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November 2008

I Just Graduated From Western Governors "U"... Will You Hire Me?

Earlier in 2008, I asked the question all of us have wondered - "Online Degrees - the Real Deal or Diploma Mills?".  In that post, I ranked the educational options available and encouraged folks that if they were going to get an online diploma, it's still better to get it from a school that has a reputation as a bricks and mortar school as well. 

One of the things I talked about in that post is that learning is a state of mind as much as it is a program.  You just have to be ready to convey the value of what you learned to someone who cares - like an interviewer.  That means an online degree can still work, you just have to be able to communicate what you learned and how you will/have used it.

Still, if you threw up the name "Western Governors University" on a resume, I'm automatically thinking diploma mill that isn't credible - and I'd be wrong.

More on good old WGU from Time:

"Established 11 years ago by the governors of 19 states, the virtual university--which is administered from Salt Lake City--has experienced a surge in admissions as more college students look for low-cost alternatives. Enrollment topped 10,000 last spring, growing at a rate of 40% in both 2006 and 2007.

Some 4 million Americans sign up for a distance-learning course each year, whether at an Online degreeextension of a bricks-and-mortar institution or at an online-only school. Although the latter category is populated mostly by for-profit companies, WGU stands out as a nonprofit funded mainly by tuition and the $20 million in seed money supplied by those 19 governors. To help bolster its reputation, the school obtained accreditation from both regional standard bearers and the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), the professional body recognized by the U.S. Department of Education for certifying teacher-preparation programs. (WGU remains the only online institution that has NCATE's seal of approval.) Such moves were designed to "lend WGU more legitimacy as an educational institution," says Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt, who helped found the school when he was governor of Utah.

Today WGU is the nation's largest supplier of math and science teachers in urban school districts. The school's success is owed in large part to its competency-based approach. Instead of requiring that students take specific courses or amass a certain number of credit hours--as most colleges do--WGU asks only that students demonstrate mastery of the subject matter via online exams or papers that could take a day or a decade, depending on the student.

At $3,000 per six-month semester, WGU charges a sixth of the average annual tab at private four-year colleges and half as much as an online for-profit like the University of Phoenix, a mega virtual school that has some 200,000 students. And WGU lets you take as many courses as you can fit in a semester, which means some students are able to finish an undergraduate degree in as little as two years."

It's a good story, and while I'm always skeptical of someone getting a full undergraduate degree in two years, WGU should work harder to get the word out to recruiters and HR folks, so we don't penalize the graduates of their institution.  I'd start with the fact that WGU remains the only online institution that has NCATE's seal of approval.  Also, if you're going to get a degree from on online school, it makes sense to get it in a trade where there always seems to be a shortage - like pharmacy technician training.

After all, if the University of Phoenix can separate themselves from the online pack, why can't a university founded by a group of governors?

Employers Who Don't Offer Medical Insurance - What's Universal Health Care Going to Cost?

I haven't read the 10,000 page opus from the incoming administration, but I'm interested in what the Obama health care plan is going to look like.  On a broad level, what we think we know is that the next administration’s health care designs reflect what has been put in place in Massachusetts since then-Gov. Mitt Romney signed a universal health care law in 2006. Both plans leave the employer-based health care system alone, while providing individuals access to cheaper insurance rates in the group market and penalizing employers that do not offer health insurance.

So, we've got something to work with.

More on the Massachusetts plan from Workforce:

"There is, however, one key exception: Unlike Massachusetts, Obama has not supported a lawUniversal  requiring individuals to purchase insurance—a politically fraught policy that is nonetheless seen as crucial to the success of Massachusetts’ effort.

By ditching the mandate for individuals to purchase insurance, Obama may have removed a political stumbling block. But in its absence he would have to contend with the consequences.

Also confounding expectations, few employers have opted to pay the penalty of $295 per employee, choosing instead to invest in the more expensive option of providing health insurance for employees."

Here's what I'm absolutely shocked about after doing a web search on the Massachusetts plan - the $295 number?  It's per year, not per month.  Hit this link from BCBS to see the rundown.  The math is crazy, since typically a $295 number would represent a ballpark cost PER MONTH for a decent BCBS medical plan, and the annualized amount of roughly $3,600 is really where the bidding begins for the average annual cost to cover an individual.  Wow.

San Francisco, on the other hand, seems to have a better grasp on what health care actually costs, and is planning on charging employers, who don't offer health insurance, more of a market rate for their choice not to offer health care benefits.  More on the SF health insurance mandate from Workforce:

"In Golden Gate Restaurant Assn. v. City and County of San Francisco, the restaurant owners group had successfully challenged the 2006 San Francisco ordinance, arguing that its spending requirements were pre-empted by ERISA, which precludes state and local governments from enacting laws dictating the contents of employee benefit plans. Although the U.S. District Court on December 26, 2007, ruled in favor of the restaurant group, its decision had been stayed pending the outcome of the appeal.

The case has received national attention, and the U.S. Department of Labor filed an amicus brief warning that upholding the San Francisco law would "open plan sponsors to a potentially bewildering and conflicting array of mandates."

Under the San Francisco law, employers with 100 or more employees have to make health care expenditures of at least $1.76 per hour for every eligible employee working in the city for at 10 or more hours per week. For-profit employers with 20 to 99 employees and nonprofit employers with 50 or more employees have to spend $1.17 per hour for eligible workers.

Employers that fail to comply with the ordinance are subject to fines equal to 150 percent of the amount they are mandated to spend on employee health care."

I'm not advocating any approach with this post, just pointing out that if you want to offer universal health care, which is a good and noble goal, someone's got to pay - employers or the taxpayer.  Not paying for it, with a realistic cost structure up front, just means more deficit spending that will make the cost of the war in Iraq look like a three day trip to Disney.

I'm just saying...

Checkout Line - Meet Fredrick Taylor... Odds Are You Won't Be Friends....

If you've ever sat looking at a blank screen while developing performance objectives, or reviewed objectives written by a manager that were dripping with subjectivity, odds are you've wished that every role in your organization could be measured with objective metrics.

Be careful what you ask for, because once you get it, it can seemingly strip the passion and humanity Checkout_1 out of a job.  Need proof?  As you would expect, retailers are increasing investments in software solutions to methodically measure how productive retail clerks and cashiers are as they assist customers.  The result is a system that puts pressure on the cashiers, eliminates their willingness to be pleasant, and delivers questionable returns to the customer.

Fred Taylor is coming to a checkout near you - even seemingly low end, analog checkouts.  From the Wall Street Journal via the Arkansas Democrat:

"Daniel A. Gunther has good reason to keep his checkout line moving at the Meijer Inc. store north of Detroit. A clock starts ticking the instant he scans a customer’s first item, and it doesn’t shut off until his register spits out a receipt.

To assess his efficiency, the store’s computer takes into account everything from the kinds of merchandise he’s bagging to how his customers are paying. Each week, he gets scored. If he falls below 95 percent of the baseline score too many times, the 185-store megastore chain, based in Walker, Mich., is likely to bounce him to a lower-paying job, or fire him."

The backstory?  As retailers like Meijer come under pressure from the Wal-Marts of the world, they're hell-bent on removing a FTE or two from the system, by being more quantitative with performance:

"American retailers have come under tremendous financial pressure as beleaguered consumers curtail their spending. At least 14 major chains have sought bankruptcy protection over the past 12 months, and many others are struggling. With nearly all of them under the gun to cut costs and improve profit margins, “labor-waste elimination” systems like the one used by Meijer are sweeping the industry.

The brains behind Meijer’s system is a consulting and software company known for decades as H. B. Maynard & Co., which last year became the Operations Workforce Optimization unit of Accenture Ltd. Borrowing from time-motion concepts first developed for U. S. steel mills and factory floors, it breaks down tasks such as working a cash register into quantifiable units and devises standard times to complete them, called “engineered labor standards.” Then it writes software to help clients keep watch over their work forces.

The client list of OWO, as it is now known, has included more than five dozen retail chains, including Gap Inc., TJX Cos., Limited Brands Inc., Office Depot Inc., Nike Inc., and Toys “R” Us Inc. A host of other “work force management” companies also offer to help retailers improve worker productivity."

As you might expect, employees hate it, and rather than looking for ways that they can talk and scan at the same time, they are simply passing along the joys of productivity to the customer:

"Interviews with cashiers at 16 Meijer stores suggest that its system has spurred many to hurry up — and has dialed up stress levels along the way. Gunther, 22, says he recently told a longtime customer that he couldn’t chat with her anymore during checkout because he was being timed.

“I was told to get people in and out,” he said. Other cashiers say they avoid eye contact with shoppers and generally hurry along older or infirm customers who might take longer to unload carts and count money."

And of course, this story wouldn't be complete without sharing the customer's perspective, which accurately identifies that, although the checkout folks are moving quicker, they don't see the benefit because the extra checker has been eliminated due to the need for cost efficiency:

"Customers at several Michigan stores said managers appeared to be opening fewer checkout lines than before, relying on faster-moving cashiers and self-checkout systems to pick up the slack.

“I do notice that the cashiers go a little faster, but it doesn’t necessarily matter because there aren’t that many cashiers,” said Melissa Shoe, 20, a regular shopper at the Lansing store."

What a rundown, eh?  Happy thanksgiving, and please do your shopping during non-peak times.  Of course, our software will have accounted for that by only scheduling one line to be open.  You'll still be 5 deep... 

What's the "Rarefied Air" Promotional Level at Your Company?

Every company has it's own culture, and with that, most companies have a position level that represents "rarefied air" within its culture.  The rarefied air, in your company, is the position level that, once you are promoted to, means you have officially arrived and are considered a true player within the organization.

For some companies, that means a Director-Level position.  At other companies, it's a VP slot.  As Jason Pankow and I have written in the past, there's a lot of title inflation going on out there, so you can't use titles for anything involving comparison across companies - too much variability.

But, they do mean something significant within your company, and that's the whole point.  Jessica Lee ofSecret_of_my_success FOT fame has thrown up her own blog (Jessica Lee Writes), and in an early post, has posted a gem identifying the "rarefied air" that is a senior level designation at Microsoft.  At the anonymous blog Mini-Microsoft, the topic of getting promoted to level 63 (a senior level within the Microsoft group) is broken down. 

Mini-Microsoft waxes on what a Microsoft employee needs to get to a level 63, when you're a Redmond PC:

"-They can own a room: they aren't warming a seat but rather can take charge of a conversation and represent such a deep level of knowledge that they gain respect for what they say and earn a good reputation. Their focus stays on accountable results and this person can bring resolution and closure together.

-Expert: They are sought after to be in meetings, for instance, so that good decisions can be made.

-Makes others great: the team benefits and grows from the person's contributions. Answers questions from the team, from support, from customers. Knows what the team delivers backwards and forwards. They are a good mentor.

-Influence when they can, scare when they must: they have fundamental skills in influencing people, but if they need to flip into junk-yard dog mode, they can. They don't give up and walk away but rather fight when they need to fight, escalating only when needed and with lots of justification.

-Makes the boss great: if the team and your boss are succeeding because of you, of course you'll be succeeding too.

Good stuff.  What's your organization's rarefied air level and what does it take to get there?  Be sure to check out the comments at Mini-Microsoft, and while you're at it, tip the tipster by subscribing to Jessica Lee Writes and Fistful of Talent so you can follow her there as well.

Unions Go Upstream - Take Down the Inflatable Rat Used in Picketing

Could the old school ways of organized labor be falling by the wayside for a more business friendly, partnering approach?  I doubt it, but at least one symbol of the old school ways is under attack, as union reps discuss their public image among themselves.

The symbol?  The rat.  From Jessica Marquez at Workforce:

"The giant inflatable rat has long been a prop used by labor unions to call attention to companiesUnion_rat_2_a using nonunion labor.

But a number of construction trade unions in western New York have agreed to put the rat to rest in favor of more collaborative talks with employers.  During a September 14 rally in Buffalo, New York, union representatives cut up a 15-foot-tall rat balloon to symbolize that their organizations were ready for a more “business-friendly approach,” says Michael McNally, business manager for Local 22 of the Plumbers and Steamfitters Union.

“Our philosophy for the past 15 years hasn’t created any more market share for us. We have been viewed as troublemakers,” he says. “Now we are going to use PR to dispel those perceptions.

Despite the notoriety of the inflatable rat, it’s smart for the unions to move away from using it, because the prop has lost much of its shock value over the years, says Gerald Hathaway, a partner at law firm Littler Mendelson.  “When rats started showing up 15 years ago, I used to get panicked calls from employers,” he says. “Now when the rat shows up, tourists are taking pictures with it.”

I've got mixed emotions. Ditching the rat is the right thing to do if you're promoting your union, but the image kind of underscores the roughness and yesterday nature of organized labor.  So, if it goes, it's an automatic upgrade in the public image and makes labor more approachable to a generation of workers who have never seen a picket line.

Still, I doubt the rat will be shelved by all unions.  We'll see it again, probably this month.  A picture's worth a thousand words. 

Sorry Charlie - You Can't Go to Work For Apple, You've Got a Non-Compete...

I haven't spent a lot of time on non-compete agreements here at the Capitalist, mainly because the HR world at large doesn't deal with them a lot on a week-to-week basis, and when they do, it's almost always from a "let's try it" perspective.

Non-competes are traditionally shaky and hard to enforce, depending on your business and the state theApple - Henson - Think Different agreement is governed by.  My take on the non-compete is this:

1.  Company decides they want one, so legal draws one up, and you present it to the employee as a condition of employment.

2.  Employee leaves, you evaluate the competitor and decide whether you want to pursue.

3.  If you pursue, the only way you win is if the non-compete is very specific about the scope, geography and specific sector/industry/function, and the company/job the former employee took fits those circumstances almost exactly.

An interesting non-compete situation has arisen with an IBM exec who is looking to join Apple.  IBM, as you might expect, isn't thrilled about the prospects.  From the Workplace Prof Blog:

"Just in time to be considered as those of us who teach employment law are writing our finals, IBM filed an action against Mark Papermaster, its manager in charge of IBM’s blade server business. The action seeks to enforce a noncompete agreement between IBM and Papermaster (the agreement can be found here in a post by Seth Weintraub on Computerworld Blogs, Apple Ink), which prohibits Papermaster from working for a competitor for a year. Apple announced today that it it planned to hire Papermaster to run its iPod and iPhone hardware engineering groups.

The noncompete agreement prohibits Papermaster from working for "any significant competitor or major competitor" of IBM or for "any entity that engages in . . . competition with the business units or divisions" of IBM that Papermaster worked in. The parties agreed that the agreement would be governed by New York Law.

So, if the terms of the agreement are reasonable and enforceable, it seems that the key here will be to determine whether Apple is a significant or major competitor of IBM, or whether Apple or any of its subdivisions engage in competition with IBM's blade server business. Weintraub suggests that IBM wants to keep Papermaster from contributing to Apple's chip design:

the terms of the suit . . . seem directly in line with chip design. Apple isn't competing with IBM in the blade field. Nor are they competing directly in the cloud computing space. But they are likely going to be competing with IBM in the chip field fairly soon."

So, let's assume IBM doesn't succeed, or doens't think it will prevail.  There's always time for the 'ole intellectual property/industry secrets argument, as part of the proceedings:

"Another tidbit that might prove fruitful for exploration are the interests that IBM identifies in the agreement, confidential information that Papermaster has access to:

certain or all of the Company's methods, information, systems, plans for acquisition or disposition of products, expansion plans, financial status and plans, customer lists, client data, personnel information and trade secrets of the Company."

The problem with using the IP/trade secrets argument to stop Papermaster from moving to Apple?  He hasn't disclosed it yet, so you have to convince a judge that he would yield information covered or use that information to his advantage.  Tough to do before he's moved to the new gig...

Backup plan for Apple - put Pagemaster in a HR role for a year, than transition him into the new gig...

Dude! You're Getting a Week's Worth of Unpaid Vacation...

Here's a tough one a lot of companies are thinking about.  In tough times for a company, does it make more sense to do layoffs (impacting a few folks dramatically) or force unpaid leave across the ranks to relieve some economic pressure for the company and hope things turn around?

That question came up in my mind as I read this post by John Hollon at Workforce, who notes theDelldude voluntary offer of a week's unpaid leave to all Dell employees as reported by the Dallas Morning News.  Hollon also notes the fact that Dell is giving employees a nudge to be a good company citizen and take the unpaid leave, adding  "“although the leave program is voluntary,” the newspaper reported, “the company may resort to layoffs if it cannot save as much as hoped through this round of cutbacks.”

Ugh.  Make that double-ugh.

So, which way do you go?  I'll give you another choice - you need 2% of payroll (about a week's worth) as part of an economic survival plan your company has put together.  Do you:

1. Do a layoff equal to that amount,

2. Offer voluntary unpaid leave and hope enough employees will take you up on it (knowing that layoffs to make up the difference are in your back pocket), or

3. Force voluntary leave on everyone (1 week), causing increased employee relations issue, but making your number until the next drive/need comes along....

You're getting a Dell week's worth of unpaid vacation, dude....

Real SVP of HR stuff during bad times.  Discuss....

Smoke 'Em If You Got 'Em - Or Not...

Some random pickups on smoking from my RSS feed this week suggest cessation programs are worth the money, and maybe the thing to do if ADA expands into this area. 

First, Tanya Barham, CEO of wellness firm, Recess, and a future contributor to a Benefits blog we're Leary launching in December, riffs on the business case for smoking cessation programs in the Portland Business Journal:

"The Centers for Disease Control estimate that about 23 percent of American adults smoke.  And according to a study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, men who smoke incur $15,800 (in 2002 dollars) more in lifetime medical expenses and are absent from work four days more per year than men who do not smoke. Women who smoke incur $17,500 (in 2002 dollars) more in lifetime medical expenses and are absent from work two days more each year than nonsmoking women.

CDC statistics show that 70 percent of smokers would like to quit, but few are able to do so on their own. The irony is that even though the National Business Group on Health reports that 82 percent of employers state they should take steps to help employees quit smoking, only 24 percent of employers actually offer such benefits.

The numbers show that simply banning smoking in the workplace is not an effective means of enticing smokers to quit. Even though 67 percent of employers enforce a smoke-free workplace policy, employees of such workplaces say:

  • Some 78 percent state the company's policy is not effective in motivating them to quit.
  • A mere 14 percent claimed to attempt quitting because of their employer's smoke-free workplace policy.
  • Another 15 percent report starting to smoke more while not at work.

As to the effectiveness of cessation programs, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Clinical Practice Guidelines state that tobacco use treatment doubles the chance that smokers will manage to kick the habit. The guidelines recommend counseling, medications or a combination of both as the most effective means to combat smoking in the workplace."

Next up, friend of the Capitalist Michael Moore explores ADA implications related to smoking, and smoking cessation programs:

"Smokers are feeling the heat in the workplace through smoke-free workplace policies. Jon Hyman at the Ohio Employer’s Law Blog has a post asking Are there legal risks with smoking bans?  He notes that pushing back on these employer initiatives are  29 states which have enacted laws protecting employees who smoke from discrimination.

Pennsylvania has no law protecting smokers from discrimination. To the contrary, Pennsylvania’s new Clean Indoor Air Act mandates smoke-free workplaces and precludes employees from smoking indoors. However, the law allows employers to prohibit smoking anywhere on company property; it does not prevent the continuation of outdoor smoking areas. Employers are left with the sometimes delicate task of crafting a policy concerning outdoor smoking and monitoring the break schedules of employees who wish to smoke. In addition, many wellness programs have targeted smoking with cessation programs coupled with both financial incentives and penalties.

The Americans with Disabilities Act was recently amended to expand the definition of “disability”to the point that it may encompass nicotine addiction. The few ADA cases on “smoking” as a disability have not recognized a claim based on the pre-amendment definition of disability. However, the rationale for denying disability status to “smoking” or “nicotine addiction” is squarely predicated on the remedial nature of the condition exempting it from coverage of the ADA as expounded in Sutton v. United Airlines, Inc."

Smoking covered by the ADA?  What's next, alcohol?  Wait a second...

The Geek Squad, Unions and Long, Long Emails...

For those of you in companies and organizations that are union-free and intend to remain that way in the future (regardless of what happens with the EFCA), there's an interesting situation going on over at Best Buy as reported by the Consumerist.  It seems the CWA (Communications Workers of America) is emailing employees in the "Geek Squad" department, and Best Buy has responded by getting its message out via email to all employees.

Take a look at the email and let me know what you think as a union-free HR pro.  I'm struck by the lengthGeek-squad-socially-acceptable-ad-parody of the email (see the original here), and the breadth of topics discussed.  Having said that, it is the Geek Squad (email is probably the best way to communicate), they've got thousands of locations, and we're running up to the point when the EFCA may become law, so it's probably prudent to get the message out via any means necessary. 

I'm guessing the first negotiated item, if the CWA came in, would be to get rid of the geek uniforms, which would be classic - it's really the brand that causes suburban America to pay more than they have to for basic PC services.  That's how it goes with unions - remove the items that differentiate the business and keep the jobs viable and in play long term.  Here's the email:

"Good Morning

Each of you may have been receiving emails from anonymous individuals identifying his/herself as Wilt Chamberlain, Double Agent, Geek Squad, Agent Agent or Magic Johnson. These emails from an anonymous sender(s) are asking you to ‘unite’, directing you to the Communication Workers of America (CWA)....


First, none of the emails are being generated by the company or by a manager.

We have been having meetings with you, asking everyone to voice their opinions and asking everyone to help solve the problems we collectively face in tough economic times. Your input is important. We do not solicit input anonymously.

Each of you was selected because of your professional experience, attitude and skills. Every single member of the Geek Squad should be proud of your personal contribution to the accomplishments of the team. You have each helped establish a brand that millions of people recognize and respect.

Economic times are tough right now.

Modifications are needed to get through this difficult time. This is happening in every company in America. Today, we are in a lot stronger position than most companies.. Economic times fluctuate. Decisions have to be made in both good times and in tough times. We always want your input. We want to hear your voice, your concerns and want to make changes in a respectful manner. We want to continue to work with you directly so that questions can be answered and so that misunderstandings can be addressed without filters. And we also recognize that as a management team we sometimes fail to follow the best processes – never intentionally - but your direct feedback and input helps all of us learn to be better in the future in service of our employee and customer.

One email suggested that Best Buy is afraid of Unions.

We are not afraid – We are concerned.

We are concerned about being able to talk with you directly.

We are concerned about being able to continue to get your feedback, input and suggestions in an open forum.

We are concerned that a union could result in a lack of flexibility to address market conditions, customer desires and your own desires and needs.

To whoever is using the name of the great Wilt Chamberlain.

Over the last thirty years, union membership has dropped from 35% of total workers to just over 7% of the private sector. Did you ever ask yourself why any business loses market share? In one email the CWA is mentioned. To find out more about the CWA, take the time to search around the links at http://unionfacts.com/unions/unionProfile.cfm?id=188


If you disagree with the anonymous senders, it is your decision and you can show your disagreement in any lawful manner including responding to the emails of the anonymous senders. If you agree with the anonymous senders, it is your decision and you can show your support in any lawful manner.. It is your choice.

Let me say that we are not afraid of unions at Best Buy. We truly believe that union representation is not in the best interests of the company, our customers or our employees. If you have any issues, concerns or ideas please do not hesitate to talk to your immediate supervisor or reach out to me.

In closing, let me say that we are betting the farm on our employees. What we are concerned about is putting something or someone between our employees and their supervisors that eliminates transparency, honesty and our ability to win with our customers by creating a world class experience for each of our employees. Feel free to reach out share your thoughts, ideas or concerns to me at anytime."

If Gordon Gekko Ran the Wall Street/Auto Industry Bailout Hearings...

Listen closely to Gordon Gekko, in his infamous "greed is good" speech from the classic movie, Wall Street.  He actually riffs off some points about bloat and lack of accountability that could have been channeled by Congress as they conducted hearings with the finance and auto industries.

If Gekko was running around today - would he be part of the problem, or part of the solution?  I'm not sure....