Perfect reflection off of water

It was three years ago that a casual kitchen table conversation turned into an adventure, an adventure that gave me the opportunity to live on an island in Alaska and relearn some lessons that workplaces have been teaching me now for decades.

My wife had accepted a position at the Medical Center in Ketchikan, Alaska. Off we went, securing a home on a cliff overlooking Clover Pass, alive with humpbacks, orcas, nesting eagles and lots of salmon. I was armed with my workplace consultant and management skills and soon found some fabulous opportunities to mix it up with some rural-ish Alaska work groups. The hunger for workplace skill development was alive and well.

Early on I helped two float plane groups manage a “merger” resulting in a 7-plane airline (DeHavilland Beavers if you are an airplane nerd). With a focus on customer service skills and systems coordination, we tackled what has quickly become a burgeoning tourist industry in Ketchikan. The “what business are you really in” question eventually raised its head and this year-round enterprise realized (was reminded?) that it had become a regular, trusted bus service to the outlying islands of southern-southeast Alaska (turns out that Alaska is so big we use several directional adjectives to describe where we are. I never made it to northern-northeast). This work group was ready to sharpen their customer service and communication skills.

Through my many resulting community networking interactions, I found a new challenge as the Executive Director of the Greater Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce. Greater Ketchikan, with a population around 16,000, is a maritime/fishing/tourist/service economy with hearty and robust entrepreneurs putting together businesses around things the rest of us only dream of and talk about. We grew the Chamber membership and expanded its offerings to the diverse membership. This also took me just a bit out of my “Strength Zone” as a small Chamber requires that its Executive Director is also Comptroller, Media Manager, Head Lobbyist, Strategist (actually I am pretty good at this), Developer, Organizer (“the Governor is visiting again?”). But a dedicated Board of Directors made it a remarkable and rewarding experience. We put on trainings for the membership to enhance positive workplace team behaviors – a series that became quite popular.

My most valuable experience, however, where I truly found a fit, was as Program Director for the Community Connections Children’s Mental Health Program. Community Connections is a 300-employee enterprise serving the elderly, the disabled, families and children with mental health concerns. The services support clients not just in Ketchikan, but Prince of Wales Island, a sprawling and beautiful island accessible by a three-hour ferry or ½ hour float plane ride. A far-flung enterprise with a huge heart.

It is every few years that the universe says to me something like: “OK, Mr. Wise Guy Workplace Trainer, let’s see how your “engagement skills” can help you now.” Managing therapists, case workers and dedicated support staff in this diverse operation means the director must practice all these things he has been preaching for years. Even though a bit of doubt inevitably crept in, it turns out the basics of trust building, positive discourse, accountability, strength-based leadership with a clarity of purpose still work in focusing a committed workforce.

When it was time for this “sabbatical” to end and for us to return to Oregon, I realized upon reflection that many of the things I learned early on in my career as a manager were just as true on an island in Alaska as they were in the Willamette Valley, in Portland, Salem or anywhere else. Here are a few of the dynamics that seem to ring true:

  • Work groups of all varieties face similar employee engagement and communication challenges. Overcommunicate the mission and strategy, listen actively, find the best fit for all employees so they can do what they do best every day.
  • People all over don’t clearly recognize their own strengths. In fact, in many work groups, when we ask the question “What are your strengths?,” it often takes the coworkers to point out for someone else what unique gift they bring to the team. This still fascinates me.
  • Very few managers embrace a positive Performance Review Philosophy (more on this next month). Build skills and support positive conversations about the employee’s fit in the organization. Challenge all your workers to meet you halfway in the engagement conversation.
  • A sense of humor may be the best tool to manage through workplace transition. As long as we laugh with each other and not at anyone’s expense, it lightens the load.
  • Trust is not given but rather earned. Show those who are not skilled at trust-building the basics of this vital skill.
  • Don’t take yourself too seriously. People seem to care most that you are showing up trying to do your best.

I am really excited to be back in action at Cascade Employers Association.

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Management versus Leadership

According to a brand new EZ survey of 402 CEOs from 11 countries, together running companies worth $2.6 trillion in sales, 68% felt they were not fully prepared for their leadership position.

Across the board, their lack of confidence did not stem from a lack of expertise within their industry – they felt confident in the strategic and business aspects of their role – but rather their lack of interpersonal skills. And if the top leaders of premiere organizations feel this way, I’m guessing the percentage is even higher for more modest organizations and for less senior management.

To be honest, I don’t think the results are that surprising. I think we empirically know that people are promoted to positions of leadership based on their subject matter expertise rather than their leadership qualities. They often lack the self-awareness and skills required to motivate or productively challenge others, communicate expectations, handle conflict, recognize and leverage strengths and unite teams.

Therefore it’s probably not that surprising that the number one priority for training cited by employers is soft skills training. However, instead of taking a “one and done” approach to training, I’d recommend a developmental approach that will not only address current leadership needs, but fill the leadership pipeline as well.

  • Teamwork and Communication Training is essential for all employees, by the very nature that everyone has a different understanding of what “good communication” looks like and how it affects the group, as a whole. To really build your leadership pipeline (and avoid unnecessary day-to-day conflict) every employee should know the pitfalls and best practices of effective communication.
  • Basics of Supervision Training is the next step for individuals who are emerging leaders or more established leaders who have not had formal leadership training. Team leads should know the basics of motivation, teamwork, delegation, direction and coaching. Supervisors should additionally have training on discipline and the basics of employment law.
  • Mid-Level Leadership courses, ones that focus in-depth on conflict or building strengths should be a part of the journey to help managers develop their skills.
  • Senior Leadership also benefits from training, such as our Leadership Engagement Essentials, where leaders also have the opportunity to learn from their peers.
  • One-on-one coaching is also highly impactful for high-potential leaders. Too often coaching is thought of as a “remedial” tool for employees who are struggling. I’ve seen leaders and emerging leaders improve their effectiveness rapidly thanks to a good executive coach.

All this to say, we have a problem, but it’s an easily solvable one. There is no need for managers to feel unprepared when there are so many resources available to Cascade members!

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audit checklist

If you’re a federal contractor or subcontractor – this is important.

Is updating your AAP each year a high priority item in your organization? When it is finally updated, does it get discussed with management, and does executive leadership talk about the results and how it may inform the organization’s policies, procedures, and practices?

OFCCP thinks the answer to this question is no, and they may be correct, given that 85% of federal contractors who are sent an audit scheduling letter cannot produce an updated affirmative action plan within 30 days.

And why would contractors prioritize this? The only way OFCCP would know if a contractor was not in compliance is if it is selected for an audit, which is statistically unlikely. Given all the other competing priorities in an organization, AAPs understandably take a backseat.

Soon, that will no longer be the case.

One of the most important new initiatives from OFCCP is the Affirmative Action Verification Program, which is essentially a way of ensuring that federal contractors actually do their AAP each year. OFCCP envisions the verification will initially require a contractor certification that the plan is completed. Eventually, OFCCP will perform compliance checks on the contractor. And finally, OFCCP anticipates requiring annual submission of contractor AAPs. OFCCP intends to tie this verification process to their audit scheduling, and contractors who have not certified or submitted their AAPs will be more likely to be selected for an audit.

This is a monumental change for organizations that do not treat their AAP as a priority.

For help with your federal contracting obligations, including affirmative action plans and audits, give us a call.

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Medical Consultation

Today, there are so many laws protecting employees and their jobs that a lot of employers feel they have no means to address attendance issues without risking a claim. Not only do we have the federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), but here in Oregon we have the Oregon Family Leave Act (OFLA).

What employers may not always realize is that there are tools to help prevent employees from abusing these laws.

First, establish a clear leave approval process. Formalize a request process for protected leave and train supervisory and management staff to recognize eligible reasons for leave when they come up. Remember, employees don’t have to use the words “Family Leave” or “Protected Leave” to assert their need for protected leave. They need only give you “sufficient information” to make you aware of the need for leave.

Next, establish the employee’s eligibility for leave each time they request it. Of course, this assumes your organization is a covered employer.

  • For FMLA the employee must have 12 months of employment in the last 7 years (does not have to be consecutive), as well as having worked at least 1250 hours in the last 12 months. They also have to report to a worksite that has 50 or more employees within a 75 mile radius.
  • For OFLA, generally, it is 180 days of employment, with an average of 25 hours per week, with some exceptions.

Once you’ve determined if the employee is eligible, the next step is to validate that the reason for leave is eligible under FMLA and/or OFLA.

Eligible employees may take FMLA/OFLA protected leave only for qualifying reasons:

  • for birth, adoption or placement of a foster child;
  • for an employee’s serious health condition;
  • for the serious health condition of an employee’s family member (covered family members may differ between FMLA/OFLA);
  • for a qualifying exigency (FMLA only);
  • Military Caregiver for Current Service Member (FMLA only);
  • Military Family Leave (OFLA only);
  • for sick child requiring home care (OFLA only);
  • for bereavement leave for the death of a covered family member (OFLA only).

Once you’ve determined the request is for a covered reason, request a medical certification if appropriate. Medical certification should be required for any employee requesting leave for their own serious health condition, or that of a covered family member. While the law does not require medical certification to designate protections under the law, doing so can help prevent abuse of FMLA/OFLA as the employee will be required to get a doctor to sign and approve the need for leave.

Certification should be reviewed thoroughly and if there is not enough information to determine if it is a covered issue, request that the employee provide any missing information within 7 days of the request for more details. In addition, employers may request a 2nd opinion if they feel there is reason to doubt the initial certification. Remember, employers must pay for the second opinion if it is required.

Once leave has been approved, request recertification when allowed. The law allows employers to recertify every 30 days, unless the original approved time frame is longer than 30 days. In that case, recertification is only allowed at the end of the approved time frame if it is less than 6 months. Employers can recertify at 6 months regardless of the time frame for the approved condition.

Requiring employees on approved leave to comply with any established call-in procedures can also help curb abuse. Require employees out on a continuous leave to provide status updates on a regular basis to their supervisors or HR, depending on what was explained to them during the claim approval process.

Finally, any employee who has gone out for their own serious health condition should be required to provide a release to return to work before they return to work, to ensure they can safely perform the functions of their job. Remember, if you require a return to work release, you must notify them in writing when they begin their leave.

Following this established process for all family leave claims will enable you to ensure that all employees are being treated fairly, and it involves enough action on the employee’s side to help prevent abuses many employers deal with.

If you have questions or need some guidance, give us a call. Or if you’d like to attend one of our Family Leave sessions, attend Family Leave: Basic Compliance and Administration on September 18, or Family Leave: Advanced Skills for Family Leave Management on October 23.

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