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How to Change Employment Policies Without “Pulling a Yahoo”

Last month, Yahoo abruptly announced it was banning telecommuting, generating controversy among its employees and the general public.  More than 16,000 articles have been written about the ban, with some endorsing Yahoo’s recognition that onsite collaboration is important for innovation and others decrying Yahoo’s failure to accommodate working parents and reneging on its approval of such arrangements.  Some employees live far from Yahoo headquarters and will need to relocate or quit.  The announcement makes clear that the policy applies both to telecommuting on occasion – staying home for the cable guy – and regular telecommuting.

Much of the debate centers on whether Yahoo is correct that telecommuting harms productivity and innovation.  This depends on the employee and the nature of the work.  Some employees are more productive working from home; others need to work onsite in order to remain focused.  These are decisions companies must make for themselves.

How can companies change policies or take away benefits without enraging employees and creating a public relations nightmare?  It is a challenge but here are some steps you should consider:

1. Make sure you understand what is important to your employees.  Talking with employees about their full benefits package – not just compensation – will help management understand which benefits employees value.  Utilization rates can also help, although sometimes employees are happy just knowing a benefit is available even if unused.

2. Consider the alternatives.  If you have a good understanding of what employees value, you may be able to create more palatable alternatives that will serve everyone’s needs.  Consider whether the change requires a blanket rule, or whether exceptions can be carved out without undermining your objectives or creating a haven for discrimination claims.

3. Seek employee involvement in the policy change.  If employees understand the problem and the array of options, they can participate in the solution and endorse it.   This helps ensure employees feel their views have been heard.  In large companies, a committee may be appropriate (but make sure it is legally formed under the National Labor Relations Board’s decision in Electromation Inc.).  However, this step may not be appropriate for all companies or for all policy changes.  For example, if management has already made up its mind, employees may become angry if they feel their opinions have been ignored.

4. Announce the policy change appropriately.  Give ample notice, if possible, and provide a contact person for questions.  Be sensitive in how you phrase your announcement.  While you want to be positive about how the new policy will help your company, acknowledging that it may impose some hardship can go a long way in making your employees feel valued.

Brody and Associates regularly advises its clients on all labor management issues and provides various related training programs.  If we can be of assistance in this area, please contact us at info@brodyandassociates.com or 203.965.0560.