Shorter is better.

Why? The slang TL;DR comes to mind.

But it turns out there’s an educational component too — at least according to the results of a new study that examined workplace contracts.

In the study, published in the Journal of Personality & Social Psychology and recapped by Insights by Stanford Business School, “the researchers found that workers whose contracts contained more general language spent more time on their tasks, generated more original ideas, and were more likely to cooperate with others. They were also more likely to return for future work with the same employer, underscoring the durable and long-lasting nature of the effect.”

In other words, contracts that contained pages upon pages of specific do’s and don’t for workers, ended up harming the employment relationship.

Instead, researchers found that “the more general contracts increased people’s sense of autonomy over their work.”

This isn’t the first time I’ve talked about the need to write employment contracts in plain English — something that is at the core of a book by Ken Adams whose work has appeared on this blog before.

It turns out that even “minimal changes”, in the words of one of the study’s authors, can have “important consequences.  Especially when it comes to behaviors that are notoriously difficult to include in contracts, such as increasing effort, task persistence, and instilling a stronger sense of autonomy, which leads to higher levels of intrinsic motivation. Reducing the specificity of contractual language can also increase creativity and cooperation.”

From a legal perspective, I’ll blame some lawyers for introducing some language in a contract that can be overkill at times.

(Don’t think lawyers are at least partly to blame for long contracts? Next time you see a “This space is intentionally blank” line in a contract, rest assured that it probably came from a lawyer.)

A few years ago, our practice group went through a standard separation agreement template to remove the “Whereas” clauses and the “Definitions”  — all in an attempt to simplify the agreement. The process took months.  Simplification does not necessarily mean increasing risk. It just takes more time.

Just ask Mark Twain (actually don’t — it’s a misattributed quote.)

Of course, you probably don’t need me to tell you that shorter is better. I just read the abstract and not the entire article.

After all: TL;DR.

Gender bias in the workplace is the subject of hundreds of scholarly articles and even more cases by courts.

But a recently-published study looked at whether the working status of a married man affects the man’s attitude of women in the workplace.

The conclusion? It’s not pretty.

We found that marriage structure has important implications for attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors related to gender among heterosexual married men in the workplace. Specifically, men in traditional marriages—married to women who are not employed—disfavor women in the workplace and are more likely than the average of all married men to make decisions that prevent the advancement of qualified women.

Results show that employed men in traditional marriages tend to (a) view the presence of women in the workplace unfavorably, (b) perceive that organizations with higher numbers of female employees are operating less smoothly, (c) perceive organizations with female leaders as relatively unattractive, and (d) deny qualified female employees opportunities for promotions more frequently than do other married male employees. Moreover, our final study suggests that men who are single and then marry women who are not employed may change their attitudes toward women in the workplace, becoming less positive.

So, are married men with stay-at-home wives ogres in the workplace — walking around mindlessly discriminating against women? Not quite, say the authors:

It is entirely possible that men in traditional marriages are unaware of their implicit gender biases, and their implicit attitudes about women in the workplace may be operating at an unconscious level. It is also possible that they may perceive their explicit biases to be privately held, and they may hold the erroneous belief that these explicit biases have no effect on attitudes or behaviors of consequence in the workplace. Either way, it is conceivable that men in traditional marriages are not intentionally being punitive toward women in the workplace

But the notion that even men who don’t show any “outward” signs of hostility towards women may still discriminate against them is still unsettling.

Even if you disagree with the premise, it’s still an interesting study that was brought to my attention by a column in this morning’s Hartford Courant.

So what’s an organization to do? Well, refusing to hire married men with stay-at-home wives is not the solution, according to the study’s authors.  Instead, the study suggests that an emphasis on diversity can blunt the effects of this unconscious bias.

A critical response…  is to establish responsibility for diversity. …  According to Kalev, Dobbin, and Kelly (2006), responsibility can entail (1) assigning accountability for setting diversity goals, devising means to achieve those goals, and evaluating progress; and (2) appointing full-time staff members or creating diversity committees or task forces composed of people from different departments, professional backgrounds, and management levels to oversee diversity initiatives, brainstorm to identify remedies, and monitor progress. Of course, these forms of responsibility pertain to promoting the representation of any protected class of workers, not just women, and as we have urged, they should not focus on men embedded in traditional marriages but instead reflect an awareness of where subtle prejudices and negative stereotypes may lie.

To be sure, even the study’s authors acknowledge the limitations on their research, noting that “we need to exercise some caution in interpreting our results.”  The authors go on, for example, to note that “While our results are consistent with the proposition that being in dual-earner marriages activates more egalitarian values in male employees, we had longitudinal data to support this hypothesis in only one of the studies.”

So, the study isn’t proof that discrimination is running rampant in Fortune 500 companies. But it is a reminder that despite all the progress that companies have made to fight discrimination, it remains important to be vigilant.

The Hartford Courant and Fox CT last week released their list of “Top Workplaces” in the Greater Hartford area.

In a column accompanying it, columnist Dan Haar suggests the ingredients that go into a good place to work: Passion, Freedom & Direction. He states:

One common thread is a system that shows respect for employees and customers alike, with a clear sense of direction, whether that means doing a better job managing behavioral health caseloads for the state (ValueOptions, Connecticut) or growing stock value a breathtaking 18-fold in less than five years, as Virtus Investment Partners has done.

But it’s more than just systems and strategies. Employees are not just dedicated to the business, to the team, but to the particular craft that they perform, with passion. The whale trainers love training whales, assisted-living program coordinators love working with elderly clients and the healers love healing.

It is about identity and it is not interchangeable. In short, it’s not just a job.

Now, I’m under no illusions that awards like these are mainly vehicles to boost advertising revenue.  The contests are far from scientific.  (Indeed, I’d argue that these surveys make the U.S. News college rankings look like Nobel Prize-winning scientific studies.)  Heck, Connecticut Magazine has its own list of “Great Places to Work”.

But there is clearly something to be said about how some workplaces are able to build a culture that employees find rewarding.

A Harvard Business Review article from earlier this year — which compiled research over a three year period — suggests that there are six attributes to a successful company:

We call this “the organization of your dreams.” In a nutshell, it’s a company where individual differences are nurtured; information is not suppressed or spun; the company adds value to employees, rather than merely extracting it from them; the organization stands for something meaningful; the work itself is intrinsically rewarding; and there are no stupid rules.

I haven’t seen any study that suggests that companies that get on such list are less likely to get sued by former employees. But that doesn’t mean that employers should simply give up; rather, having a place where your employees are happy to work at, surely is a way to reduce exposure to potential employment law claims.

Over the last week, two unrelated stories caught my eye.  For employers, they are a reminder that claims of pay inequality based on gender are still something to be concerned about. 

Photo Courtesy Library of Congress c. 1943

The first story is that Governor Malloy announced plans for a new study to examine “factors that contribute to the gender wage gap in Connecticut’s workforce.” 

The study will be run by  new Connecticut Department of Labor Commissioner Sharon Palmer and Department of Economic Development Commissioner Catherine Smith.  The Governor has asked the commissioners to make recommendations on the issue by October 2013.   

I’ve talked about this issue before; there are some who believe that the wage gap is overstated.  But the study will make headlines this year and this renewed focus in Connecticut on the issue should have employers revisiting their own practices.

The second story illustrates the claim in much more real world terms and shows the perils of trying to navigate your way through such claims. 

In Morse v. Pratt & Whitney, decided last week, a federal court — among other issues — denied an employer’s motion for summary judgment on an Title VII unequal pay claim.

Continue Reading Gender Inequality Claims Make Headlines in Case and in New Study

Returning from the ABA Meeting today, there were two stories over the last couple of days that have received some press. Taken together, they show the difficulties that companies and individuals have in predicting both the outcome of lawsuits and the coscourtesy morgue file "justice"ts of them.

First, the stories:

The gamble of going to trial doesn’t pay off for most plaintiffs, according to a study of more than 2,000 civil suits from 2002 to 2005.

Sixty-one percent of plaintiffs who turned down settlement offers ended up faring worse at trial, according to a New York Times story on the study. The average settlement offer was $48,700 and the average award at trial was $43,000, a difference of $5,700.

Defendants were wrong in just 24 percent of the cases, but for them the cost of a bad gamble was must larger. The average plaintiff’s settlement demand in those cases was $770,900 and the average verdict was $1.9 million, a difference of more than $1.1 million.

The conclusion to draw from both these stories is that litigation is tough.  It’s tough on plaintiffs and tough on defendants as well. Each side may have difficulty understanding the value of a case and have difficulty predicting what will happen. 

I’m sometimes asked at the very beginning of a case to present a "budget" and a estimated settlement value.  While it’s not an impossible task, the fact is there are so many variables to a typical employment case. Will discovery be intensive? Will witnesses be cooperative? Will there be lots of motions filed? And is the Plaintiff a "rational" player? In other words, will the plaintiff actually take a reasonable settlement offer? Each of these factors play an important rule in predicting the outcome and determining the best settlement "value".

Quite simply: Employment litigation is unpredictable.  And for both employees and companies, settling a case on their own terms may be the best way to avoid uncertain costs and guarantee the best outcome.

The concept of names is getting a great deal of press in Connecticut — no doubt over the story of some Yale Law students who are naming names of individuals who allegedly posted comments about them on an internet board. 

Of course, you can always change your name (though not that easily), but typically the name you’re born with, is the name your stuck with. 

And if you get confused with another person of the same name, well, that’s life.

But a recent post by George’s Employment Blawg asks the provocative question:

Is a hiring manager named “David” more likely to give an edge to a job candidate also named “David”?

Recent academic research suggests that the answer is “yes,” even for other names with similar sounds, like “Dan” or “Dustin.”

George points to a study by a University of Buffalo Associate Professor who concludes:

some of the biggest decisions of our life — where we live, what we do, and who we marry — are influenced by our first name.

[His] summary of his research states that people are disproportionately likely to:

* live in states or cities resembling their names (e.g., people named Louis are especially likely to live in St. Louis);

* have careers that resemble their names (e.g., people named Dennis, Denis, Denise and Dena are all especially likely to be dentists);

* marry other people whose last names begin with the same letter as their own. A similar, but weaker, matching effect also occurs for people’s first names.

The lengthy post goes on to discuss "blind" hiring and whether that concept will work.  Ultimately, studies like these show that the decisions we make can be influenced by factors we may not be aware of.  By continuing to focus on job-related aspects for decision-making, we can reduce the influence that these other factors may play.

And on a less serious note speaking of the Name Game, there is the classic song by Shirley Ellis which you can view below:

I have often said that whether an employee is viewed as being treated "fairly" may predict whether an employment decision will later be upheld by a judge or jury.  courtesy morgue file "notebook"

A recent study, however, shows that issues of "fairness" relating to employment decision may also affect a worker’s outlook on life.  A Washington Post article has the details:

A pair of psychologists recently evaluated hundreds of employees at a large North American university that was in the grip of painful change. The researchers wanted to find out whether there were factors that explained why some employees successfully weathered the transition and reengaged with their jobs, while others spiraled into cynicism and exhaustion — the classic signs of burnout.

Burnout has been long associated with being overworked and underpaid, but psychologists Christina Maslach and Michael Leiter found that these were not the crucial factors. The single biggest difference between employees who suffered burnout and those who did not was the whether they thought that they were being treated unfairly or fairly.

"These fairness issues can be huge," said Maslach, a social psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley. "Issues around fairness are highly linked to the anger and cynicism that are linked to burnout."

When a worker suffers burnout, she added: "You feel you have been treated with disrespect. It generates enormous personal anger for small things because of what it implies."

Although not the subject of their study, I have seen several instances of laid-off employees who sue — not necessarily because they were discriminated against — but because they did not believe the decision was "fair".  A lawsuit is seen as a way to right a wrong, in their view.  Anger and cyncism about the future are certainly common in such cases.

I am not implying that all cases are brought for this reason (nor am I saying that all cases that are brought are without merit).  But certainly the "fairness" of the employment decision plays a major role in how employees and others view the decision.

So what’s the takeaway for employers from this study? While it’s easy to make business decisions in a vacuum, explaining the reasons for those decisions and ensuring that employees understand the "fairness" of them, may play a major role in reducing exposure to lawsuits in the future.  In addition, keeping employee morale up — even in tough times — may not be an impossible task, but only if employees are made to understand that the decisions may not be ones they "like" but they are fair.

Conventional wisdom is that healthy and happy employees lead to better results for the workplace.  As a result, many employers offer Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) for their employees, including the U.S. government. Now, there is additional scientific evidence of that theory in a study involving depression.  

A medical study published in this week’s Journal of the American Medical Association determined that a systematic approach to identifying and treating depression not only improves the employee’s health but also results in higher job retention, decreased sickness, lower work-absence and increased work productivity.

According to the authors, "this study suggests that enhanced care for depressed workers can have benefits for employers that go beyond improved health and diminished suffering in their workforces and extend to increased work productivity."

What this study also suggests is that is for all the thought that EAP programs are simply a "workplace cost", the programs may actually provide significant value to the workplace.  In other words, investing in an EAP may — at least according to this study — result in additional dividends to the employer in the future. 

For human resources personnel looking to provide benefits to employees that are of true value, this study would bolster the case for employee assistance programs.  Certainly, as employers evaluate the cost of attrition of employees and training new employees, investing in an EAP or similar program may provide a means to reduce turnover and improve productivity. 

As the authors are quick to note, further study in the area is necessary to explore fully the benefits of various EAPs or other intervention programs, but the study, at a minimum, provides an additional scientific basis for considering such programs, particularly in assisting employees with mental health issues.