Walking Towards Futility: A Wellness Fail

It seems there is nothing that brings HR professionals as much joy as rolling out tortuous physical activities for unwitting employees in the name of “Wellness.” There are companies that, in the quest to promote healthy lifestyles (aka “lower health care premiums”) have mandated everything from Jazzercise to rock climbing to participating in a local 5k run/walk for their employees. And yes…mandated; meaning they’ve tied participation in such activities to performance appraisals and salary reviews.

I once worked for an organization that, to be fair, was very transparent about why it ran and supported a wellness program; to save money. Health insurance costs were forever rising at a seemingly exorbitant rate and, as the company had a self-insured medical plan, this meant each month the checks cut from the company checkbook were growing ever larger. In addition, those expenses that had not sufficiently budgeted for came right out of the end of year calculation for the bonuses paid to leaders. In other words, a few medical catastrophes spread across the employee population (or their covered dependents) might mean that VP Bob wouldn’t be able to buy his vacation home in the mountains.

Sad.

So, with lowering costs as the primary reason, the company launched a Wellness Program a number of years ago. It’s important to note that when a company labels such an initiative a “program,” you have your first clue it has nothing to do with truly caring about people’s health, financial stability or mental and emotional wellness. And this program, like many before and since, had all the hallmarks of failure including making participation a chore (“track your meals and turn in this checklist!”) and running multiple “Biggest Loser” contests which are just about the worst activity to run from both a legal and health standpoint.

There was also, as you may imagine, quite a bit of employee shaming that ran rampant. One of the HR zealots told me, with quite a bit of pride, that he saw it as his DUTY to promote healthy eating. He would wander through the employee lunchroom, on a regular basis, and stop and have discussions with employees about their meal choices: “Sandy! Do you really want to eat that leftover friend chicken? A better choice would be a healthy salad with some lentils and a vinaigrette dressing!”  (inner monologue from Sandy in Accounting: ‘get out of my life crazy HR dude.’)

At one stage, amongst this backdrop of ill-informed and ill-placed intentions, it was dictated from those-on-high that additional physical activities were needed in order to ‘get everyone healthy.’  The answer, determined by an avid runner sitting up high on the org chart, was to institute walking activities! This was to include:

  • Setting up an obstacle course in the company parking lot so employees could head outside during their 10-minute breaks and 30-minute meal time to ‘get in a few steps’
  • Running a Couch-to-5k challenge
  • Awarding points, on the employee’s annual performance evaluation, if they participated in one of several chosen Run/Walks on a Saturday morning

OK, you may think, those aren’t so bad (well, other than the tie-in to a job performance review). But here’s the deal:

This was not a 9-to-5 organization; people weren’t cooped up in an office and sitting at desks all day and thus eager to ‘stretch their legs’ at lunch time.

  • The majority of employees worked evening shifts or overnight so talking a walk in the parking lot would have meant strolling around, in the dark, at 11 PM or 2 AM.
  • The nature of the work meant that most everyone’s job included STANDING ON THEIR FEET and/or WALKING for the duration of their shift; by the time meal time came all they wanted to do was sink into a chair for a few blessed minutes.
  • This was in south Louisiana. In the summer. With heat, humidity and mosquitos as big as your fist.

But running a couch-to-5k challenge? What’s wrong with that? Well, when the average hourly wage is just over $12 per hour it’s a bit much to expect someone to purchase appropriate footwear ($150? $200?) and pay the entrance fees for a 5k.

As for those somewhat-mandated Run/Walks and 5ks, well, all of them (I mean all of them) occur on Saturday mornings; usually kicking off between 7 AM and 9 AM. On a day, and a time, when the vast majority of employees were either just getting off shift after working all night, or, sleeping because they had worked until 3 AM.

Oh yes…there were many wellness fails at this organization:

There was no consideration of the fact that in a multi-gendered workforce that spanned ages 18 to 80, individuals would have not only varying physical abilities but also differing metabolisms.

Activities and plans were formulated by leaders with lots of disposable income and disposable time. Their prism of privilege meant they never gave any thought to the fact that employees had multiple jobs to make ends meet or ate white bread and processed-lunch-meat sandwiches because they couldn’t afford to purchase fresh fruit with granola when their take home pay for the week was $300.

This stuff drives me crazy.

Pass me the quinoa please.

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For a recent conversation “Calling BS on Wellness Programs” – check out this episode of New Yawk HR where we also offer some helpful (hopefully) tips.

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Company Values: Not the Same as It Ever Was

I have, over the course of time, participated in and/or facilitated numerous activities designed to create, define and encapsulate company “Mission, Vision & Values.” 

Quite often, because some training facilitator settled on a way to approach this exercise in 1987, this process has involved a cross-section of employees and other stakeholders settling themselves into a room armed with flip charts, markers, and cartons of post-it notes. There may have been focus groups, assessments, surveys and iterative discussions prior to this day but THIS one-day event (with catered lunch!) has been the culmination of hours upon hours of work. I’ve seen some raw emotions too; at one organization a senior leader, not accustomed to a collaborative process, stormed out of the room flinging papers and markers in her wake.

Good times.

Certainly there are some people who think this is a colossal waste of time; fluff dreamed up by management consultants and HR folks. After all, thinks Mr./Ms. MoneyBags CEO, “our missionis to make money, our visionis to make MORE money, and our valuesare to make that money in whatever way we need to make it.”

I, however, have always believed that clarity around M/V/Vs not only aligns people across an organization but provides a guiding point – a lodestar if you will, for everyone to follow. 

We recently went through this exercise at my company and, let me say, it was GREAT! No conference rooms with post-it notes for us though; we’re 100% virtual so we worked through the process via Zoom calls and whiteboarding things out on Google Docs. There may or may not have been adult beverages involved.  

What I have determined, over the years, is that the mission and vision part is relatively easy; why we’re here and we’re going. Most every company can easily articulate this with just a modicum of prodding.

It’s the values part that leaves people flummoxed, confused and exasperated. It can be an arduous task for leaders to allow employees to not partake of some serious self-reflection but also to have the discussions around the “not so good things” about a company’s deeply-held beliefs. (Inverting the question and asking “what is our company NOT” or “what do similar organizations do that we would NEVER do?” can lead to some interesting discussions).

So because it’s hard, and then because it’s safe, these M/V/V teams end up just tossing word-salad up on the wall and calling it a day. This, my friends is why 99.9% of organizations have the same values: teamwork! communication! service! integrity! (blech). Watered down pabulum. 

But in our recent foray into encapsulating and defining our company values we didn’t settle for the mundane.  I’m telling you, not only was the process great but I so love what we came up with that I feel the need to share. Let me present, the Strio Consultingvalues:

  • No Doors and Open Windows Lots of companies talk about an “open door” culture but we embrace a culture with no doors and wide-open windows. We’re transparent and accessible to our clients and to each other. Got a question? Ask it. Need access to someone? You got it. Think something sucks? Bring it up.
  • Doing Things Right Means Doing the Right Thing We’re honorable and trustworthy in all our interactions; integrity is non-negotiable. We play it straight from the get-go and, if we screw up, we own it. The needs and interests of our clients are top of mind. Always. 
  • Embrace That Which is UnusualWe’re OK with being weird. Really. We consider it a badge of honor to be of strange or extraordinary character. Got humor? We like that too.
  • Unburdened by Tradition We’re not bound by the traditional walls of an office nor are we stuck in the typical nine-to-five grind. With a reverential nod to workplace customs that have served us well, we take great delight in consigning the soul-sucking, outdated ways of doing things to the trash heap of business practices as we focus on the future of work. We pride ourselves in the way we work; we’re creative, adaptable and fast-moving – and we help our clients work this way too.
  • Bold and Brainy We surround ourselves with people who exhibit insatiable curiosity; people who read, learn, explore and debate. We like people who ask “why?” and we love nothing more than answering that question.
  • Ubiquitous Uniqueness Our community – our company – is made up of human beings and we celebrate the individual. Be yourself. Be unique. Be special. Live your best life.

What we believe, how we operate and what’s important. These are ours and no one else’s; and most definitely NOT the same as it ever was. 

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Heading to WorkHuman? Join me for the panel Beyond Buzzwords: Real Talk on What it Takes to Create an Amazing Culture”with Michelle Prince, SVP, Global HR, Global Head Learning & Development, Randstad; John Baldino, President, Humareso; and Niamh Graham, VP of Global HR, WorkHuman.

Haven’t registered yet? Use code WH19INFRSC for a discount! 

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There’s So Much Work Yet to be Done – #BlackBlogsMatter

There was an alarming, sickening and, sadly, not surprising story that hit the news last week; a lawsuit has been filed against General Motors (GM) in which 8 workers outline allegations of racist behavior, threats and intimidation in the workplace. This ongoing behavior, over a lengthy span of time, included a workplace where bathrooms were declared for “whites only,” black supervisors were called “boy” and other words, nooses were hung, white employees had conversations about bringing guns to work, and a white subordinate yelled and raised a heavy metal clutch in a threatening manner to his black supervisor. The white employee was suspended for one day. One. Day.

The Ohio Civil Rights Commission completed a nine-month-investigation last March and the commission’s director of regional operations said that she would rank this case amongst the worst cases her team has ever seen. The racist behavior and culture is seemingly so entrenched that incidents even continued while the commission was conducting its investigation.

The union (UAW) apparently did little to nothing. The UAW local president discounted that racism exists at the plant and holds the belief that “people are a little too sensitive these days.”

GM apparently did little to nothing. While they didn’t deny that these things took place, their defense was that they had taken appropriate action – such as holding mandatory meetings, closing the plant for a day to hold training for every shift, and placing an article about harassment in the employee magazine.

The human resources team apparently did little to nothing; they didn’t even get a mention in the article.

This is some messed up shit; and I believe every word.

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Not too many years ago (in this century as a matter of fact) the company I was working for inherited a new work group via assorted business dealings. There were close to 200 employees who moved over to our organization and, since they were doing the same work (as third party contractors to our client), the biggest change for them was getting used to a new company/owner.

The vast majority of these employees had been working at this particular work site for years; decades even. It was incredibly labor-intensive work in a challenging environment but they stuck with it while, seemingly, time stood still in this part of south Louisiana. It took the vast majority of our employees a bit of time to trust us; both the GM and I were transplanted “yankees” with our US corporate office based in the Midwest and our global HQ based in the UK. Our site, for a variety of reasons, was such an outlier within our organization that whenever we had gatherings of the several hundred HR team members, I was inevitably called upon to share some strange/weird human resources issue to both the delight and consternation of my peers.

And sometimes those HR tales were from the dark underbelly of the racist south:

  • The time an employee came to me, with a timid knock on my door, asking “Miss Robin can I talk to you about something? They’ve started to hang the nooses again in my work area and I don’t know what to do.”
  • The meeting when a manager told his staff (predominantly black team members) – “If you all don’t get this situation fixed I’m going to have to fix it for you. And remember I had a great-uncle who was a Nazi in the SS so we know how to get stuff done in my family.”
  • The situation we tried to navigate that relegated our employees (3rd party contractors) to dingy dirty bathrooms in “their sections” of the plant floor while the client’s employees (predominantly white) used a clean well-lit bathroom that was, actually, centrally located and easily accessible to everyone in the unit no matter the “section” in which they worked.
  • The moment when, sitting at our monthly meeting with the client to review operating costs and billing, their #2 guy said “I like to take a look at these financials to make sure you’re not going to try to Jew me.”

So reading the story about the goings-on at the GM Powertrain Plant? You bet I believe every word of it.

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But what do we do? Can one person, one manager, or one HR professional change this sort of entrenched and institutionalized racism?

“I don’t have the positional power to make changes,” I’ve heard HR professionals lament. “I can’t speak up and afford to lose my job,” I’ve heard from mid-level supervisors and managers.

I’ve also heard the following from HR “professionals:”

  • “we have to hire those people; we have an agreement with the local city council member,”
  • “I don’t really want to recruit from that school; you know who goes there”
  • “she’s a black girl but she’s really good”
  • “I’m not racist, but….”

Today. Still. IN THIS ERA.

What do we do?  What can YOU do? Here’s a few thoughts:

  • examine your own biases and prejudices – unpack the suitcase, review your history, and seek to understand why you believe-what-you-believe  
  • acknowledge and own your beliefs and actions
  • read, learn and do a bit of self-education about what it’s REALLY like, for a wide number of people, to live in these United States (and elsewhere for that matter)
  • don’t expect someone else to do the work for you
  • vow to change that which is toxic in yourself
  • don’t put the responsibility for change on those who are marginalized or being discriminated against
  • remove those who do harm to others, whether via ignorance or on purpose, from your life
  • promote equity and equality in all that you do
  • challenge and call out those who perpetuate and embolden racism and misogyny – whether that be on the job or on the street

We can work on this together. Because #BlackBlogsMatter more than ever.

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Follow the #BlackBlogsMatter hashtag and read about the 2019 challenge, covering the next 12 weeks , at Sarah Morgan’s site “The Buzz on HR”

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