Posts

Photo: Josh Calabrese

Empathy, Action: What HR Can Do Now

Recently I published an article on Forbes.com about the elephant in the room. It was one of those pieces I had to do. I had to go out on a limb and just say it

We talk about diversity all the time — and on TalentCulture we’ve published many articles on improving diversity and inclusion. One offered seven tips on “managing diversity” in the workplace, and included wisdom from people working on the front lines of diversity, including diversity and inclusion consultant and author La’Wana Harris and Amy Cappellanti-Wolf, CHRO at Symantec. The post listed ways to improve more than manage, including building pipelines to more diverse talent, and letting go of seeing diversity not as a state of being but a buzzword. The step that struck me the most was examining policies to root out systemic inequality. As Harris noted, “Workplace policies, systems and processes can disproportionately impact historically marginalized populations.”

Of course, she’s right. But what strikes me now is that she didn’t put it in the past tense then, and it wouldn’t be in the past tense now. Between that post and the article on Forbes is the better part of a year, and a lot has happened to say the least. We’ve witnessed the murder of African-Americans at the hands of police and learned of one in which she was killed in her house, in her bed, and by mistake. You don’t usually see me get into these kinds of details, but the circumstances are so shocking I think they bear repeating, and repeating again. And we’ve seen — and millions have participated in — some 21 days and counting of protests spurred by outrage. 

AI and VR: Tools for Fairness

The one piece of good news is that we are being forced to reckon with that elephant. And the elephant for everyone in HR is this: we can’t improve diversity with any kind of commitment and intent if we don’t first address racism. And by addressing racism, I mean working as hard as we can to undo it in our own workplaces. It means looking hard at what we produce and offer, and asking whether it’s helping or not. IBM recently put the brakes on its facial recognition program. As CEO Arvind Krishna said, “We believe now is the time to begin a national dialogue on whether and how facial recognition technology should be employed by domestic law enforcement agencies.” He went on to note that AI systems need to be subject to far more scrutiny regarding bias. And that’s something that’s come up again and again, in a hiring context, on this site.

Is that where we start? We actively celebrate technology on TalentCulture: we just wrapped the HR Tech Awards for 2020, and among the many innovations there’s certainly AI. Another innovation that came up recently is VR, and I had a fascinating discussion on a recent #WorkTrends with clinical psychologist Robin Rosenberg about how VR can help radically improve empathy among diverse work teams. The podcast focused not just on diversity but on work culture as a whole — but it’s the potential to decrease unconscious bias, microaggressions and intolerance that stays with me. If we can put on a headset and literally experience what that feels like to someone else, maybe it should be part of everyone’s training — make it a required component of onboarding or skill development.  

Undoing the Status Quo

Do I expect my clarion call on Forbes to have an affect? Perhaps it will. Sometimes a post goes viral for reasons completely beyond our control, as when I talked about emotional intelligence and leadership just when EQ was getting on our radar, or more recently, when I predicted the key trends we’d see in 2020. (I’m lucky to have great readers, and grateful.) In the trends article, I mentioned a shift to tending rather than managing our workforce, advocated for leaning harder on AI for recruiting so long as it was programmed without bias, and pointed out that more of us would be working remotely. But that was written well before the pandemic threw up all into a tailspin, or survival mode, or just home, before the nation exploded, and before it became clear that we tend to stay entrenched in our own status quo. 

But we can’t accept the status quo anymore, and this is the opportunity to snap out of it. I wasn’t surprised when 63% of respondents to our June 3 newsletter survey said they’d experienced racism in the workplace either directed at themselves (39.7%) or a coworker (23.8%). But I was shocked to find out that less than 5% had reported it. HR, I’m looking at you.

HR Has a Role to Play

So let’s have real conversations about the bias that may be stuck within our work cultures (conscious or unconscious). Let’s push back against complacency or just inertia when it comes to examining and improving workplace policies. Let’s keep asking the hard questions — we just ran a follow-up survey question this week, asking who is now having discussions about racism among their coworkers. I’m very interested in those results. I’d like to challenge the top innovators to find the best means to systematically detach AI from potential bias. I’d like to know who’s reviewing accounts of unfair treatment in their workplace, and having a new reckoning to set things right. 

In the end, every business will be better and more sustainable in the future if it works to be more equitable, diverse, and fair in the present. Knowledge is power, as we well know. And HR is a field that wants to evolve — and indeed, it can’t stop evolving. We’re made for this. So let’s get to it.

Lindsay Henwood

U-Haul’s Nicotine-Free Policy: Fostering Wellness, or Cutting Costs?

If a company eliminates applicants because of an unhealthy behavior, are they fostering workplace wellness, or cutting healthcare costs? Are they promoting a culture of healthy employees, or discriminating against potential candidates? Or is it somewhere in between?

With U-Haul’s new smoke-free policy, workplaces across the country have to ask themselves where the policy falls.

U-Haul’s New Policy

On December 30th, U-Haul International announced that beginning February 1, 2020, it would implement a nicotine-free policy in 21 states without protections for smokers’ rights. As of February 1, it will become one of the first major companies to decline applicants who are nicotine users.

The policies will be enacted in:

  • Alabama
  • Alaska
  • Arizona
  • Arkansas
  • Delaware
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Hawaii
  • Idaho
  • Iowa
  • Kansas
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Nebraska
  • Pennsylvania
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • Vermont
  • Virginia
  • Washington

According to the company, applicants in these 21 states can expect to see the anti-nicotine policy on their job applications. They will be questioned about their nicotine use and may be required to undergo nicotine testing in certain states before they can be deemed hirable.

The policy also covers e-cigarettes and vaping products. Any current U-Haul employees who are nicotine users will be grandfathered into the policy, offering nicotine cessation programs to assist them.

The goal of the policy, nominally, is to further U-Haul’s goal of promoting one of the healthiest corporate cultures in the United States and Canada.

Policy Implications By the Numbers

In Arizona alone, where U-Haul is headquartered, the implications of the policy are significant.

U-Haul employs 30,000 workers in the United States and Canada. In Arizona, it is one of the state’s largest employers, with a workforce of more than 4,000. It is also legal in Arizona to discriminate against nicotine users in the hiring process.

That might be good news for people exposed to nicotine, but not for applicants who use nicotine.

As of 2017, 15.6% of adults in Arizona smoked cigarettes, while 5.3% of adults used e-cigarettes and 2.8% used smokeless tobacco. Out of a population of roughly 7.1 million, that’s over 1.1 million adults who smoke cigarettes, 376,300 who use e-cigarettes, and 198,800 who use smokeless tobacco.

All of whom would no longer be eligible for employment with U-Haul — which is, again, one of the largest employers in the entire state of Arizona.

The Public Health Implications of Smoking

Of course, the public health implications of smoking and nicotine use are nothing to sneeze at. Nicotine is known to be a dangerous and highly addictive chemical, and it is by no means the only chemical associated with smoking. Cigarettes contain more than 5,000 chemicals, hundreds of them harmful to human health, including:

  • Arsenic
  • Benzene
  • Cadmium (a metal used to make batteries)
  • Formaldehyde
  • Tar

Smoking has been linked to 90% of lung cancer cases. Almost one-third of coronary heart disease deaths are the result of secondhand smoke. 

Nicotine itself is known to increase blood pressure, narrow the arteries, and contribute to hardening arterial walls, which in turn can lead to heart attacks.

It is, in short, one of the main preventable causes of death in the United States.

The risks are also high for anyone around secondhand smoke: people exposed to it are 25% to 30% more likely to develop heart disease.

Public Health, or Lower Healthcare?

U-Haul posits the policy as part of a shift toward corporate health and wellness, asserting that the shift toward a healthier workforce is an investment in the wellbeing of their team members. The policy, according to U-Haul, will help reinforce a wellness program that encourages workers to focus on four areas: health, fitness, nutrition, and mindset.

However, the company also noted that the policy was part of a continued effort to decrease healthcare costs.

Are There Cost Benefits? 

Workplace wellness is an industry with $8 billion in annual revenue in the United States. Almost half of all employers with at least 50 employees offer a workplace wellness program. Of those that don’t have a program, half have said they plan to introduce one.

The popular story among corporations and researchers is that these efforts reduce healthcare costs for employers. A 2010 review by a Harvard economist stated that wellness programs return $3 in healthcare savings and $3 in reduced healthcare costs for every $1 invested.

But is that actually the case?

Research by the RAND Corporation, including data from 600,000 employees from seven employers and 10 years of data from a Fortune 100 employer, found that wellness programs have little, if any, immediate impact on employer healthcare costs.

Generally, wellness programs have two components: lifestyle management (which focuses on employees with health risks such as obesity or smoking), and disease management (which focuses on employees who already have a chronic disease). Together, the two programs generate $30 in savings per member per month. But 87% of those savings came from disease management, even though only 13% of employees participate in disease management — compared to 87% participation in lifestyle management.

One might make the case that disease management can result from diseases caused by smoking, but U-Haul’s policy targets lifestyle issues and prevents nicotine users from being hired in the first place, thereby precluding their ability to participate in disease management programs.

In short, it’s hard to say whether U-Haul’s policy can save the company healthcare dollars in the long run.

Loopholes in the Policy That Penalize Workers

But what we can say is that the policy penalizes nicotine users, including those who are trying not to use nicotine.

The program as presented makes no exceptions for nicotine users who are trying to quit smoking. And while nicotine users can remain smoke-free, 30% of them do so with the aid of some kind of nicotine product.

What about quitting with nicotine-free products? That’s not as easy as it sounds. The FDA has only approved two nicotine cessation products that don’t contain nicotine: Chantix and Zyban.

And yes, nicotine replacement products and medicines do show up in nicotine screenings. Nor does the policy seem to differentiate between smokers and those with nicotine in their system due to secondhand smoke, or between cigarettes and nicotine products with a lower risk to bystanders, like smokeless tobacco.

Balancing Wellness and Fairness

Is the policy good for worker health? From the perspective of removing harmful substances from the workplace, yes.

Is the policy fair for workers? From the perspective of smokers and people with smokers around them, not so much.

That U-Haul’s policy lacks any differentiation implies that the company’s stance is a moral one more than a health one. Given that the healthcare cost benefits to the employer seem unclear, it begs the question: How much employers can force their own policy views to restrict the lives of their own employees?

It’s not a bad idea to discourage unhealthy habits per se. The issue is doing it in a productive and nondiscriminatory way. U-Haul’s broad policy is a bit unclear in that regard, so we’ll have to watch how this plays out.

Why The Oscars Diversity Issue Matters to All Employers

Sunday night was the 88th broadcast of Academy Awards. And, even if you didn’t watch it, then you know that not one person of color was nominated for an Oscar in the categories of best actor or actress in either a primary or supporting role.

The host was Chris Rock. And, with humor and perspective, he nailed it…effectively by reframing it.

The absence of award nominations for actors of color was less about the nominations themselves and more about the absence of acting opportunities for actors of color. If you don’t have access to the opportunities, then it goes without saying you cannot win.

To quote Chris Rock:

“What I’m trying to say is it’s not about boycotting or anything. It’s just we want opportunity. We want the black actors to get the same opportunities as white actors. That’s it. And not just once. Leo gets a great part every year. All these guys get great parts all the time. But what about the black actors?”

Rock’s comments apply not only to black actors but also to Asian American and Hispanic American actors. Why are there not more roles for actors who are Asian American or Hispanic American?

Now, you may be tempted to say: who cares about Hollywood! Avoid that temptation; access issues are not limited to the entertainment industry.

Outside of Hollywood, we see a glaring absence of diversity in many senior leadership teams. And, there also is a clear gender pay gap in many organizations, even if people debate the degree of the gap.

I would suggest that, in many situations, what we see is the symptom of the underlying problem: the absence of meaningful access to assignments and opportunities that create the credentials for promotions and higher pay. How do we address the access problem?

Well, that goes beyond the scope of this brief blog. But the first step is acknowledging the root of the problem so that we can focus our corrective action there.

Yes, this is about fairness. Fairness always matters.

But there also is the business imperative. Diverse leadership teams are more successful, and you cannot get to the top unless you have had equal opportunity to access along the way.

Sunday night, Chris Rock rocked it with his root cause analysis. The success of our own organizations will depend, in part, on how we respond to the clarion call to focus on equal access opportunity.

A version of this post was first posted on The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) blog on February 29, 2016.

photo credit: the giant Oscar statue at the Kodak Theater  via photopin (license)