimate should the employee challenge that decision in a legal forum, particularly given the fact that currently available drug-testing methods do not measure current impairment; they can only detect that the drug is in an employee’s system.

Drug-testing Considerations

Employers may also want to reconsider the scope of their pre-employment drug-testing programs. Such tests are legal in Massachusetts, but a 2016 decision out of the Mass. Superior Court suggests that employers who screen applicants for non-safety-sensitive positions run the risk of being sued for an invasion of privacy. Accordingly, employers can reduce their risk of a privacy claim (and possible liability) by eliminating marijuana from the testing panel for non-safety-sensitive positions or even doing away with drug screens for such positions altogether.

“… employers who have drug-free workplace policies might consider issuing reminder notices to employees making clear that their policies apply to marijuana just like they do to alcohol, which is also legal.”

Finally, employers should be prepared to address requests by prospective and current employees to tolerate the use of marijuana as a reasonable accommodation for a disability. Last year, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that Massachusetts employers have a legal obligation to accommodate a disabled employee’s off-site, off-duty use of medical marijuana, pursuant to a valid prescription, unless there is an “equally effective alternative” or the employer can demonstrate that the accommodation would be unduly burdensome.

The decision relied, in part, on the language of the medical marijuana law, which guarantees to registered users the continued benefit of all “rights and privileges.” But many disabled employees may choose to bypass the medical marijuana registration process when they are able to obtain the drug at a recreational shop, potentially at a lower cost, while avoiding the cost, time and potential stigma associated with becoming a registered medicinal user. Must these employees also be accommodated?

Technically, the SJC’s decision applies only to employees who have registered as part of the medical marijuana program. Additionally, both the legislature and the Cannabis Control Commission may seek to keep it that way. To be sure, it may not be such a good idea for doctors and other healthcare providers to be able to recommend marijuana as a treatment for a medical condition without going through the process that would enable them to actually prescribe the drug.

Further, it may be bad public policy to encourage disabled persons to self-medicate by using marijuana products that are designed for recreational use as medication. On the other hand, if an employee can demonstrate a disabling condition and the absence of an equally effective alternative to marijuana, allowing employers to deny the accommodation just because the employee obtained the drug at a recreational shop seems somewhat arbitrary.

Bottom Line

These competing considerations are not likely to be resolved all at once, and certainly not right away. So employees who do not want to risk becoming the test case should give some thought to the pros and cons of accommodating such employees and devise a strategy that makes the most sense for their unique business.

When in doubt, employers should consider retaining employment counsel to help them navigate these difficult and ever-changing legal issues.

Erica E. Flores is an attorney at the firm Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C.; (413) 737-4753 or [email protected].