Tuesday, November 13, 2012

We Love Our Veterans! (But We're Afraid to Hire Them)

You've seen him in movies on TV; the veteran who returns home a loose cannon, unpredictable and violent. You've read about him in the news; the soldier who goes berserk and kills 16 innocent civilians or mows down his comrades. And now you're worried he (or she) might show up at your office for the next job interview.

Hidden Fears of Hidden Wounds

An estimated 17 percent of Iraqi and Afghanistan war veterans come home with post-traumatic stress disorder. Eight out of every 100 civilians also suffer from it. So we can look at the glass as half-empty or half full; the vast majority of returning soldiers don't have PTSD, or combat veterans are twice as likely to have it in comparison to non-military peers.

The unemployment rates for veterans suggest that many hiring managers prefer to err on the side of caution. Their average jobless rate in 2010 was 11.5 percent compared with 9.4 percent for non-veterans. Younger veterans fared even worse -- 20.9 percent compared with 17.3 percent for non-veterans.

In some respects, employers feel caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to hiring returning combat veterans. On the one hand, most of us feel grateful to our brave soldiers, who have been on the front lines fighting to preserving our freedom. In addition to the patriotism than can lead employers to favor hiring veterans, we also recognize the character traits military service builds that can make them excellent employees.

On the other hand, this same sense of gratitude and duty can work against our returning veterans by making employers reluctant to seek out accurate information; after all, who wants to question the mental health of our military? All too often, this means ignoring the elephant that's already in the room. In an anonymous June 2010 poll by the Society for Human Resource Management, more than half (53%) of responding HR professionals said they didn't know if workers with PTSD are more likely to commit violence in the workplace. And a 2011 survey of 831 hiring managers by the Apollo Research Institute found that 39 percent were "less favorable" toward hiring military personnel when considering war-related psychological disorders

Let's be honest; with weekly news stories about employees "going postal," is a hiring manager who's uncertain about the link between PTSD and violence going to take that chance?

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Violence

First of all, the majority of people who experience a traumatic event don't develop ongoing psychiatric problems. Those who do experience symptoms do so to varying degrees. These symptoms include severe anxiety, sleeplessness, nightmares, social isolation, emotional numbness, irritability and a feeling of being on guard. A key symptom: The individual relives a traumatic event when confronted with reminders or thinks about it when trying to do something else.

Among those who do experience post-traumatic stress disorder, the link between is unclear and indirect. For instance, a new study in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology found a correlation between some of the untreated symptoms of PTSD and criminal misbehavior. Interestingly, though, it wasn't the PTSD diagnosis per se that was related to criminal arrests but rather PTSD sufferers who had a high degree of unaddressed anger and irritability. Similarly, there are plenty of pre-existing factors that can muddy the waters when trying to clarify the relationship between PTSD and violence; growing up in a violent home and a prior history of substance abuse increases the risk of aggression in veterans and civilians alike.

In reality, violence is uncommon among people with mental illness, and the rare instances that do occur are most often associated with other factors, such as active substance abuse or refusing to take medications. There are also protective factors that significantly decrease the likelihood of violence, such as effective mental health treatment, stable employment, and a strong support system.

The Bottom Line

Most veterans don't develop PTSD, and the minority who do have the same kinds of reactions of people exposed to a hurricane or a car accident. Furthermore, it is treatable and rarely leads to violence. Employers who let their fears guide their hiring decisions are missing out on a wealth of talent (and may act counter to the law, a topic for another article). The best gift we can give our returning heroes is to hire those who are qualified for the job (not out of pity or indebtedness), assume they are mentally healthy (unless we are told or have evidence that suggests otherwise), and, if problems arise, focus on the behavior at issue rather than a diagnosis.

Checking References: Overlooked and Underrated

Donald Trump, famous real estate mogul and noted for television boardroom firing, has an important rule for his own business, "Hire slowly, fire quickly." He is an advocate of knowing the people you hire. In his famous show, "The Apprentice," he challenged promising hopeful future Trump employees to compete difficult marketing, sales and management tasks. He evaluated their performance, working style and personality throughout the process before selecting his apprentice. Getting that kind of insight into a job candidate never happens in real life. At a time when jobs are tough to find, employers should have the edge and competition for a single job may hinge on the positive recommendation by a former employer. Interesting thing is, many employers don't take the time to check references. Compelled by a charming candidate in one interview, that singular mistake can stick an employer with a troublesome employee.

So, even knowing the importance of the reference-checking process, why would an employer avoid it? Surprisingly, many people overrate their ability to read people. They feel that an interview will reveal all. Reference checking is hard and an inconvenient and uncomfortable process. Unless someone has never been employed before, it always involves an employee who has "left his/her employment." Unless the change was the result of relocation, the separation occurred for a reason and that reason can be difficult to ascertain.

Reference checking can be tough on employers as well as employees. Employees may be leaving a bad employment situation that is not their fault. Personality conflicts can happen and there are bad managers that may provide negative references that prevent a person from starting over with a new job. Former employers may not be completely revealing for fear of retribution. How can we deal with this challenge? For future employers reference checking is essential. Never avoid this step. Here are a few tips on making your reference checking meaningful:

If you interview before you check references, ask the candidate which references you should contact and what they might say. If a job seeker says, "Please don't contact my former employer," then all the flags should go up. There are probably legitimate reasons for this (the candidate is still employed, the company is downsizing or there were conflicts at the workplace) yet you still need to know (and verify) what they are before you commit.

Start by checking the facts. Combined with a resume and interview, a reference check will give you significant clues as to how an employee may work with your company. At a minimum verify the facts a potential employee provided. Aside from the basics (length of employment, wages, job title), check that "assistant to the administrator" and "administrative assistant" mean the same in the former workplace. Any discrepancy should be noted and discussed with the job candidate.

Ask the right questions of the right people. If you need guidance, check with your HR department or attorney. Often reference checking happens after an interview and employers are looking to confirm how they already feel. That can cause overlooking "red flags" or facts that contradict preconceived opinions. Be quiet and listen carefully to what is said and more importantly, not said. Ask the same questions for each candidate to someone who worked with him or her. Ask about candidates' actual responsibilities and how well they performed them. Find out if candidates worked well with others, worked best independently or with a team, and about advancement and attendance and attitude. If you are making progress with the reference you may ask about the candidates' best qualities and areas that could use improvement or attention (pay attention to that one). Finally, find out why the employee left the position and if the previous employer would rehire this candidate. That is a significantly different question than, "Is this person 'eligible' for rehire." If you are very lucky, the reference will let you know if you should or should not hire the candidate.

Finally, remember that finding the right team member is difficult and it is even challenging for Trump. With all the information he receives from reality television, the decision isn't always clear. A good lesson from "The Apprentice" is that hiring is as much about who you eliminate as who triumphs in the process. Use the tools at your disposal, like thorough reference checks, to make the best decision for you and your company.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Personality Disorders in the Office or Why Does He Keep Shooting Himself in the Foot?

We've all worked with someone who seems hell-bent on destroying his career or someone else's. Perhaps it's the boss who is so narcissistic that she is unable to tolerate any hint of constructive criticism or negative feedback (and will hold a grudge if you're brave enough to give it). It could be the employee who cannot see that his pervasive suspiciousness and distrust of others actually causes the hostile reactions he already expects from others. Or, it might be the subordinate who is unable to make even the simplest decision without the constant reassurance and input from others.

A personality disorder lies at the extreme end of the behavior continuum. No matter how maladaptive the thought, feelings and behaviors, the sufferer clings to them. This is true no how much external pressure there is to change, no matter how many problems the behavior creates. It's as if the person is stuck in a rigid, ineffective way of relating to others and, instead of realizing the costs associated with it, blames others for the outcome.

Personality Problems and How They Grow

We don't really know what causes personality disorders. We know they start to develop early (and are usually in place by late adolescence or early adulthood) and are probably a combination of some in-born behavioral dispositions in combination with stressful environmental circumstances. What we do know is that they develop independent of a person's intellectual level (a highly intelligent person can have a severe personality problem) and are accompanied by a lack of insight.

Recognizing a Personality Disorder

I'm not a particular fan of psychiatric diagnoses unless there are very specific reasons (treatment recommendations, insurance reimbursement) for giving one. Certainly there's never a need for us to diagnose a work colleague.

However, because of the interpersonal problems that can arise with these disorders, it can be useful to be aware of why a seemingly intelligent coworker or boss continues to act in a seemingly maladaptive fashion over and over again. And, of course, we must know how we can minimize the impact of our own career, especially if the problematic work colleague is our boss.

We'll be taking a look at specific personality disorders and how to deal with them, but for now, here's the take away:

A person with a personality disorder cannot, or will not, modify his or her behavior based on your feedback. As such, let go of any thoughts you may have of changing this particular person. You must focus on what you need to do to take care of yourself.

A person with a personality disorder is not a happy person. This is also not a person who is trying to torture you deliberately; s/he is trying to survive in the best way s/he has learned to do so.

Do not expect this person to operate by the same rules you do. This means that you must be prepared to set boundaries, back up communication with documentation, and, if necessary, find ways to remove yourself from the situation.

Employees with personality disorders always have positive personality traits and characteristics - otherwise, they would not have been hired in the first place - but the maladaptive and inflexible patterns can emerge under stress. As such, this is a time to especially be on guard.
The Bottom Line

We all know that doing the same thing over and over will get the same result. For some people, though, that "same thing" is all they know how to do. And, if you're not careful, they'll blame you for the result.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Workplace Investigations: Five Ways to Establish Rapport Under Difficult Circumstances

I spent the first two years of my professional life working with people who initially saw me as the devil. These were mothers and fathers who had been ordered by the courts to either come see me or face losing permanent custody of their child, who was already in foster care due to allegations of abuse or neglect. My job as a clinical psychologist was to see whether or not the family was salvageable and, if so, to see if I could help put it back together.

Workplace investigations aren't as adversarial as the court system but they do have some things in common - high stakes, multiple perspectives, and - sometimes -a strong motivation to lie. Two things I've learned from working with people under difficult circumstances - 1) people don't talk to someone they don't trust, and 2) even under the direst circumstances, most people will respond to genuine attempts to understand them. That being said, here are some of the strategies that help me establish rapport when I'm conducting an independent investigation:

Acknowledge the emotions each person is feeling. Each person involved in an investigation has feelings about his or her involvement; the complainant may feel humiliated or scared, the respondent defensive or guilty, and witnesses may be confused or annoyed. Clues to these feelings are found in the way s/he tells his or her story; to ignore them is to ignore the elephant in the room. Acknowledging the emotional tone as well as the content of what someone is saying lets them know you're trying to see things from his/her perspective - regardless of whether or not you agree with it.

Establish your right to be there. You aren't the only one with questions. At the top of the interviewee's list is, "Why should I trust you?" Tell your interviewee why you have the right to be there based on your experience, expertise and empathy. I typically tell interviewees a little bit about my background as a private investigator and psychologist, specifically focusing on my experience as an unbiased, neutral party. If I've done work for the company before, I make sure s/he knows (without, of course, revealing specifics). If the HR person has a good rapport with the interviewee, I might have him or her introduce us. During the interview, I look for shared experiences that might help us connect, whether it's the tough traffic we both experienced driving to work or a common educational experience. In other words, I do whatever I can to let the person know s/he is in good hands.

Show an interest in the person, not just the process. After the introduction, I typically start an interview by asking general questions about the person's day to day job functions or history with the company. If the interviewee has a difficult or unusual name, I ask him or her how to spell it. Yes, I already know the answers to these questions; I've already reviewed personnel files. However, the purpose of these questions is not to get answers; it's to let him or her know I'm interested in him or her as a person, not just in relation to the specifics of the complaint.

Remove physical barriers. There are countless psychological studies that show the unconscious impact physical barriers can have on our ability to connect with another person. Take them out of the equation; don't sit behind a desk and choose a seat that is facing in the same direction as your interviewee. Similarly, think long and hard before putting objects between you and the interviewee; tape recorders often inhibit a person's willingness to speak freely. This is one of the reasons I prefer to take notes instead.

Forget mirroring. I always bristle when I read advice like, "Mimic the other person's body posture and gestures." It sounds so manipulative. Also, can we really be listening to the other person if we're preoccupied with wondering whether enough time has lapsed before we can cross our right leg over our left just like our interviewee has just done? Trust me; if you're really paying attention, your body will automatically communicate this - you'll look the interviewee in the eye, you'll lean forward slightly when the other person is talking, etc.
The Bottom Line

Interviews are the most important part of a workplace investigation and the ability to establish rapport one of the most critical skills. Establish rapport by easing into the interview, acknowledging the emotions as well as the content of what the interviewee is saying. Let him or her know why you have the right to be there and why he or she can trust you to be fair and objective. Make connecting with your interviewee just as important as getting "the truth;" after all, without the former, you won't get to the latter. No one confides in someone s/he dislikes.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Keep Your Mouth Shut: Avoiding Unlawful Privacy Requests During Workplace Investigations

Workplace investigations are tough enough without the office grapevine gossiping about who did what to whom. As such, it's standard practice to ask anyone who participates in an investigation to keep their mouths closed about what is discussed behind the closed doors. A new ruling from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), however, suggests that a blanket "keep your mouth shut" mandate may be improper.

The Case behind the Concern

Like many investigators, the HR director for Banner Heath Systems asked workers involved in an in-house investigation to not talk about the investigation with their co-workers. However, James, one of the employees involved objected that this request violated the rights of employees to discuss the terms and conditions of their employment with their coworkers. The National Labor Relations Board sided with James, saying that blanket requests for confidentiality during an investigation are overly broad and might have a chilling effect on appropriate - and legally protected - communications.

So what's an Investigator to do?

This is a new ruling (July 30, 2012) and time will tell what this means from a practical standpoint. However, the NLRB's ruling does offer some guidance. First of all, investigators can still ask witnesses to keep quiet as long as they have a legitimate business interest in making the request. This business interest must extend beyond the usual "we're trying to protect the integrity of the investigation" reasoning.

So what business interest is legitimate? It is one that arises from that particular investigation. Perhaps, for example, the facts you've uncovered so far suggest that the accused might try to intimidate witnesses if s/he learns they will be talking to an investigator. Perhaps you haven't had a chance to retrieve some valuable evidence and are concerned that, if the investigation leaks out, it might be destroyed before you have a chance to do so. Or perhaps you have reason to believe (again, based on what you've uncovered) that a group of witnesses might get together and "get their stories straight" before you have a chance to interview them individually.

In addition, when you do feel requests for privacy are warranted, limit the scope as much as possible. For instance, ask that the witnesses not discuss the investigation as long as it's active or during work hours or on company property.

The Bottom Line

In every investigation, investigators walk a tightrope, trying to balance a number of competing interests. This recent ruling extends those competing interests to include the need to maintain confidentiality and employees' rights to discuss the conditions of their employment. For now, the best solution during an investigation is to avoid blanket requests for privacy, articulate valid reasons for privacy requests when they occur, and make sure your requests are as limited as possible.

What Could Setting 'Living Guidelines' Do for the Economy?

Labour leader Ed Miliband has backed the idea of a living wage, stating he may make it part of his party's manifesto for the next election. It is a simple idea that aims to lower the amount of people living in poverty in the United Kingdom. The labour party believes that by giving employers a guideline of how much it actually costs to live it will encourage them to pay their staff fairly.

For example, the national minimum wage for people over 21 years of age is currently £6.19 (for 18-20 year olds it is considerably lower at £4.98). The living wage has been set at £8.55 in London and £7.45 in the rest of the United Kingdom. This means if a 19 year old was working full time on minimum wage and living on their own in London they would be short of, on average, £2.47 a month.

Reliable data from the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings 2011 (from the Office for National Statistics) shows that, of the adult workforce who work full time, the lowest 10% of workers earned on average £7.04 an hour. The top 10% earned on average £26.63 an hour. Meanwhile amongst the part time UK workers the lowest 10% earned £5.93 and the top 10% earned £19.92, and 40% of part time workers earned £7.19. This is a considerable portion of the working population who aren't earning enough to support themselves independently.

Some employers pay their employees over the living guidelines anyway so the guidelines don't apply to them, however, only roughly 140 employers take note of the living wage guidelines and pay accordingly and some employers pay less than the living guidelines without being aware of it. Of course, at the moment the living guideline is just that, a guideline. Employers are under no obligation to pay their workers any more than the minimum wage.

This isn't a new development. It was developed to the way it is today in 2005 when it was picked up but the Greater London Authority. Since then it has be supported by Ken Livingstone and, more recently, Boris Johnson as well as other UK employers. The cleaning staff at the Houses of Parliament went on strike in 2005. Their aim was to bring their wages up to meet the living guidelines, which they achieved in 2006.

With the Labour party backing the idea, it has been given fresh perspective. If employers are encouraged to pay their workforce slighter higher, the government could potentially save millions every year of the amount they pay out in benefits.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Employees: Insist on Quality of Life Opportunities, Not Medical Interventions Disguised As Wellness

Scholarly evaluations of worksite wellness show modest health-related returns for modest investments. What is not mentioned is that expectations of such programs are also modest. Such programs in most companies are low on the priority lists for management; most employees with mediocre to hazardous lifestyles either do not participate or do so reluctantly and with little enthusiasm or follow-up.

A recent analysis of 33 assessment studies of worksite wellness suggests investments in such endeavors yield mixed results. The meta-analysis focused on changes in physical activity, diet, body mass index/weight, mental health, tobacco use and alcohol abuse, absenteeism and healthcare costs. The best face put on the body of such programs was mixed impact on health-related behaviors and cost, with insufficient evidence for effects on absenteeism and mental health. (See Karen Chan Osilla et al, American Journal of Managed Care, 2012;18-2-e68-e81.)

I'd like to see dramatic changes in worksite wellness. Almost the entirety of such efforts should be more properly be identified as employee assistance and focused on workers at risk. What exists now as wellness are in fact medical interventions. I favor new endeavors oriented at introducing REAL wellness educational programming. Such teachings would engage workers to think in terms of quality of life.

At present, company wellness consists of risk assessments, medical management, smoking cessation, weight loss classes, stress management lectures and the like. REAL wellness educational opportunities would include principles for effective thinking and decision making, for the enjoyment of life, for lifelong athleticism, high performance nutrition and teachings that explore what it means to be free. Worksite wellness would be less clinical resembling outpatient clinics and more philosophical akin to university life.

The current agenda is medical in nature and largely managed by professionals in the disease treatment and prevention sciences. Nurses and doctors, hospital administrators and other professionals from the healing arts are trained in medicine; worksite wellness would be more suitable for promoting quality of life if companies hired philosophers and others trained in positive psychology. The menu of worksite wellness services that exists today should be rebranded and given over entirely to the medical establishment. A new initiative dedicated to introducing and promoting REAL wellness is needed. Current worksite resources should be shifted to company employee assistance and medical departments. Why continue to give workers the impression that wellness is on offer when the available programming is nothing of the kind?

Real wellness education would guide employees to assess goals that render life not just healthier but also qualitatively better and more enjoyable.

A start in the process needed to bring about a shift in consciousness from risk reduction to quality of life enhancement might start with recognizing and eliminating oxymoronic programming.

Consider the extent to which the current range of worksite wellness is marked by oxymorons. An oxymoron is a word with Latin and Greek derivations. The literal meaning would be pointedly foolish. In modern English, an oxymoron is a combination of contradictory or incongruous words, such as jumbo shrimp. Worksite wellness has taken on this veneer.

Among my favorite oxymorons in the public domain are friendly fire, awfully nice, act naturally and negative growth. Oxymorons usually surprise and sometimes delight. George Santayana offered this take on the matter: The world is a perpetual caricature of itself; at every moment it is the mockery of what it is pretending to be.

Worksite wellness employs oxymorons. One I often hear is preventive mental health! Why prevent mental health? Wouldn't it be more appropriate to encourage it? There's not a lot of it out there anywhere in America these days, but what there is should be nurtured, supported and treated like an endangered species, not prevented. I wrote the director of a program so titled after I read a speech he delivered about his company's commitment to preventive mental health. I asked if he did not think the phrase a bit odd, explaining my reasoning. I thought the response I got was quite gracious: Don, obviously you paid attention to my talk... and picked up on the inappropriate use of that phrase. You are absolutely correct that we do not want to prevent mental health but rather promote it. In fact, a better term would be 'mental health promotion' or even 'mental fitness.' Mental health has a negative connotation whereas mental fitness is a more positive and upbeat term... I do not take offense that you pointed out the error of my ways. This could be 34 seconds of the fifteen minutes of fame I am entitled to in this lifetime.

At different times over the years I have asked well-known wellness personalities to identify favorite health-related oxymorons. Jack Travis mentioned, wellness care. That's a good one, since who can provide wellness care for someone else? It's a personal thing -- if you don't care, who will? Travis added that he once had wellness medicine listed on his (first) business card when fresh out of med school. Before long, he decided that wellness medicine was an oxymoron. There is nothing medicinal about wellness.