Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Archive for December, 2004

Take a Vacation...Unless You're Looking for Work

Tuesday, December 21st, 2004

It’s supposed to be the time of year when things slow down a little. But often it doesn’t work out quite that way, with year-end quotas and court deadlines that won’t budge even for the holidays. But new research is finding out that taking time off isn’t just a luxury, but a necessity for good health and longevity. So it’s important to find time away from work not just to be with your family, but to be around for your family in holidays to come. In fact, the only people who shouldn’t be taking a vacation right now are job hunters, as experts claim that right now is a very good time to land that next job.

It’s harder than ever to take a good vacation away from work. You can start with the very limited amount of time available to employees for vacations in the first place. American workers logged 1,815 hours in 2002, 500 more than some European workers, 100 more than Australian, Canadian, Japanese, or Mexican workers. (See Short-Changed: Nobody Home) There are 96 other countries which guarantee paid annual (vacation) leave, but the United States is not one of them. (See AlterNet article.) So if you are allowed to take some vacation time this time of year, you’re one of the lucky ones.

What if you’re one of those who work in industries where you can’t take off for the holidays? You’re not alone: whether you provide emergency services on a 24/7 basis, or host the meals for all of those holiday parties, there are some for whom the holidays means extra stress and no time off. There are many, however, whose positive attitude we can emulate, such as Lee Larson, who is a nurse on a Tennessee LifeFlight helicopter. He says that he’s started to see working over the holidays as special: he’s able to both be useful to others over the holidays, and can avoid all the highway gridlock he sees only from his helicopter. One counselor reminds those who are working to remind themselves, “At least I have a job. I have a roof over my head. I have heat.” (See The Tennessean article.)

If you do get time away, how can you make it meaningful? Experts have shared some tips for making vacations truly restful. Although they sound so logical when you read them, they still bear repeating, especially to our readers who are the incredibly hard-working employee rights advocates, since I know you don’t always practice what you preach. One consultant urges the following principles regarding time away:

    Arrange your responsibilities so that clients and colleagues can function in your absence.

    Make contingency plans: Find someone to cover for you and make an arrangement that you’re going to cover for them when they go away, and plan with your whole team so nobody feels they get an unexpected burden.

    Prepare your clients and colleagues so they expect you to be away.

    Be disciplined about checking your e-mail and voicemail while you’re away, if you absolutely have to check in. That means setting a regular time to check in, but not six times a day and hopefully not even every day.

    If you leave an emergency number where you can be reached, “define what you mean by urgent” beforehand to avoid being called about trivial matters.

(See Associated Press article.)

And for those of you who are bosses, here are some guidelines to make the holidays less stressful for your employees, based on a recent survey by Accenture:

    Allowing flexible hours

    Being sensitive to work/life balance

    Allowing vacation or time off

    Being understanding about personal commitments

    Organizing holiday activities among employees

    Allowing telecommuting

    Holiday bonuses

(See Ventura County Star article.)

How important is it to take time off? New research shows it could be a matter of life and death. Workplace columnist Anne Fisher (Ask Annie) reports on the recent release of the Framingham Heart Study. The results were pretty startling:

[W]omen who took two or more vacations a year cut their risk of a fatal heart attack in half, as opposed to women who took no vacations. Similarly, men in the study who took frequent vacations were 32% less likely to die of heart attacks—and 17% less likely to die of other causes—than men who took no breaks.

(See Fortune column.) Fisher cites corporate coach Lois Frankel, who recommends employees heed the following principles:

    Unused vacation time never makes or breaks a career.

    Try taking shorter, more frequent vacations.

    Schedule your vacations at the start of the year.

    Develop a passion outside the office.

So, hopefully it’s clear at this point that you need to be taking a vacation very soon. There’s one exception, however: those who are job hunting should maintain or even escalate their efforts. Those involved in the business of hiring employees say that contrary to popular belief, the holidays are a good time to find a new job. Some of the reasons why:

    Some businesses want to make hires on this year’s budget in case cutbacks come next year, or they have unspent money;

    Recruiters are looking to fill leftover openings;

    Some companies are planning for next year’s staffing needs, so they can hit the ground running come Jan. 1 and not worry about hiring.

(See USA Today article.)

For once, I will take my own advice, and will be on vacation next week. Posts to the blog and the Workplace Fairness weekly newsletter will not resume until early 2005. Happy holidays to everyone, whether you’re working, taking a vacation, or looking for work!

More information about the movement to increase time off:

Time for Bread and Roses

Take Back Your Time

Catching up on your reading over the holidays?

WF’s Recommended Reading List

Support Workplace Fairness with a purchase from Powell’s Books

E-mail us your recommended book

I Don’t Think We’re in Kansas Anymore. Or Are We?

Wednesday, December 15th, 2004

In “What’s the Matter With Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America,” a book published earlier this year by Thomas Frank, we learn about how the state of Kansas over the last hundred years was transformed from a hotbed of political populism—and even radicalism–to a hotbed of conservative activism, which also purports to be populist. Frank’s analysis is both insightful and funny, and if you read it knowing that it was written before the November election, its brilliance is all the more apparent. For those struggling to understand why American workers don’t necessarily vote in their own interests, it is definitely worth reading.

I picked up this book not necessarily expecting it to have such relevance to the work of Workplace Fairness. It was more of a personal interest, really: I had heard that it was a rather entertaining history of the (d)evolution of Kansas City’s Kansas suburbs, to which I happen to live close (in Kansas City, Missouri, where I work from a home office for Workplace Fairness.) And while the book certainly is that, it’s also much more.

Its basic premise is this: why do the people from a state which used to be known for its crusty and independent radicalism now vote so completely against their own interests? Or, as Frank describes it:

Here is a movement whose response to the power structure is to make the rich even richer; [and] whose answer to the inexorable degradation of working-class life is to lash out angrily at labor unions and liberal workplace safety programs. (Frank, p. 7) The angry workers, mighty in their numbers, are marching irresistibly against the arrogant….[W]hile the millionaires tremble in their mansions, they are bellowing out their terrifying demands. “We are here,” they scream, “to cut your taxes.”

(Frank at p. 109)

It’s certainly a frustrating paradox for groups like Workplace Fairness. Before the election, we introduced a new area of our website called “Short-Changed: America’s Workers are Giving More and Getting Less.” In it, you’ll find the proof that in virtually every aspect of the American workplace, workers are getting the shaft, while employers only get wealthier and more brazen in their efforts to deny fundamental fairness to their employees. So how can we, and others who care about workers, educate those most affected to take action that is in their best interests?

Frank offers not so much a solution as an observation that liberals/Democrats/progressives/whatever you want to call “the other side” have essentially abandoned economic and class issues to remake themselves as “the other pro-business party” (like “pork—the other white meat.”) Frank claims that this side “no longer speak[s] to the people on the losing end of a free-market system that is becoming more brutal and arrogant by the day….[and their] political strategy assumes that people know where their economic interest lies and will act on it by instinct.” (Frank at 245.)

Yet as Frank could have predicted would happen on November 2, “[t]he gigantic error in all this is that people don’t spontaneously understand their situation in the great sweep of things. They don’t just automatically know the courses of action that are open to them, the organizations they might sign up with, or the measures they should be calling for.” (Frank at 245.)

Two words: Workplace Fairness. We hope to be part of the solution, but we need your help. We need you to spread the word so that working people who certainly understand the bad things that are happening to them—but not how to fight back—know we exist and that we have resources to help them. We need your financial support, so that we can continue to provide that assistance and be that voice, while reaching millions more each year. And we need you to understand what it is that we’re up against: a movement that has people believing that only “moral issues” matter, but neglecting the moral values of combating greed and materialism that Americans find to be significant. With your help, we can start building the kind of national movement that American workers can claim as their rightful home—not one that runs so counter to their interests.

Recommended Reading List (contains Frank’s book and others we like; all purchases of these and any books from Powell’s Books through our site supports Workplace Fairness.)

Teen Jobs with Adult Problems: Sexual Harassment

Tuesday, December 7th, 2004

It’s the time of year when many businesses hire teens for the holidays to handle the anticipated increase in work over the next few weeks. Some of those teens may be getting far more than they have bargained for this holiday season, unfortunately. Instead of just a little extra Christmas cash, these teens are facing sexual harassment from their supervisors and coworkers.

An increasing number of teens, especially vulnerable since they’re often in first-time jobs and have a fear of making waves, are finding themselves in the midst of a very adult-like problem: sexual harassment. The problem is especially rampant in fast food restaurants, where groups of teens are often supervised by someone else barely out of their teens, turnover is high and training standards are a low priority.

A typical story is that of Amanda Nichols of the St. Louis area. Amanda, eager to make some money for college, took a job working as a server at the local Steak n Shake, in the summer after her junior year in high school. Amanda, who was 17 at the time, had to dodge the come-ons of an older cook who kept pulling on her apron, touching her, and making sexually explicit remarks. Amanda complained to managers and asked to be moved away from the cook, but nothing was done. Then one night, the cook followed Amanda to her car in the parking lot, threatened her and exposed himself. When she complained again, and told her manager to choose between the cook and her, the manager told her that it might be best if she left, which at that point she did. (See Washington Post article.)

But in one aspect, Amanda’s story is less typical: she fought back. After Amanda left her job, her father found a lawyer who filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC filed suit on Amanda’s behalf. Steak n’ Shake has denied the changes. Amanda is now a sophomore in college, and her case is still pending.

Just this week, it was announced that seven teenagers in St. Louis (not necessarily a hotbed of sexual harassment, but perhaps more a reflection of the active work the EEOC’s District Office in St. Louis has done in this area) will share a $400,000 settlement reached with Burger King. (See Associated Press article.) The young women were all harassed by the restaurant manager, Nathan Kraus, subjected them to repeated groping, vulgar sexual comments and demands for sex from December 2000 to April 2001.

While the teens complained to several assistant managers, they too were powerless to help, since Kraus was their boss too, according to William Moench, their lawyer. The settlement reached in the case requires Burger King to conduct extensive sexual harassment training for management, distribute a revised sexual harassment policy and set of procedures to all employees, and more prominently post in their restaurants a toll-free hot line number for reporting harassment.

In one of the first cases brought by the EEOC involving a teenager who was sexually harassed, Tiffany Grabin received $111,250 in a settlement with her former employer, a now-defunct athletic shoe company in San Jose, California. In Tiffany’s suit, she claimed that a co-worker and a supervisor sexually teased her, taunted her and goaded customers into propositioning her. The last straw came when the primary harasser put his hands around her neck and asked, “What would your boyfriend do if I snapped your neck right now?”

After Tiffany quit, her mother found an attorney, and her complaint made its way to the EEOC District Office in San Francisco. Tiffany, now 25, said of her experience, “I knew that it’s not appropriate to be treated that way, but I didn’t know what to do about it. Part of the problem was management. When a grown man is saying things about you, how do you complain to him?”

One of the most difficult aspects of sexual harassment law, especially as it relates to teenagers, is the need to complain to the employer. When an employee is being harassed by a co-worker, client or customer, the employer must know or have reason to know about the harassment in order to be legally responsible. While registering a complaint may not be a legal requirement if the harasser is a supervisor, the law is blurry enough about who is and isn’t legally considered a supervisor to make it difficult, especially in some of the more informal settings in which teens work, to know what to do.

Teenagers aren’t necessarily trained about harassment issues or the need to speak out. Their supervisors are often low-level managers who may not have been properly trained themselves. The environment may be permeated with the kind of banter and flirting that is typical of many high school environments, making it difficult for teens to understand when lines have been crossed. Most importantly, however, the evidence shows that those who report harassment generally face retaliation, which can deter even the most seasoned employee from fighting back. (See Effects of Sexual Harassment, summarizing the work of Louise Fitzgerald.)

So what can a teenager facing sexual harassment do? One place that teens can turn is a website especially for them, developed by the EEOC, called Youth at Work. There, teens can learn about their workplace rights and what to do when those rights are violated. The website gives real life examples of cases brought by other teenagers, as well as a summary of the laws that protect all workers, including teen workers. And while most teens probably think they have enough tests at school, there’s a “Challenge Yourself” section that tests how well site users understand basic discrimination and harassment concepts. This website, as well as involvement in many of the cases involving teens who were sexually harassed, are part of the EEOC’s new national outreach and public education initiative, launched in September, called “Youth@Work.”

According to Tiffany Grabin, here’s what teenagers should know: “Just because you’re a teenager doesn’t mean you don’t have rights. There are laws, and if you know your rights, you are better able to stand up for yourself.” (See Washington Post article.) Thanks to Tiffany, Amanda, and other teens who have learned early in their lives to stand up for their rights, with the help of the EEOC and private attorneys and advocates, some managers will not still be getting away with harassing a new group of teenagers this holiday season.

Other Resources:

Your Rights: sexual harassment

Your Rights: filing a discrimination complaint

Your Rights Job Survival The Issues Features Resources About This Blog