Monday, November 23, 2009

Is Your Career in Jeopardy Because of Your Weight?

As Congress debates health care reform, it's worth noting that employers are already taking steps to bring down their health care costs, whether it's setting up wellness programs for workers -- or requiring employees who have certain health risks to pay higher insurance deductibles. Before you reach for that second piece of pumpkin pie this Thanksgiving, read this story I recently wrote for Gannett:

Perhaps you’re working extra hard these days to hang onto your job, or if you’re looking for work, you’re using every avenue you know to find a job.

In either case, better check out your waistline if you’re serious about having a job in the future.

That’s because if you’re carrying too much weight – enough to be considered overweight or obese – then you’re a concern to employers.

Studies have shown that not only do overweight workers have higher absenteeism and healthcare costs, but they are less productive. Such statistics become even more important as companies are keeping only key performers and are scrutinizing ways to trim healthcare costs.
In addition, several courts have recently ruled that employers also must pay for weight loss surgery for overweight employees who need operations for work-related injuries.

The courts have stated that the weight-loss procedures are needed to guarantee the successful repair of the initial injury.
All these factors serve to heighten concern by employers about the liability of overweight workers, says Marsha Petrie Sue, a professional speaker and author on personal accountability issues.

“I think employers are doing what they feel they need to do. Their profits are down, and they’ve got to look at ways to cut costs,” Petri Sue says. “If you have two people apply for a job, and one is overweight and one is not, who would you hire? You know they have to be thinking about it.”

Petrie Sue says that employers balking at “paying for people’s habits” is a growing debate. “You can legislate not discriminating against someone for sexual orientation or based on their gender,” she says. “But you can’t really legislate responsibility.”

Denise Wheeler, an employment lawyer with Fowler White Boggs in Fort Myers, Fla., says that while obese workers can claim they fall under the Americans with Disabilities Act, they have not been very successful winning such claims. However, there are new provisions under that law, and while it has not yet been tested, workers who lost their jobs because they were overweight may find an easier road to suing employers, she says.

Still, Wheeler says that she believes companies may step up calls for workers to maintain healthier weights. “Some employers have gotten very aggressive with their smoking policies, even dismissing workers who smoke on their own time. Are we going to see employers checking the BMI (body mass index) of workers and deciding they’ll terminate if it reaches a certain number?”

Petrie Sue says she believes more employers will begin to put employees “on probation” who don’t lose weight, and may even tie their weight directly to performance standards.
“If the employee has health issues, the employer may ask what they can do to help, but they’re also going to ask the employee what they think the consequences should be for not changing,” she says.

Many employers already require employees who smoke, are overweight or have risk factors such as high blood pressure to pay higher healthcare premiums. Recently the American Institute for Cancer Research reported that about 100,500 new cases of cancer are caused by obesity every year. But with about one-third of U.S. adults classified as obese – or about 30 more pounds over a healthy weight – the question is how involved will employers get to help win the battle of the bulge?

Americans spend about $30 billion a year on weight-loss products, but stress – such as working longer hours -- has been shown to contribute to weight gain. Add in the unhealthy servings of some workplace vending machines, and it’s clear that it’s a battle that needs to be waged in several ways, Petrie Sue says.

“I do think employers have some responsibility. If they don’t have a wellness program, they can go to a local gym and negotiate a deal so employees can go for 30 minutes every day and exercise, and still be paid for that time,” she says. “They also need to get rid of the donuts and coffee in the break room and instead have healthy options and a refrigerator so people can bring healthy food.”

For job seekers, the nearly 10 percent unemployment rate means that they may need to be even more proactive in trimming the waistline. A Wayne State University study found last year that overweight workers are viewed negatively, and nowhere is that more evident than in the hiring process, especially if they’re applying for a job with face-to-face interactions.
Petrie Sue says for job seekers, it may pay to be up front about the issue.

“You can just mention in an interview that you’re on a real health kick,” Petrie Sue says. “I think that way you’re sending a clear message.”

What do you think about the debate over weight in the workplace?


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

8 tips to help you find your way in this tough job market

While I knew there was a good chance the unemployment rate would go up, when I heard the latest figures were 10.2 percent, my reaction on Twitter was automatic: "Double ugh," I wrote. It was exactly how I was feeling at the moment. Then, I did what I always did: I picked up the phone and started asking experts on how job seekers could succeed in this tough market. Here's what I wrote for my Gannett column:

You may not think you have a superpower, but if the only way you’re looking for a job is by applying to companies or job boards on the Web, you’ve just become invisible.

Phil Haynes says it’s these kinds of blunders that can prevent a job seeker from finding a position, but he says a revamped strategy can help bring success.

“Your chances of finding a job by just applying online are about 7 percent,” says Phil Haynes. “You want to make yourself visible to companies, but you’re invisible if you’re applying for jobs that way.”

Haynes is in a unique position to know how companies are hiring. He is the director or of AllianceQ, a group of Fortune 500 companies that have collaborated to build a pool of qualified job candidates to match with job openings. It not only drives down recruitment costs for employers because they are sharing resources, but candidates have access to more opportunities through a job search program known as UnitedWeWork.

As employment rises to more than 10 percent, Haynes says that job seekers need to quit wasting time on strategies that won’t help them find a job. He suggests several ways to improve a job search process. He says some do’s and don’ts include:

  1. Don’t apply for jobs for which you’re not qualified. Employers have to weed through hundreds of resumes for even the most basic jobs, so they immediately discard ones where the skills don’t match their requirements. For example, if you’re not an engineer, don’t apply for a job that requires an engineering degree. “You do a great disservice to yourself when you do something like that,” Haynes says. “It never, never works that way. I have never seen someone picked for a job if they don’t have the qualifications.”
  2. Do take a sales approach to the job search. “Before you sell something, you have to know your product. In this case, you are the product. What can you offer someone?” Haynes advises not trying to “be something you’re not,” but instead looking at how what you know could translate into something positive for an employer.

3. Do your homework. Haynes says you should never approach an employer about a job unless you have researched the key players in the company, what the company does and some of the challenges it faces in its industry. That information can easily be found on the Internet or by visiting a local library, he says.

4. Do walk out the door. “Put on a suit and get out of the house,” Haynes says. “Go knock on doors. Do it the old-fashioned way: Walk into a small or medium-sized business and talk to them.” Haynes says the way you get opportunities is often by selling your skills to a company leader face-to-face. By making that personal connection, you may nab a job before an employer even considers posting it. “They may just see you as someone who can save them from going through stacks of resumes,” he says.

5. Don’t be desperate. Never approach an employer with the attitude that you’re willing to do any kind of work. “Don’t ever tell an employer that you really need the job, but rather that you’d like the job,” Haynes says. “Never say you’re willing to do anything.”

6. Do understand that something is better than nothing. Maybe your pride won’t let you take a certain job, or even apply for a position with less money than you were making. “Listen, you’ll feel better about yourself if you have a job and someplace to go,” Haynes says. “You can keep looking for something better, but take the job for now.”

7. Don’t be ashamed. “This time period is not going to reflect negatively on you in your resume,” he says. “People are taking survival jobs, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

8. Do follow up. Once you’ve had a job interview, don’t let the connection languish. That doesn’t mean you call and bug the person about a decision. Instead, use information gleaned through the interview to make a stronger personal connection, Haynes says. For example, if you know the person went to a certain school and had a favorite professor, find information on the professor’s latest accomplishments, or an article written by the person. Forward this information onto the interviewer, saying something like, “I thought you might find this interesting since I know this professor was a personal favorite.”

Haynes also offers other words of encouragement to job seekers.

“Don’t forget that while some jobs are gone forever, there are a lot of new ones evolving,” he says. “And as soon as the stock market rebounds, a lot of those 6.6 million people who are 65 and older are going to go ahead and retire. That’s a lot of jobs opening up.”

What are some other job search tips?


Monday, November 9, 2009

5 tips for working at home with your significant other

The tough times have brought about a lot of changes, both personally and professionally. One of those changes has been a lot of people launching their own businesses from home. But what happens when you and your significant other both start working from home? Will it work? Will it cause a rift so wide you'll never recover?

That was a question I posed to Scot and Kate Herrick this week for my Gannett column. Here's what they had to say....

Actress Bette Davis once said that the key to a successful marriage was separate bathrooms.

For Scot and Kate Herrick, it’s headphones.

The Bellevue, Wash. couple have both been working from home since March. She likes to listen to heavy metal music while working. He usually likes instrumentals. They have found marital and professional harmony by using headphones, their iPods delivering the music they each favor.

It’s just one of the many ways the couple, who both once worked for Washington Mutual, have found to share domestic and professional spaces. They both also have separate work areas.

“We’ve found ways not to get on each other’s nerves,” says Scot, owner of, an online career management site.

The recession has had a lot of impact on American lives, and one of those areas has been that many couples have found themselves spending more time together because of job loss, career change – or because they’ve launched businesses from home like the Herricks.

And like the Herricks, many couples are trying to work out the kinks of being together 24/7.

“I love my husband dearly,” Kate says, “but he likes it so quiet that this house is like a museum.”

Despite their different working styles, the Herricks say they’ve managed to develop a system that works for them professionally and personally. The recommend other couples wanting to do the same should:

• Respect the work. Just as you wouldn’t interrupt a colleague unnecessarily, the same should be true of a partner at home. It’s best to have separate work spaces with required office equipment, but if that’s not possible, it’s even more important to be sensitive to the other person’s work style. For example, headphones are a good idea to eliminate distractions, or moving to another part of the house for a conference call is helpful. At the same time, not interacting too much during the day is important “so you can later tell each other about your day,” Scot says. “You need something to talk about.”

• Have regular meetings. The Herricks say they discuss their work schedules every day so they know how they can best support one another. While they each have cell phones for business, they like to use the home land line for conference calls, so coordinated schedules make sure there isn’t a conflict.

• Stay connected. The Herricks admit that with any home-based job, there is a sense of isolation. “I really miss the social interaction of an office a lot,” Kate says. “I miss the collaboration with my colleagues. (Working at home) can be very lonely.” Notes Scott: “When you’re separated because you work in different places, it gives you something to talk about later. Now, we have the same experience because we work in the same place.” Experts say it’s a good idea for those who work at home to schedule meetings or coffee dates with colleagues or friends, and look for opportunities to get out and network at professional events.

• Set terms. Couples need to agree on household duties, and when they will be done. For the Herricks, they live by the schedule they established when both were working outside the home and don’t begin household tasks such as laundry until 5 p.m. “When you work at home, you have to ask yourself: ‘Is this something I would be doing if I was in an office right now?’” Scot says. Adds Kate: “You’ve got to maintain the integrity of the workday.”

• Establish transitions. While one of the advantages of working from home is that couples no longer have to commute to and from work, the Herricks say it’s still important to find a way to “transition” between a professional and domestic life. “You need to find a way to move mentally and socially into the next part of your life,” Scot says. “For me, it’s starting the chores. For someone else, it might be going on a walk. But you have to find that ritual that takes the place of the commute.”

What suggestions do you have for working at home with a significant other?


Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Could a Union Be Coming to a Cubicle Near You?

My Dad was a blue-collar worker. His favorite job was working on the railroad, but the only job I really remember him having was at an oil refinery in Oklahoma. It was a dangerous, dirty job, but he never complained.

He worked at that oil refinery for several decades, until one day they closed it and laid off more than 900 people in my small town. It was devastating, but I think my father took it especially hard because he had served for many years as the union's president.

Guys would call our house at all hours of the day and night, looking to my Dad for some guidance on what they would do now that they couldn't earn a living. Again, my Dad never complained about losing his livelihood, but he agonized over the young workers with mortgages and children.

My Dad was 10 months from retirement when the refinery closed, and had a frail knee and back after being injured on the job. He received a pittance in severance and went to work at a gas station for the next several years to make ends meet.

The reason I tell this story is that I occupy a world different than my Dad's. I'm considered a white-collar professional, and have been in management. I've never been in a union, but I've been close to those who have -- my Dad and the hundreds of employees who worked in dangerous conditions and went on strike when the company wouldn't agree to better conditions.

I haven't thought about my Dad's union work until lately when the economy soured and the Obama Adminsitration made it clear that unions would be supported.

I decided to look into the issue and gain some perspective on what this means for workers today, especially the white-collar workers. Here's the story I did for Gannett:

Could a union be coming soon to a cubicle near you?

While unions often have been associated with the factory floor, the current Congressional and presidential support of unions, along with a disillusioned professional labor force, may mean that the time is ripe for unionization to move into new territory – the white-collar arena.

Not only has President Obama expressed support of unions, but his appointments to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) “have fundamentally changed the face of the NLRB, and are poised to make much more union-friendly policies,” says Shanti Atkins, a lawyer and president and CEO of ELT Inc. in San Francisco.

One of those changes currently afoot is the proposed Employee Free Choice Act, now in a House committee, which would change the NLRB system regarding how workers vote on unions, Atkins says..

Specifically, the bill would give workers the choice of forming unions by getting a majority of employees to sign cards to join, without having to hold a secret ballot election. Currently, the law leaves it up to companies to decide whether employees must hold an election or can organize by checking the union membership cards. The proposed bill also states that if employers and employees can’t agree to a contract within 120 days, then a government arbitrator will help them set terms.

“There is certain to be an increase in union organizing activities, regardless of whether or not the highly controversial bill passes,” Atkins says.

That’s a change since union memberships have declined dramatically since the 1950s. It’s estimated that currently only about 7 percent of the private sector is unionized, but workers battered by the recession and the increasing government support of unions sets the stage for those numbers to grow, Atkins says.

Clete Daniel, professor of labor history for Cornell University, agrees.

“Traditionally white collar workers have made advances because of their individual hard work, so there was reluctance to assign themselves to groups such as a union,” he says. “The relationship between professionals and their employers was based on loyalty and mutual good will. As long as they were productive and efficient, then they had a reasonable expectation that they would be rewarded.”

But as millions of white collar workers have been laid off “in a capricious way,” have seen their pay and benefits reduced or are required to do more work without getting a pay raise, a different attitude is sweeping through America’s cubicles, he says.

“That old emotion – loyalty – gives way to an attitude of obedience,” he says. “And obedience is rooted in fear.”

If that fear becomes outweighed by anger, then unionization may become more appealing to white collar workers, Daniel says.

Still, that doesn’t mean these unions will look like they do currently, he says.

“Unions have often been in an adversarial position, and I don’t know that white collar workers will be that way,” he says. “I think they’re going to say that there just ought to be a way to decide what’s fair. These workers may want to express themselves through activism.”

Another reason unions may find a toehold in the professional ranks is the changing relationship between the white collar employees and their managers.

“Management authority has really been eroded over the last 20 years by Wall Street and investors who have now become the ones who dictate what success is,” Daniel says. “What this leads to is managers not attuned as closely to the worker, and they’re not influencing employee loyalty as before. Managers’ roles have really been undermined by other people. They’re really caught in the middle.”

Daniel says it’s important to remember that even though union membership has declined in the last 50 years, union influence shouldn’t be discounted.

“Labor unions have actually been much more successful than they have been portrayed,” he says. “A lot of companies voluntarily gave workers comparable pay and benefits as those gained through collective bargaining. It was a way for them to stop unions from coming in. But all the workers benefited – even the white-collar ones.”