How to manage telecommuters

16 Oct

Telecommuting can be a great way to build morale in a company.

Telecommuting is quickly becoming a very typical way for employees to connect with their jobs without leaving their homes. According to a study by The University of Illinois, telecommuters using this form of employee self service can perform as well at home as they can in the office, and sometimes better, Reuters reported. It also improves morale and sometimes encourages people to work longer hours because they can just stay "plugged in" without worry about a commute back and forth.

The trick to a good telecommute policy is to give the employees who telecommute the same things you would give workers who are at the office. One example would be a chance to socialize virtually using a chat room, according to entrepreneur Marten Mickos, who used telecommuting for his 70 global employees, sending information into a central hub via the cloud, CNN cited.

An additional concern raised by Time is whether the job itself is appropriate for telecommuting. There have been some examples of people functioning as office managers on a telecommuting basis, but this may not work all the time because people in the office want to meet their bosses face-to-face. However, for jobs where someone fills out paperwork, such as a tax professional, it may not be necessary to sit in the office and do taxes when someone could bring the forms electronically to their homes and work from there.

Keeping control of the situation
Remember as well as that telecommuters must be held accountable, so don't let someone begin telecommuting until he or she has proven an ability to work in the office very effectively, and then give that person the chance to work from home on a trial run. If your employee can do it, than give him or her the opportunity to do it two or three days a week. Don't give anyone the chance to just disappear from the office without proving he or she can do it and still be working. For those who need to conference call into a meeting, make sure to set that up a few days in advance to be certain it works.

An additional concern is whether the employees will want to be reimbursed for their Internet and phone services. A policy should be in place, even if it is as simple as "nothing will be reimbursed." Additionally, make sure that parents who telecommute and have little children are also ensuring that someone else is home with them to take care of the kids – this is just a safety issue as well as an attention issue.

What should employers know about the new 401(k) after-tax rules?

15 Oct

The IRS has changed transfer rules between 401(k) and Roth IRA accounts.

Many employees begin saving for retirement through a 401(k) account, hoping it will generate enough money over time that they can stop working at a reasonable point in their careers. At the same time, a large number of workers invest in a Roth IRA for the same reasons. Employers often handle these accounts for their staff using payroll management software, but it's not always an easy task, especially if an employee has both types of retirement accounts.

However, recent changes to the way employees can deal with after-tax money in their 401(k) account in relation to their Roth IRA may alter the way employers help manage workers' retirement savings.

Making it easier to transfer funds
The IRS is the government body that writes the rules for retirement accounts, and it has recently made several alterations that will provide employees a bit more freedom. Forbes wrote that IRS Notice 2014-54 gives employees the ability to transfer after-tax money from their 401(k) account to their Roth IRA without having to pay taxes on the transaction. Beginning January 1, 2015, employees will be able to take advantage of this opportunity to roll over funds between the two accounts.

Why is it advantageous for employees?
A 401(k) account is essentially a contributor-based savings plan that has limits in terms of how much workers can contribute. At the same time, money is taxed in this kind of account, while a Roth IRA is tax free. With regard to the latter, workers fund their retirement savings using after-tax money, which grows in the account until it's withdrawn at retirement.

Before the IRS made this change, employees could technically still do the same thing, but it was a convoluted process, Investment News explained. In fact, many tax experts felt that the IRS was against the practice, which makes the recent announcement a welcome surprise.

Still, it doesn't give employees a blank check in transferring after-tax money from their 401(k) to a Roth IRA. The first caveat is whether a worker actually has after-tax money in his or her 401(k) account.

What's expected of employers?
Many employees who meet the criteria for transferring money between accounts will likely want to take advantage of the opportunity. Employers should facilitate the process. Human resources managers will need to clearly communicate the changes in the IRS's treatment of retirement savings to employees. This may even involve bringing in a financial advisor who can explain any aspects of the changes that may cause confusion. 

Need a big reason to get a time and attendance system in place? Read on . . .

13 Oct

The Mistakes of Dealing With MistakesOn 10/8/14, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on a case that involved time that may or may not be compensable under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). In this case, the Supreme Court reviewed a decision in which the Ninth Circuit court ruled that employers, under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and Portal-to-Portal Act, must compensate employees for the time spent in security screenings at the end of their shifts.

I won’t get into all of the details of the case, but this case proves that it is evident. Compliance with the FLSA continues to remain a top challenge for HR/payroll professionals. In a recent article, the Society for Human Resources (SHRM) reported that inquiries related to the FLSA exceed those of all other federal employment statues other than the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Until some of the rules of these acts are rewritten to make them clearer and easier to understand for everyone who has a stake in the process, it would be in any employer’s best interest to institute an automated time and attendance solution to properly capture and report time.

A time and attendance system allows you to collect, analyze, and take immediate control of your employees’ attendance and labor data. They are invaluable for ensuring compliance with labor regulations regarding proof of attendance. Plus, there are auditing functions contained within them to guarantee accuracy and compliance for payroll information.

While the outcome of this case is still pending, securing a great time and attendance system, instituting best practices, and keeping an eye on pending legislation should be at the top of every HR and payroll professional’s list.

Check out www.sagehrms.com today to gain control over time and labor data.

 

Complications with ACA

9 Oct

There are no easy choices when it comes to ACA.

The Affordable Care Act will become more important to companies with over 100 employees because January 1, 2015 is the deadline for those businesses to begin offering health insurance to its workers. According to MSN News, the exact requirement is that at least 70 percent of full-time staffers must be offered health insurance by 2015. Additionally, the insurance plan must not exceed over 9.5 percent of employees' annual salaries.

According to Andy Birol, a small-business consultant, companies shouldn't overthink their policies to the extent it inhibits them from making other business decisions. He terms his strategy for ACA as "fish or cut bait," meaning to either get into the game or get out of it – to make a decision quickly and stick to it.

Some companies are actually reducing their headcount of full-time employees to avoid paying the for insurance coverage.

More complications to complying with ACA
There are some additional challenges to the ACA that many people in the human resource planning field are not aware of, but a recent article by HR Morning pinpoints some of the most salient points to be concerned about when it comes to this important matter.

For one thing, adding a wellness program is a great way to get employees healthy and focused on getting into good shape. However, giving incentives to those who sign up for it can be a problem, along with adding penalties for people who smoke or are overweight. For example, the ACA maximum reduction or penalty is 30 percent, according to HR Morning. For smokers, it rises to 50 percent. Anything more than that is a violation.

Another problem is with "grandfathered" programs, which are old enough to become exempt from major health care rules. However, if a grandfathered program changes enough than it will no longer be protected under the same status.

The government has put out a list of information about this on a special ACA website.

Waiting periods are another complex issue. Health care plans cannot make employees wait more than 90 days for coverage to begin, but many covered employees are facing longer waiting periods, putting their employers in jeopardy of facing ACA penalties.

How affordable is the insurance?
Some employees are turning down ACA insurance because they can't afford it. According to Tara Wicker, the HR director for a chain of grocery stores, many of her employees choosing against insurance because they can't pay the premiums. People who want to keep their workers insured and healthy may want to look carefully for an affordable plan that compromises between what employees and employers can both afford.

Other people believe that employees should be allowed to have no insurance if that's what they want.

"The employer is responsible for offering the insurance, not responsible for ensuring that employees actually enroll," said Tony Novak, a benefits consultant.

The official rules are that if the employer offers minimal coverage, there is no penalty if employees don't take it. Jon Robitaille, who works for a grocery store, says that he signed up for the insurance plan because he felt it was mandated, but said he would have preferred to spend the money on vacations instead.

Other complications include the fact that workers must work for 30 hours a week in order to be eligible for a plan, and maybe people who work more than one job have trouble meeting the requirements even if they work more than 30 hours when both jobs are combined.

Smaller businesses won't have to worry about the ACA rules until 2016. That's when companies with between 50 and 99 employees must begin providing health insurance. Those with less than 50 don't have to comply with the rules.

Venting on social media? The NLRB has employees’ backs

9 Oct

Employees holding a Facebook discussion about their employer were protected by the NLRA.

Many consider the National Labor Relations Board to be the governing body in charge of protecting employee and employer rights. The National Labor Relations Act enacted by Congress in 1935 was designed to put into plain text the various safeguards that give employees the ability of collective bargaining and striking, and many of the activities commonly associated with labor unions.

However, the digital age has thrown a bit of a wrench in the straightforward statements originally contained in the 20th century legislation. Specifically, social media is difficult terrain for some employers to navigate in the way they're able to set policy that influences their employees' online behavior. The recent case involving a sports bar and grill clarified the extent to which social networks fall under the protection of the NLRA. It's a case that human resources managers should pay close attention to, especially when they're developing or redefining employee management policies.

The importance of Section 7 of the NRLA
There are portions of the NLRA that are used as a reference when discussing protected speech, collective bargaining and other important employee rights. Nonetheless, Section 7 of the NLRA contains language discusses "concerted activities" as they pertain to mutual aid or protection. Employees have the right to collaborate to improve working conditions. The case involving the sports bar saw this principle applied to social media.

A Facebook discussion as a concerted activity
Four employees of the sports bar and grill held a Facebook discussion about their wages. In particular, they spoke of how they believed they unfairly had to pay state taxes due to accounting errors on the part of the bar owners. The judge in the case ruled in favor of the employees, finding the Facebook discussion, which was held on one of the participant's personal pages, was protected under Section 7 of the NLRA. Despite some of the profane language used on the social network, it wasn't deemed to be defamatory.

As a result, two of the employees, who were fired by the employer for violating the company's online sharing policy, were able to reassume their positions within the company. In addition, the other two individuals who "liked" the comments made by their colleagues were also protected under the NRLA.

What does this mean for employers?
Law firm Seyfarth Shaw indicated employers need to first construct their employee policies regarding online conduct in full purview of the NRLA. In other words, employees must be allowed to discuss their wages, work environment and other work-related matters without fear of dismissal.

OSHA changing its reporting regulations

9 Oct

OSHA regulations will become more strict in 2015.

OSHA has released new rules that will make compliance reporting more of a challenge for employers. According to Human Resources Executive Online, OSHA's latest regulations will require employee management teams to report work-related fatalities within 8 hours and hospitalized work-related injuries within 24 hours. Additionally, everyone will have to comply with OSHA reporting guidelines, including companies that do not have to keep injury and illness records, which hadn't needed to make reports in the past.

Previously, injuries were only reported when three or more employees became wounded in the same accident, which made reporting far less common. Additionally, amputations are now considered to include the loss of even small parts of the body, such as the tip of a finger. An additional 25 new industries must also begin keeping records. This new list includes lessors of real estate and liquor stores.

According to Environmental and Energy Law Monitor, posting on JD Supra, the laws go into effect on January 1, 2015. The theory behind the new regulations is that OSHA will begin conducting more inspections of companies where people are injured on the job. Before, only those with injuries affecting three or more people would become targeted for inspections, now employers that regularly report injuries of only one person or more will face additional OSHA inspections.

OSHA to post its data online
OSHA is now planning to report accident data online, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. The idea behind the online releases, which are already posted to OSHA's website, is that companies will be embarrassed by their track records of injuries and begin to emphasize safety as a major concern.

"We believe that the possibility of public reporting of serious injuries will encourage—or, in the behavioral economics term, nudge—employers to take steps to prevent injuries so they're not seen as unsafe places to work," said David Michaels, the head of OSHA, to Bloomberg Businessweek. "After all, if you had a choice of applying for a job at a place where a worker had just lost a hand, versus one where no amputation has occurred, which would you choose?"

Some companies are opposed to OSHA's plan, alleging that posting the reports online will only make things more difficult for businesses to find employees without helping workers to operate in safe places.

"OSHA simply cannot demonstrate that this proposed rule will result in fewer injuries and illnesses," Geoffrey Burr, vice president of government affairs for the Associated Builders & Contractors, said in a statement sent to OSHA earlier in 2014.

Is telemedicine beneficial in the long run?

8 Oct

Seeing a doctor remotely isn't the same as visiting one in person.

Telemedicine is a new trend that many companies are taking advantage of. Because it is such a recent innovation, many business professionals are still unsure of whether it will benefit their company in terms of human capital management or not. Early adopters have so far had mixed experiences with the product.

According to the American Telemedicine Association, telemedicine is the exchange of medical information between different sites to benefit a patient's medical health status. This includes referral services, remote monitoring and medical education services. the most common practice is using telemedicine to see a doctor who lives far away remotely. The service is considered part of a company's overall health plan.

Healthcare Dive reported that employer support of telemedicine is relatively new, and the service has also been adopted at a faster pace – over half of employers plan to cover telemedicine consultations in 2015. Many are going this route because the Affordable Care Act is making it more expensive for companies to give their employees healthcare.

Schools are also becoming interested in telemedicine, the Baltimore Sun wrote. Schools in Maryland are linking with local hospital pediatricians to provide an instant examination of sore throats, skin rashes and ear infections. Parents can also sit in on the examination using a special app. The idea is that students won't have to miss school for basic doctor visits.

Pros and cons
The service may not be right for everyone, however. According to Fortune Magazine, the people employees would see won't be their own doctor, but rather a physician who has just gotten off work and wants to make some extra money by performing examinations. Doctors log into the service and then select patients from a screen. They are actually not allowed to see the patients in real life once they begin seeing them through a telemedicine service. Doctors can prescribe medication, although nurses are available to review the charts produced from a telemedicine visit to ensure an accurate diagnoses.

In a price comparison, Bloomberg Businessweek found that a regular doctor's visit would cost $100, but a visit to an online doctor costs only $40.

Some people are wary of the practice, however.

"I don't think we know how it works, the risks and benefits at the moment," says James Perrin, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics. "The only way to diagnose strep is with a test. Best practices say you can't just throw an antibiotic at somebody [without a test first]."

Is it beneficial?
Ultimately, the major problem with telemedicine is that it is arguably not the same as seeing a doctor in real life, according to U.S. News and World Report. For one thing, computer cameras are for the most part still not at a high enough definition to be the same even as a photograph in a textbook, let alone seeing someone's throat in real life. For treating serious ailments, it may be better also to talk with someone who knows a patient's medical history thoroughly, versus someone new every time. U.S. News cited that a major problem with telemedicine is that it can lead to inadequate assessments because many non-verbal cues can "slip through the cracks," and doctors cannot feel a person's arm to see if it is stiff in a certain way.

Whether it leads to less expenses for a company in the long run, versus problems with misdiagnoses leading to further time off and insurance payments is still not clear. Many doctors appear ambivalent about the practice, although they say that it is still helpful in certain instances.

"I think there a lot of good uses for it," said rural family doctor Raymond Christensen. "I don't think you can start an IV with it. There are places where we still have to have people touching people. But it brings a higher level of care … than we've been able to provide before."

How to handle salaries

8 Oct

Employees often feel they aren't being paid enough.

Only about half of employees believe their fellow workers are being paid in a way that reflects their performance, according to a study by Towers Watson. Additionally, 4 in 10 employees are highly engaged with their work. Although Entrepreneur reported that most employees are happier in a job they find more satisfying for less pay versus a higher paying job that is not as enjoyable, the research by Towers Watson would seem to indicate most people choose work based on salary.

So, who's at fault here? Are employees putting too much of the burden on managers, or are managers not working efficiently enough at finding appropriate salaries? According to Human Resources Executive Online, it's a bit of both. Some managers are able to get away with doing poor work because they aren't properly reviewed by those in a managerial position. Other times, salaries are handled by people who are too far up the chain of command to make accurate decisions.

Employees can't all be star performers
Laura Sejen, global practice leader of rewards for Towers Watson, suggests that most employees are able to do about the same level of work in comparison with other workers doing the same job.

"Put yourself in the shoes of a manager with pay decisions to make," Sejen said in conversation with HRE Online. "On average, people tend to do their jobs well. Some do better and some do worse, but on average, most of your employees fall into what I call the 'steady Eddie' category. [As such,] it becomes difficult to have these conversations with these steady Eddies year after year, it becomes difficult to tell them their merit increase is only about 2.5 percent or 3 percent, because that's what's required to be able to give more to star performers."

Managers must be willing to tell their employees that ultimately not everyone is in a high-performing position where a greater salary would be appropriate. In a best case scenario, the largest bonuses rightly should go to the few workers who truly make a big difference for the company.

How employers can make employees feel valued
Money is a major incentive for getting workers motivated, but ultimately it is not the only tool in a employee management's toolkit. According to Entrepreneur, giving employees an opportunity to make a positive work/life balance for themselves may help inspire them to work harder when they are doing their job, as well as to rest thoroughly when they are not working.

One example of this is to allow employees to customize their work schedule. In theory, employees should be able to work however they want as long as they show up to the appropriate meetings and get work done on time. If giving them the opportunity to work early in the morning and leave early in the afternoon is appropriate, then consider doing that, as it may positively impact their job experience.

Opening up the salary process
A suggestion by HRE Online is to make salaries more transparent by showing how the numbers are generated. Additionally, professionals across different units can work together to identify true high performers and reward them accordingly.

An example cited by Sejen is that if a company only wants to reward the top 10 percent of its employees, then it should evaluate what makes an employee a "top earner," and then make this information well known. After that, it should clearly and precisely evaluate those 10 percent and ensure the number is accurate, so it doesn't grow to 20 percent or shrink to 5 percent.

"One of the best things HR can do [when it comes to payroll] is to shine [a light on the process] by measuring and making visible what is really happening," said Jim Kochanski, a senior vice president with Sibson Consulting.

Building a successful wellness program

3 Oct

Coaches may help reduce medical costs for businesses in the long run.

Workplace wellness programs are still being studied as far as whether they are effective, with some employee management teams reporting success and others saying that they haven’t seen their expenses reduced. It may be that the type of wellness program has more to do with its success or failure, so that leadership in each company must look closely at what sort of program employees would benefit from the most.

A study by RAND corporation found that about half of all businesses with 50 or more employees have wellness programs. According to the New York Times, most medium-to-large companies spend about $521 per employee on making sure workers stay healthy. Additionally, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that most companies believe their program is working effectively. What is ultimately difficult to gauge is whether this is true or not.

One of the problems with wellness programs is that it’s impossible to know whether someone would have gotten sick with – or without – something in place that encourages employees to exercise or eat right. According to the New York Times, the research may show that wellness programs do not work – or they at least cannot be proven to reduce illnesses.

Engagement a major factor in health programs
A more optimistic report comes from a study conducted by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, according to Human Resources Executive Online. The research was collected between 2007 and 2011. It looked at 13,627 UPMC employees who were enrolled in the company’s MyHealth chronic-disease management and wellness program. The study also examined 4,448 workers who were employed at another healthcare organization with a different program that did not study chronic diseases and did not help employees manage their health in the same active way as MyHealth.

The study found that MyHealth managed to reduce the annual payouts for medical costs by anywhere from $3,000 to $250 per year per individual. Those who shifted from high risk to medium or low risk saved the most money, but even those who moved from medium risk to low risk also reduced health expenses.

In an interview by HRE Online with Michael Parkinson, who conducted the study, reported that the takeaway is that engagement with each employee is crucial for a proper medical benefits program to succeed.

“[Incentives] are not a silver bullet,” Parkinson said to HRE Online. “They have to constantly evolve to reflect higher levels of engagement.”

Coaching as a way to reduce health costs
A separate article by HRE Online cited the increasing number of companies that are hiring coaches to help with their medical programs. These coaches work directly with employees on their health and help them reach attainable goals quickly. One such coach helped an employee to quit smoking in about half a year.

According to HRE Online, these coaching programs are the ultimate form of an engaged health initiative. Additionally, the programs appear to reduce the cost that employers pay out in the form of health insurance or missed working days.

“In a benchmarking call I recently had with a few employers, their perception is that face-to-face coaching is working,” said LuAnn Heinen, an NBGH vice president and wellness expert, to HRE Online.

Personalized service means that employees receive help directly for their exact medical needs, which is a better solution than programs with more generalized health goals for entire departments or companies. Each employee has his or her own health problems, which require specialized approaches that coaches can directly address.

“From our [employee] surveys, we feel people wanted more personalized advice,” said Dr. Andrew Crighton, Prudential’s chief medical officer, to HRE Online. “We needed a different model, one that included encouragement and goal setting.”

Although this is more involved than more traditional approaches, it may ultimately save money and hold greater benefits for companies in the long run.

How should employers handle harassment investigations in the workplace?

3 Oct

Harassment investigations should be handled quickly and thoroughly.

Employers have a high degree of responsibility to both prevent and respond to harassment investigations. If it's not already, it should be high on the list of priorities for employee management.

There are guidelines the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has established, and employers are expected to follow them. In reality, a harassment investigation should be addressed proactively by providing all personnel with clear indication of what is and isn't appropriate behavior at the workplace.

However, employees don't always follow the rules as intended, or there may be misinterpretations that ultimately lead to a complaint. In this case, employers should have an effective strategy in place to ensure investigations run as smoothly as possible.

Begin immediately
There's no reason to wait before conducting a harassment investigation. Supervisors, provided they're not the subject of the complaint, should notify the human resources manager as soon as possible. Since HR is usually the intermediary in these cases, the department should identify an internal investigator who can act impartially on behalf of both the claimant and the individual charged with the indiscretion, according to the American Bar Association. This person should also have a clean record and full knowledge of the company's harassment policies, as well as EEOC guidelines.

Get written documentation
According to HR Hero, it's important to ensure the investigator keeps track of all statements and reports and maintains them in case the situation escalates and moves to trial. All documentation should be verified and signed by the witnesses in the investigation. This will lend credibility to the investigation and better protect against subjectivity. At the same time, clearly document that the claimant, the individual charged with harassment and witnesses won't face any kind of retaliation.

Interview both parties
The American Bar Association suggested the investigator begins by speaking with the alleged victim. Establish a clear background by asking the five primary questions: who, what, when, where and how. It's also a good idea to maintain anonymity of both parties. The alleged harasser should be given the chance to explain the circumstance from his or her perspective as well. In the case that an employee brings a charge against a superior, it's advisable to send him or her home until the investigation culminates.

React quickly
Once the investigation concludes, make an expeditious, but accurate judgment based on the events, witness testimonies and interviews. Don't belabor the process because it may end up damaging relationships to a greater degree.

An effective anti-harassment policy should be the first step in eliminating this issue in the workplace. However, employers need to take the proper steps to enable both fair and decisive investigations.

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