The Williamson Difference: HR Answers That Work

How Top Tech Trends Are Transforming Work

November 12, 2019

By Charles Coy

When asked to consider how technology is transforming the world of work, an HR executive may point to advancements in applicant tracking systems, the growth of on-demand learning platforms and better employee analytics. These are just a few of the exciting new tools having a profound impact on HR, but what about the many broader technologies that are shaking up the status quo across industries?

From 5G and blockchain, to deep learning and augmented reality, these technologies are more than buzzwords.  In fact, there are already proven use cases demonstrating these technologies’ promise in industries like retail, finance and healthcare. And there’s plenty of potential for them to transform HR as well. 

With that in mind, here’s a look at the seven tech trends making work more connected and efficient.

1) Deep Learning

A form of artificial intelligence, deep learning uses algorithms that can learn without direct input from humans. If you want a computer to differentiate between pictures of toddlers and puppies, a person wouldn’t need to label specific attributes of both categories. Instead, artificial neural networks could send data through various layers, with each one defining key features of various pictures and, finally, pinpointing the right identifiers for classifying the images.

The technology is powerful when it comes to interpreting large amounts of disparate data and coming up with highly nuanced inferences about customer behavior. Case in point: Recruiters will be able to pinpoint promising candidates more efficiently, since they won’t be limited by the data in their company’s traditional applicant tracking systems. Instead, their deep learning-enabled technology will be able to aggregate and analyze data from social media sites like LinkedIn and other sources like personal websites or portfolios to gain a better understanding of applicants as individuals. “The deep learning can layer in additional data sets to provide insights into the next best steps,” says Daniel Newman, principal analyst of Futurum Research.

2) Augmented Reality

With augmented reality, digitally generated images, sound and graphics enhance objects in the real world. While it has led to popular entertainment like Snapchat’s gender-swap lens and Pokemon Go, AR also is having an effect on how we work. For example, AR now makes it easier for teams to work remotely. At Braustin Homes, a San Antonio-based company that sells factory-built houses, customers can shop for one of the firm’s 24 home models entirely online or over the phone. Customers can take materials home with them, download an AR app and view floor plans of each model. For the staff, it means employees don’t need to meet customers in-person or at construction sites, saving them travel time and money and giving them the flexibility to work from wherever they want.

Workers can also use AR-enabled glasses to perform a task that requires many steps without first having to memorize all those instructions. Instead, workers can use an AR-enabled headset to view instructions or tutorials through a display overlay while they work. Or an expert located at another location can offer guidance. The result for workers: More time to work on other, more challenging projects.

3) Bots

Bots can run automated tasks, enabling them to perform repetitive tasks such as sending emails or scheduling appointments at a higher rate than a human. While companies are already increasingly using these bots for internal processes, the next step iteration will be what Christopher Creel, author of Adaptive: Scaling Empathy and Trust to Create Workplace Nirvana, calls “intelligent chatbots.”  These bots use deep learning algorithms operating inside of collaborative applications like Slack. As a result, they can perform such tasks as collecting regular feedback from colleagues, doing away with the need for annual reviews. In addition, using natural language analysis, bots can coach managers on how to phrase feedback to be most effective. The upshot: a dramatic improvement in our performance as managers and a more pleasant employee experience.

4) Conversational AI

Over the next few years, virtual assistants operated through voice commands like Siri and Alexa will become a lot more sophisticated. That’s because, with the next phase of artificial intelligence, the software’s algorithms will be able to consider context and make inferences. Thus, your digital assistant will not only be able to let you know when you have two conflicting meetings, but also help you prioritize your schedule based on, say, which person is higher up in the company hierarchy or other important factors. “You’ll have a continuous stream of conversation that’s more like talking to another person,” says Newman.

So how will that impact the way we work? For one thing, the technology should significantly boost our day-to-day efficiency by taking menial tasks off the plates of workers. An AI-powered assistant can schedule interviews between candidates and hiring managers, for example, giving human HR executives more time to better prepare for innately human tasks, such as phone screen interviews. Plus, by sussing out potential political conflicts or other inter-personal considerations, it’s likely to improve our relationships within our organization and maybe even lead to quicker promotions, Newman suggests.

5) Municipal Broadband

A growing number of towns and cities are building and managing their own broadband infrastructure systems, offering the service to residents in a certain area. They’re particularly important for rural regions that commercial providers find too expensive to enter. For gig workers and freelancers in these areas, the systems can make it easier to work from even the most remote rural areas.

6) 5G

This next-generation cellular wireless technology promises faster speed, lower latencies (the time it takes for data to travel from a device to the cloud and back) and the ability to connect massive numbers of sensors and smart devices within a network. The impact on work will be substantial. For example, faster, more reliable Internet connections will improve remote communication and collaboration tools like video calls. In addition, there will be advances like enhanced virtual conference rooms, combining AI, connected objects and virtual reality. For instance, a speaker’s name and title might appear on the screen, a helpful piece of information for big meetings with many strangers. It all will make virtual meetings more like real life and further boost the ability to work remotely.  

7) Distributed Ledger Technologies

Blockchain, often called a digitized ledger, contains batches of transactions linked to other blocks that are time-stamped and tamper-proof. While it’s widely known as the underpinning for cryptocurrency, the technology is also used for a wide variety of other applications, such as tracking the progress of a product through a particular supply chain. And that’s likely to have a larger impact on the workplace by making it easier to collaborate with everyone from vendors to banks. “You’re going to have a greater amount of trust in whomever you’re working with if you can track everything that’s happening without wondering about the integrity of the system,” says Michael Biltz, managing director of Accenture Technology Vision. Plus, blockchain has the potential to add more transparency to recruiting and hiring, serving as a virtual resume that’s unchangeable and offers verified credentials.

As these technologies continue to evolve, it’s critical for HR to consider how they might transform and improve their organizations. After all, we spend too much time at work to miss out on opportunities to work better.


Charles Coy is the senior director of analyst and community relations at Cornerstone. Responsible for evangelizing about Cornerstone’s innovation in talent management technology solutions, he is interested in the ways that technology can affect how organizations evaluate, motivate, and value their employees. He can be reached via Twitter at @oleskoo.

Employee Benefits: Make Them Easy to Buy and Use

November 12, 2019

By Sharlyn Lauby

One of my favorite phrases is “make it easy to buy and easy to use”. I learned it years ago in the hospitality industry. If you want to upsell a restaurant guest, make it easy for them to buy the premium product and use it. Basically, as the guest, I simply want to pay and enjoy.

This concept applies to other products and services too. For example, if you want me to upgrade my technology subscription then make it easy to buy and easy to use. If I have to logout, download a new app, reset my password, and it still doesn’t work, then this doesn’t make me want to spend the extra money.

It also applies to employee benefits. If you want employees to use their benefits, then they need to be easy to sign-up for and easy to use. The benefit should also be easy for employees to understand.

A new report from Colonial Life found that 47% of employees who work for companies with fewer than 100 employees understood their benefits package “very well” compared to employees at larger organizations (33%). The report cites organizational commitment toward benefit education being stronger and more personalized in smaller companies.

I’d like to think that I don’t need to tell anyone that employee benefits that don’t get used aren’t really benefits. What I mean by that is, the company can have lots of benefit options and they can be fantastic plans, but if employees don’t use them then it’s hard to explain the value. The answer is having a benefits program that’s easy to buy and easy to use. Here are a few things to consider:

  1. Align employee benefits with company culture. When you think about your organizational culture and values, what benefits immediately come to mind? For example, if the company values work-life balance then is teleworking an employee benefit? Or if the company says employee well-being is important, then does the company offer dental insurance? You get the point. And when it comes to benefits, don’t forget that voluntary benefits can be an option.

  2. Talk about employee benefits all the time. It’s not enough to mention benefits during an interview or new hire orientation. Employees are processing so much information, they honestly might forget. Think like a marketer and consider having regular employee benefits “coffee chats” or “lunch and learns” so employees can be reminded of how their benefits work. It might also make sense to offer a benefit “one sheet” separate from the employee handbook. This might be something that an employee keeps at their desk or on their refrigerator.

  3. Make sure the benefits are serving their purpose. One of the biggest goals that employee benefits serve is helping to attract and retain talent. Managers should be asking about benefits during stay interviews. Benefits should also be asked about during exit interviews. If employees are declining job offers because of benefits, it’s common to say “Oh, they don’t know what they’re doing.” But the truth is maybe they do. And if employees are resigning for a better benefits package, it might be time to look at a realignment (see #1).

Employee benefits are an important part of the employee value proposition (EVP). But if organizations want employees to feel like they have the best benefits package ever, then they need to market those benefits. And make them easy to buy and easy to use for the employee.


Sharlyn Lauby is the author of HR Bartender (www.hrbartender.com), a friendly place to discuss workplace issues. When not tending bar, she is president of ITM Group, Inc., which specializes in training solutions to help clients retain and engage talent. She can be contacted on Twitter at @HRBartender.

The Most Effective Ways to Show Employee Appreciation

November 12, 2019

By Lorena Martinez

“Let me know when your whole life goes up in smoke. Means it's time for a promotion.” This is the advice Nigel gives Andy in a scene from the 2006 movie, “The Devil Wears Prada.”

Promotions are the only appreciation employees receive at Runway Magazine. A Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For would never hire Miranda Priestly!

Unfortunately, the sarcastic humor in the movie is not too far from reality for more than half of us. According to our normative study of the US workforce, only 42% of people believe that everyone has an opportunity to receive special recognition at work.

This figure matters because feeling appreciated is one of the top 10 drivers of a high-trust experience, according to my analysis of what drives trust in company culture. I analyzed hundreds of employee comments to learn what makes them feel appreciated in the workplace.

I found that feeling appreciated is more important for employee engagement than pay, benefits, time off, training, or celebrations.

Why employers don't show appreciation

In my 11 years of consulting, I have heard the same excuses from leaders. Corporate executives, call center supervisors, police lieutenants, lawyers, doctors, and teachers all defend why they don’t show appreciation.

1)  Fear of stimulating underperformance. Many managers say, “I shouldn’t thank people for simply doing their jobs. That’s what’s expected of them.”

2)  Creating a sense of playing favorites. “Recognition is a double-edged sword. If you thank people publicly, others will think you have favorites. So, I just play it safe and do not thank anyone publicly.” I heard a similar argument from an executive, a doctor, and many others. 

The best ways to show appreciation

Employees need more than a meaningless “Thank you’” to feel appreciated. 

1)  Make sure people feel heard. What makes people feel most valued and appreciated, is having their ideas and suggestions genuinely listened to, regardless of their role, department or level. 

2)  Be an approachable leader. When everyone, regardless of level, finds leaders easy to talk to, they can be heard. This leads to feeling appreciated. Leaders at our Fortune 100 Best Workplaces do this regularly. They create a culture of appreciation by giving people exposure to different leaders in the business.

3)  Acknowledge your people from everywhere. Celebrate employees even when they are not in your team or department. Hearing praise from different places is at the heart of true appreciation. This also relieves pressure from one person having to make a whole team feel appreciated.

Fair Appreciation is a Two-Way Street

It’s not only leaders who have a part to play. Employees also need to own the opportunities their organization provides. Many employees say that those who put themselves out there and collaborate with others get more opportunities.

Kimley-Horn encourages people to build their network by providing “Lunch on Kimley-Horn.”

“One of our most popular integration tools is our ‘Self-Directed Career Development’ lunch coupons, which gives all new hires a chance to choose 30 or more senior coworkers and take them to lunch on the company for mentoring and career guidance. The freedom to select multiple colleagues over time is important because we expect young professionals to spend time exploring their professional direction. Our goal is to allow each staff member to discover the role in which he or she will thrive, and these lunches often serve as the catalyst.”

Kimley-Horn is 2nd on our Best Workplaces in Consulting & Professional Services 2019, number 5 Best Workplaces for Millennials 2019, and at the 18th spot on 2019 Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For.

When both companies and employees do their part, people can have a very strong sense of appreciation. An employee of Kimley-Horn explains:

“This company loves to show their appreciation to their employees, as they figured out, ‘so goes the employees, so goes the company.’ Employees work harder with ease and enthusiasm to exceed expectations when they feel their talents and skills are valued. This is my experience here at Kimley-Horn.”


Lorena Martinez is a New York-based consultant at Great Place to Work (www.greatplacetowork.com), the global authority on high-trust, high-performance workplace cultures.

Protected Activity or Terminable Misconduct?

November 12, 2019

By Connie Bertram

It has become almost routine for employees pursuing whistleblower and other employment-related claims against their employer to engage in "self-help discovery," using their access to files and databases to collect and gather, in violation of company policy, documents and data relating to their claims. The company often becomes aware of this type of misconduct during internal investigations, when a forensic review of the complainant's computer or statements by witnesses reveal that the complainant has collected or is collecting evidence. Or, the misconduct may not become evident until after the employee has filed a charge or a lawsuit, when confidential company documents are referenced in the charge or complaint or the employer undertakes discovery.

This misconduct appears to be fueled by the belief on the part of both claimants and at times even their counsel that current employees have an unfettered, protected "right" to engage in self-help discovery to develop evidence supporting their claims. Indeed, it appears that plaintiffs' counsel still encourage this behavior, requesting that their clients gather "the goods" while they are still employed so that counsel can use the fruits of their efforts in demand letters, draft complaints and litigation. In one recent case, a prominent D.C. plaintiff's attorney proudly touted that her client had gathered and retained over 10,000 proprietary emails and other documents that allegedly supported her client's claims.

When a company learns or suspects that an employee is engaging in such behavior, it may feel paralyzed from taking action, fearing that the employee will claim that her termination for stealing records was retaliatory. But, as with any other form of employee misconduct, the employer should undertake an investigation to determine whether the employee has violated company policy and carefully consider if a termination is justified and defensible. There is an emerging (although not entirely consistent) body of case law recognizing that, except in certain circumstances, employees do not have the right to engage in self-help discovery and that employees who do can be terminated, even if the evidence was gathered to support their anticipated or pending claims.

Courts had struggled with the issue of whether this "self-help" discovery rises to the level of "protected activity" that insulates the employee from termination. Some courts have been willing to offer at least some protection to the employee, as long as the documents or data related to his claim and were not obtained through "improper" means. However, other courts have recognized that an employee's right to pursue a valid complaint or claim does not license him to plunder his employer's files and databases looking for evidence relevant to it. The analysis of an employee’s self-help efforts necessarily depends on the types of claims the employee is asserting, the types of information the employee takes, and how the employee uses the information.

The factors considered by courts in determining whether self-help discovery is protected activity vary depending on the claims asserted by the whistleblower.  False Claims Act cases, for instance, provide a sharp contrast in approaches to the issue. For instance, in Cafasso v. General Dynamics C4 Systems, Inc., 2009 WL 3723087 (D. Ariz. Nov. 4, 2009), a terminated employee removed eleven gigabytes of documents from her employer's databases without permission before her computer access was suspended.  When her former employer, GDC4S, brought a breach of contract claim against her, she filed qui tam and retaliation claims under the False Claims Act. The court explained that the "False Claims Act required [the whistleblower] to give the Government substantially all material evidence and information she possessed." However, the court noted, the whistleblower was not required to show the Government evidence that she did not properly possess and did not have the right to possess evidence unlawfully.

The court concluded that confidentiality agreements between defense contractors and their employees serve vital economic and national security interests, including "protect[ing] the secrecy of new technologies that play a part in the nation's military and domestic security operations." The court explained that the whistleblower “willfully compromised these interests for no legitimate litigation purpose, only the speculative pursuit of self-help discovery. In short, every principle of substantive and procedural law cut against [the whistleblower's] self-help discovery tactic.” On appeal, the Ninth Circuit affirmed judgment in favor of the employer, noting that even if a public policy exception existed, “it would not cover Cafasso’s conduct given her vast and indiscriminate appropriation of GDC4S files.”  Cafasso v. General Dynamics C4 Systems, Inc., 637 F.3d 1047, 1062 (9th Cir. 2011). The court explained that were it to adopt a public policy exception for FCA cases “those asserting its protection would need to justify why removal of the documents was reasonably necessary to pursue an FCA claim” through a “particularized showing.”  

However, as the Ninth Circuit’s Cafasso decision recognized, the False Claims Act endorses some forms of self-help discovery by employees, as long as it is reasonably tailored to their claims and does not constitute unrestrained pilfering.  In Head v. Kane Co., 668 F. Supp. 2d 146 (D.D.C. 2009), a False Claims Act qui tam action, the whistleblower signed a separation agreement agreeing that all records were the sole property of the company and acknowledging that he had returned all records to the company.  In subsequent qui tam action, the employer brought asserted counterclaims for failing to return a confidential email. The court held that the counterclaim was void as against public policy, explaining that "[e]nforcing a private agreement that requires a qui tam plaintiff to turn over his or her copy of a document, which is likely to be needed as evidence at trial, to the defendant who is under investigation would unduly frustrate the purpose" of the False Claims Act, which requires relators to disclose to the Government all material evidence and information in their possession.  See also United States v. Duke University, 2018 WL 4211372 (M.D.N.C. Sept. 4, 2018) (self-help discovery is “a goal contemplated by the False Claims Act” as “the FCA contemplates and condones gathering and producing documents prior to service of the complaint and the beginning of formal discovery”); United States v. Boston Scientific Neuromodulation Corp., 2017 WL 6403853 (D.N.J. Dec. 15, 2017) (granting summary judgment in favor of FCA claimant on employer’s counterclaim for breach of confidentiality agreement).

As these decisions reflect, there are circumstances where employers may, consistent with their contracts, policies and prior practices, have the right to address theft and other misconduct by a current employee, even if she is pursuing a whistleblower complaint against it. An employer, however, should first undertake a full investigation and consider the circumstances surrounding the removal and use of the documents or data. The employer should also make certain that any action it takes against the employee is consistent with its policies and practices and its treatment of employees who have engaged in comparable misconduct. Also, it is important for an employer to take action promptly when it discovers the misconduct so that its decision is not viewed as retaliatory or pretextual.

With respect to claims by former employees, self-help discovery should be explored by an employer as soon as it anticipates claims. Through the forensic review of the former employee's computers, devices, databases and accounts, an employer should be able to determine whether the former employee engaged in self-help discovery conduct while employed by the company. If the employer determines that the former employee stole documents or data in violation of company policy, it may be able to establish a defense to liability or a limitation on damages under an after-acquired evidence or "unclean hands" theory. In addition, the employer may be entitled to assert counterclaims or obtain discovery sanctions against the former employee based on his or her misconduct.


Connie Bertram is a shareholder with Polsinelli PC and is the author of Sarbanes-Oxley: A New Whistle Stop for Whistleblowers published in the Labor Lawyer. She authors chapters regarding employment law for the D.C. Bar Manual and is the author of Chamber’s Regional Guide: Employment Law - District of Columbia. She is a contributing author to the OFCCP Digest and is the editor of Polsinelli’s Government Contractor Compliance and Enforcement blog. She can be reached at cbertram@polsinelli.com.

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