Licensing Board Commissioner files suit against Providence officials to recover her legal expenses.

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PROVIDENCE, September 2, 2015 – Johanna Harris has filed suit in Superior Court against Providence City officials to recover the expenses that she incurred while defending herself against legal attacks intended to interfere with her official duties as Commissioner and former Chair of the Providence Board of Licenses. Starting in August 2014, Peter Petrarca, an attorney who represented numerous clients before the Licensing Board, filed an ethics complaint against Ms. Harris and then sought a court order to force her recusal from cases involving his clients on the grounds that his ethics complaint made it impossible for her to be impartial. Ultimately, the Rhode Island Ethics Commission dismissed Mr. Petrarca’s ethics complaint, while his suit to have Ms. Harris recused was also dismissed.

Citing a Rhode Island law amended by the General Assembly in 2009 that requires cities and towns to indemnify public officials, Harris has demanded that City Solicitor Jeffrey Dana, Mayor Jorge Elorza, and Chairman of the City Council’s Claims Committee Sam Zurier comply with their obligation under the law and pay her accumulated legal expenses of nearly $18,000. According to a recent Rhode Island Supreme Court decision, Harris contends, the City has no choice but to indemnify her.

Cities like Pawtucket and Central Falls have passed specific ordinances to implement the state law. But Providence has not passed any ordinance or publicly issued any rules that would put City employees on notice as to the procedures for seeking legal representation or indemnification in the event that they become the target of a lawsuit. “Outside of public notice or scrutiny,” Harris asserts, “the Respondents have effectively set up a hidden system … that has permitted them to pick and choose which City officials they will indemnify based on the content of their speech.”

City Solicitor Dana offered to reimburse only $3,000 of Harris’ expenses, claiming that he lacked the authority to exceed that amount. However, nothing bars the City Solicitor from recommending to Mayor Elorza or to Claims Committee Chairman Samuel Zurier that the City pay a settlement in excess of $3,000. Mr. Dana’s “hiding behind this artificial non-limit of $3,000” is only one vehicle that has permitted the City to pick and choose whom to indemnify.

Harris further cited the City’s practice of indemnifying an official charged with an ethics violation “only if that individual is subsequently exonerated.” “Such a policy of conditional indemnification,” Harris notes, “puts officials like Petitioner in the precarious if not untenable position of accumulating legal expenses without knowing whether the City of Providence will pay for them.”

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Ethics Commission Exonerates Johanna Harris: No Violation. No Penalty.

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PROVIDENCE, July 21, 2015 – Today, the Rhode Island Ethics Commission dismissed Peter Petrarca’s complaint against me, ruling that I did not violate the Code of Ethics and imposing no penalty.

In March 2014, when I had been on the Providence Licensing Board for only six weeks, the City’s Human Resources Department asked me to address an urgent personnel matter. In response, I provided executive coaching to a senior manager during the month of April 2014. My one-time professional services were performed on an emergency basis for less than $5,000 in compliance with City’s rules for a no-bid contract. Apart from my position on the Licensing Board, I have no continuing contractual relationship with the Human Resources Department or any other City department.

To find a violation of the Code of Ethics, the Commission must show that the conduct under scrutiny was “knowing and willful.” Ruling that my acceptance of the no-bid contract was not a knowing and willful violation of the Code, the Commission noted that I had voluntarily reported my contract twice to the Commission.

Last September, Mr. Petrarca brought suit in Superior Court to bar me from deciding his clients’ cases on the grounds that I would be biased by the mere fact of his ethics complaint. In October, Justice Brian Van Couyghen denied Mr. Petrarca’s motion for a preliminary injunction, and in March of this year, Mr. Petrarca’s lawsuit was dismissed in its entirety.

In the year that I’ve spent defending myself against the ethics complaint, I’ve learned a lot about the Ethics Commission. In the coming year, I plan to write about what I’ve learned.

Soft Closing: What is the Reality?

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Under a pilot program set up in 2011, the City of Providence has allowed seven nightclubs located within a restricted geographic area to remain open until 3 a.m. on weekends. In 2012, the Board of Licenses closed down one of these clubs because of a massive street brawl that one police patrolman described as “pretty much a slaughterhouse.” Earlier this year, the Board revoked the license of a second club because of a double shooting. More recently, the Board penalized a third nightclub when a fight within the club turned into a street brawl.

City authorities have now asked the Board of Licenses to expand the scope of the “soft closing” rule. They want the Board to extend the mandatory weekend closing from 2 a.m. to 3 a.m. for large nightclubs throughout the entire city. They have provided no analysis of the experience of the three-year-old pilot program. They have not identified the specific nightclubs that would be eligible. Many of these clubs may have a documented record of violence, underage drinking and noise violations. Many are likely to be in residential areas.

At its regular open meeting on June 12, the Board considered a request from the City Solicitor’s Office to schedule a public hearing on the proposed expansion of the soft closing rule. The Board voted unanimously not to schedule a public hearing until it had completed a thorough, two-month study of the proposal. Soft closing is far too important an issue. We cannot go blindly forward without understanding its consequences.

At the Board’s June 12 meeting, leaders of community groups, experts from colleges and universities, and some City Councilmen eloquently raised a large number of unanswered questions. Will the as-yet unidentified nightclubs have enough security personnel to ease patrons out at 3 a.m.? What forms of transportation will be available at that hour? Where can a club patron get food at 3 a.m.? What will be the economic impact on smaller clubs that do not qualify under the proposal? How can our police department, with its limited resources, realistically manage the extended 3 a.m. closings? The Public Safety Commissioner did not attend the Board’s hearing, and other police officials in attendance were not authorized to comment publicly. However, at other Board hearings, district commanders have testified that they presently don’t have the manpower to cover incidents of club-related violence within their own districts, let alone the entire city.

The City Solicitor’s Office has drafted a proposed list of requirements for those nightclubs eligible to close at 3 a.m. Extended hours will be limited to Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights, as well as nights before holidays. During the final hour from 2 to 3 a.m., the music must be softer, the lights must be brighter, and no alcoholic beverages can be purchased. To prevent larger eligible clubs from stealing customers from smaller ineligible clubs, the Solicitor’s Office proposes that the doors of the larger clubs must be locked at 1 a.m.

Is compliance with these new regulations even remotely realistic? Week after week, the Board of Licenses hears alleged violations of city ordinances and state laws that prohibit noise pollution, bottle service, fighting and other public nuisances, as well as the operation of a nightclub without a license. The City Solicitor’s Office currently has over forty cases of violations documented by the police that have yet to be brought before the Board. The Board’s license administrator, already understaffed, will have a whole new layer of regulations to monitor.

With its current 2 a.m. weekend closing, Providence is already an outlier that attracts nightclub goers from throughout the region. Unfortunately, some of these visiting club goers have violent propensities. The fact that they are unknown to our local police makes it harder to take preventive measures to stop fights before they start. With a 3 a.m. closing, eligible clubs will have an even stronger incentive to engage in “party more, party later” advertising, even though such advertising is illegal. That could further exacerbate our city’s violence problem.

To institute such a major change without adequate factual input from neighborhood groups, colleges and universities, developers and potential investors is simply irresponsible. If some of our city authorities believe that the extension of the soft closing will protect the public safety, let them make their case with facts.

Johanna Harris, an attorney, is Chair of the Providence Board of Licenses. On June 25, 2014, the Providence Journal published this post as an editorial commentary under the title “Johanna Harris: Providence must scrutinize ‘soft closings’.”

Copyright © 2014 Johanna Harris

Workplace Q&A: Part 15

Q: Can I stop a co-worker from spreading lies about me?

“I attended a work-related event at a bar. Unfortunately, I had too much to drink. I didn’t do anything terrible, but I did some silly things. Now one of my co-workers is going around telling everyone at work that I can’t hold my liquor. What’s worse, he has been embellishing his account of my silly behavior in order to make me look really bad. He keeps spreading more and more lies about me. Can I do anything to stop him?”

A: Yes.

Your co-worker’s behavior is a form of bullying. You need to bring his conduct to the attention of management in factual, unemotional way. Request that the co-worker be instructed to stop his objectionable behavior. It’s best to have a face-to-face conversation with your manager. But if that’s difficult, then write down all the facts along with your requested remedy, and send your manager a letter or an email.

Any form of gossip, teasing, or sharing of personal information by a co-worker is a form of bullying, even if it would be considered innocent in another context. Managers are not the only individuals who can engage in workplace bullying. Abuse on the part of a co-worker can be just as destructive to your career.

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Q. Can I cross out the non-solicitation clause in my severance agreement?

“My job was eliminated and I was given a release to sign in order to receive severance pay. The release contained a “non-solicitation of employees” clause that covered a period of six months after I leave the company. I’m planning to start my own business, and I’d like to ask some of my subordinates to join my new venture. My new business would be much smaller and serve only the local market, but technically, it would still be a competitor of my former company. Can I still get severance pay if I sign the agreement but simply cross out the non-solicitation clause?”

A. Probably not.

It is highly unlikely that the company will accept a release that contains a section you’ve crossed out. At the same time, don’t try to hide behind the fact that your new company will be smaller or only a local competitor. Your former company may very well sue you in an attempt to stop your solicitation of employees or even shut down your business.

You have two alternatives. The best option is simply to wait out the six months before you solicit any of your former subordinates. The second alternative is to approach someone at the company who would have authority to waive the provision. If you’re really not a competitive threat and you aren’t proposing the poaching of employees who are critical to your former employer’s business, the company may very well agree to some sort of compromise.

It is quite common for employers to insert standard non-compete and non-solicitation clauses in their offer letters and severance agreements. However, when faced with specific requests for exceptions, they are often willing to be flexible. For example, your former employer may allow you to solicit its employees as long as you give it three months notice to hire replacements.

Q. Can my manager refuse my request to replace my four-month maternity leave with a four-month paid vacation?

“I am pregnant with my third child. I had easy pregnancies and deliveries with my first two children, and now I have the help of a full-time nanny. I’m really not interested in taking the four-month maternity leave that my company offers. So I asked my manager if could forego the maternity leave and instead take a four-month vacation next year. After all, I had it coming to me. My manager said No. Can he really get away with this?”

A. Yes.

Your manager is within his rights. Technically, you do not have a four-month vacation “coming to you.” Maternity leave is a specific form of paid absence that is justified by the birth of a child. It is not bankable time to be used for any purpose whenever you want.

One option is to take a vacation trip during your maternity leave, that is, during the four months after the birth of your child. Maternity leave does not require you to sit at home for four months.

If you don’t take your maternity leave, your employer’s rules on paid vacation time will still apply. If you are entitled to one month of paid vacation, another option might be to ask your manager to extend your paid vacation for six or eight weeks. If that doesn’t work, then perhaps he’ll accept an unpaid extension.

 

 

Copyright © 2013–2014 Johanna Harris

Disclaimer: This blog is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship. This post contains numerous questions describing common recurring problems in the workplace. The circumstances described in these questions, including the names of characters and business firms, are fictitious.

About the Author: Johanna Harris has been a trial attorney with the U.S. Department of Labor and in-house labor counsel for two multinational corporations. She is currently an executive coach and CEO of Hire Fire and Retire LLC. Her new book, USE PROTECTION: An Employee’s Guide to Advancement in the Workplace (i Book, Kindle, Amazon Paperback), is intended to help you learn enough about labor law and personnel practices so that you don’t get derailed from the career track you should be on.

Workplace Q&A: Part 14

Q: Can a company reject my job application based on my contributions to social media?

“I applied for a job as a product manager. After several interviews, I was pretty sure that I’d get a job offer. Instead, I got a call from the recruiter with the bad news that the company decided not to hire me. He said only that the company had reviewed my presence on various social media sites. He didn’t say whether the company found any particular post, comment, “share” or “like” to be problematic. Is it legal for a company to base a job rejection on information in social media?”

A: It depends.

If the company became aware of your sexual orientation or religion through its review of your contributions to social media, it could not base a job rejection on either of these criteria.

However, if the company saw pictures of your drinking, partying or engaging in minor vandalism, it could consider these things in your hiring decision. If your social media trail showed evidence of homophobia, sexual harassment, racism or violence, the company could reject you because of concerns about these attitudes.

In any event, the company is not obligated to ask you in advance about your blogs, posts, comments, photos and likes. Nor does the company have to inform you what social media contributions it reviewed or why certain contributions caused concern.

Only you know what your social media presence reveals. You would be well advised to make every effort to remove anything that is objectionable. If you find nothing that is patently objectionable, then try removing anything that is even mildly offensive. Of course, this could prove difficult, as you may have made appearances on sites that you don’t control.

Once you’ve done your best to clean up your social media trail, you could write the company a respectful letter emphasizing your strong points and apologizing for any inadvertent misunderstanding. Perhaps it’s a long shot, but the company might take another look at you. In any event, you’ve dealt with a problem that could hamper your ability to land a future job.

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Q: My manager is totally disorganized. What can I do?

“I work for a very talented manager who is extremely disorganized. He works on many projects at once and gets wonderful results, but he cannot remember what he told me to do or how to do it. I end up spending a lot of time doing things that he has already done himself or doesn’t need done any more. What can I do?”

A: Try daily check-ins.

You could try daily check-ins, either in writing or orally. At the start of the day, state what you plan to do, and then ask him if that’s how he wants you to spend your time. At the end of the day, check in again to see if that’s what he wanted. The key is to be in touch with your manager often enough that he’s aware of what you’re doing and he can articulate what he needs.

The check-in strategy has to be carried out delicately. Your boss may be completely unaware that his instructions are unclear or contradictory, but you cannot directly accuse him of these deficiencies. Make sure that your repeated follow-ups do not create the appearance of insubordination, inability to work independently, or incompetence.

If you still cannot get your manager to give you clear, consistent instructions, you should take regular notes about what he told you to do and what you did. At the very least, you’ll have a defense if you’re later accused of ignoring his instructions.

Q: My employer rejected my proposal for an employee group for video game enthusiasts. Isn’t that discriminatory?

“My employer sponsors diversity groups for working mothers, Christian Bible study, disabled employees, African American employees, Asian employees and Latino employees. Every month the company provides each group with a room, free coffee and cookies. I asked for permission to start an employee group for video game enthusiasts. My request was denied. Isn’t that discriminatory?”

A: No.

A company can make provisions for employees to provide mutual support. As a general rule, these groups support employees who constitute a minority in the workplace or who have faced some common difficulty. The company has no obligation to provide space and refreshments for all employees or for any reason. Different companies draw the line at different points. It wouldn’t be improper for your company to accept your proposal for a group of video game enthusiasts, but it is not required to do so.

 

Copyright © 2013–2014 Johanna Harris

Disclaimer: This blog is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship. This post contains numerous questions describing common recurring problems in the workplace. The circumstances described in these questions, including the names of characters and business firms, are fictitious.

About the Author: Johanna Harris has been a trial attorney with the U.S. Department of Labor and in-house labor counsel for two multinational corporations. She is currently the CEO of Hire Fire and Retire LLC. Her new book, USE PROTECTION: An Employee’s Guide to Advancement in the Workplace (i Book, Kindle, Amazon Paperback), is intended to help you learn enough about labor law and personnel practices so that you don’t get derailed from the career track you should be on.

Workplace Q&A: Part 13

Q: Do I have to tell my manager about my upcoming job interview at a competing company?

“Next week, I have a job interview with a competing company. Do I need to tell my manager where I’m going?”

A: No.

That said, you do need to tell your manager that you’ll be out of the office on a vacation day or personal day, depending on the policy of your company. If your company routinely lets people leave early for personal business, you need only notify your manager you’ll be out of the office.

In fact, you should not tell your manager about even the possibility of another job until you have a firm offer in writing.

You should also avoid showing up at work dressed in “interview” attire. Signaling that you’re on your way out before you actually receive another job offer can seriously impact your compensation, bonus and opportunities for promotion if the new job prospect later falls through.

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Q: Can my company force me to accept a promotion?

“I was offered a promotion to a management position. I wasn’t told that I had to take the offer. But a senior manager made it perfectly clear that the promotion was a big deal. From his point of view, why would anyone in his right mind turn it down?

“Well, I have been a manager, and I hated it. I like the job I have now. I am good at it. And I don’t get stressed out. Can my company force me to accept the promotion?”

A: No.

You should certainly not take a job that you don’t want or that won’t be a good fit for you. When you decline the promotion, you should explain that you have been a manager, and that you find your current position much more rewarding. You also should stress that you can contribute much more to the company in your current role.

In all likelihood, the company will accept your decision and forget about it. Still, you can’t discount the possibility that it will leave a bad aftertaste. Unfortunately, there is a strong bias in our culture about the desirability of “moving up.” Senior management may not look favorably on your future requests for salary increases or new assignments.

One possible solution is to explore a lateral job move. That way, you can advance your career and still earn the company’s good will, especially if you’re moving to a position that the company has had difficulty filling.

Q: Do I have to attend the upcoming company party to celebrate a new client?

“My company has planned an extravagant party to celebrate the acquisition of an important new client. I really hate parties. Do I have to go?”

A: It depends.

If you work for a large company, the party may be so big that your absence will go unnoticed. The company is unlikely to insist that attendance at such a huge party is required for you to perform your job satisfactorily.

On the other hand, if you work for a small company or if the new client will be attending the event, your company could very well argue that attendance is an essential part of your job. In that case, you’ll have to show up.

In any case, it’s not a bad idea to learn to tolerate these sorts of events. Celebrations are common in just about every work environment, and many companies view them not only as job related events, but also a form of team building.

There are numerous techniques for making company social gatherings tolerable, but that’s a topic for another post.

 

Copyright © 2013–2014 Johanna Harris

Disclaimer: This blog is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship. This post contains numerous questions describing common recurring problems in the workplace. The circumstances described in these questions, including the names of characters and business firms, are fictitious.

About the Author: Johanna Harris has been a trial attorney with the U.S. Department of Labor and in-house labor counsel for two multinational corporations. She is currently the CEO of Hire Fire and Retire LLC. Her new book, USE PROTECTION: An Employee’s Guide to Advancement in the Workplace (i Book, Kindle, Amazon Paperback), is intended to help you learn enough about labor law and personnel practices so that you don’t get derailed from the career track you should be on.

Workplace Q&A: Part 12

Q: Can I be switched from a salary to an hourly wage?

“For the past two years, I have been paid a salary. My job has not changed at all. Yet last week my manager told me that I would be paid an hourly wage from now on. The good news, he said, is that I would now be eligible for overtime. But I did the math. My new hourly wage multiplied by 40 will be less than my old weekly salary. Can the company do this?”

A: Yes.

But there may be more to the story. You need to find out why the company is making the change. Quite possibly the company was informed that you are a “non-exempt employee,” as defined by the Fair Labor Standards Act. If so, then you should have been paid an hourly wage plus overtime for all hours worked over 40 each week. If you in fact worked more than 40 hours in any workweek, then the company owes you back wages. You can review your records, make a determination of the shortfall and approach Human Resources with a request for back pay. If you’re the only employee in this situation and the company simply made an honest error, you might indeed get the additional pay. But if you’re one of many, don’t count on it. Paying you what you’re due will set the company up for paying your co-workers, too. In that case, you’ll have to decide whether it’s worth complaining to the Department of Labor or just dropping the matter altogether.

Q: Do I have a right to find out why my wife was terminated?

“My wife was fired form her job last month. She wasn’t given a clear explanation of the reason for the termination. I tried to call her manager, but I was told the manager would not speak to me. Do I have any rights to get the information?”

A: No.

However, you can help your wife craft a letter to her manager or the head of the company asking for more information. You can also help her request her personnel records. If she hasn’t signed a release, you can help her file a complaint with the state anti-discrimination agency. In responding to such a complaint, the company would be required to give a written explanation as to why your wife was terminated.

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Q: Can I bring a lawyer when HR grills me?

“A few weeks ago, I was called down to Human Resources and questioned about an apparent theft of proprietary software. I asked the HR rep if I could have a lawyer, but I was told no. Can I have a lawyer?”

A: No.

It is legal to refuse to allow you to have legal representation. But it still may be unfair and unwise.

Employees are obligated to answer questions about workplace events. There is no law that requires the employer to let them to have a lawyer during questioning about such events.

However, when an investigation involves potential criminal activity or serious misconduct, it is nonetheless fair and appropriate to allow an employee to have an attorney present during an interview. The attorney can be instructed to remain silent so that the company’s representatives can hear directly from the employee. Still, the attorney would be in a position to advise the employee before and after the interview.

Copyright © 2013–2014 Johanna Harris

Disclaimer: This blog is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship. This post contains numerous questions describing common recurring problems in the workplace. The circumstances described in these questions, including the names of characters and business firms, are fictitious.

About the Author: Johanna Harris has been a trial attorney with the U.S. Department of Labor and in-house labor counsel for two multinational corporations. She is currently the CEO of Hire Fire and Retire LLC. Her new book, USE PROTECTION: An Employee’s Guide to Advancement in the Workplace (i Book, Kindle, Amazon Paperback), is intended to help you learn enough about labor law and personnel practices so that you don’t get derailed from the career track you should be on.

Workplace Q&A: Part 11

Q: I just got a final written warning. What should I do?

“I was just given a final written warning. I was told that my manager received customer complaints about my service. What should I do?”

A: Here are the steps you should take.

You won’t be able to solve the problem unless you know exactly what the problem is. First, you should ask for copies of the customer complaints if you don’t already have them. You will then need to go over each complaint, identifying the precise source of each customer concern and formulating a plan to address that concern. You should advise your manager of any customer concerns that are beyond your control.

Make sure you know how much time you have to remedy each problem that you’ve identified. If the warning doesn’t provide a timetable, then work with your manager to set a deadline for each problem that needs to be resolved. During this time period, you should have regular, brief check-ins with your manager – either orally or in writing – to make sure you are on the right track.

Q: Can my manager favor an attractive female co-worker?

“I’m part of a five-person team. We all work for one manager. The manager overtly favors one team member – a young, attractive woman. From the start, he gave her the best projects with the most learning opportunities and the highest visibility. I just found out that her annual bonus was more than double that of any other team member. Can my manager do this?”

A: No.

Under the federal government’s sexual harassment guidelines, a manager cannot disadvantage other team members in order to favor a more attractive female employee. The problem is that your manager will claim that his favorite employee is in fact more competent and deserves the additional compensation. After all, he’ll claim, she got the better assignments.

I suggest that you approach your manager about establishing more transparency in work assignments. If you can’t get your manager to divide the work fairly, you may have to ask someone higher up to oversee project assignments. Once the work is assigned in a more equitable and transparent manner, it will be easier to show that the disparity in bonuses is unfair.

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Q: Can my manager make me see the Employee Assistance Program counselor?

“Three months ago, my sister died after a long and painful illness. Just recently, my father died suddenly from a heart attack. When my manager found out, he told me that I had to go see the Employee Assistance Program counselor. Can he make me do this?”

A: No.

Employment Assistance Program (EAP) counseling is voluntary. It is a resource to help employees, but seeing an EAP counselor cannot be a condition of keeping your job.

Perhaps your manager has noticed some problems with your job performance and is concerned that further deterioration may put your job at risk. You should definitely have a conversation with him to make sure he doesn’t perceive that you have any performance issues. If he does, you should come up with a solution that is independent of EAP counseling.

Perhaps your manager cannot believe that anyone who has suffered two major losses in such a short time could still be able to perform well on the job. Again, it would entirely appropriate to have a conversation with your manger to assure him that, while times are difficult, you’re still able and willing to do your work.

Copyright © 2013–2014 Johanna Harris

Disclaimer: This blog is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship. This post contains numerous questions describing common recurring problems in the workplace. The circumstances described in these questions, including the names of characters and business firms, are fictitious.

About the Author: Johanna Harris has been a trial attorney with the U.S. Department of Labor and in-house labor counsel for two multinational corporations. She is currently the CEO of Hire Fire and Retire LLC. Her new book, USE PROTECTION: An Employee’s Guide to Advancement in the Workplace (i Book, Kindle, Amazon Paperback), is intended to help you learn enough about labor law and personnel practices so that you don’t get derailed from the career track you should be on.

What Can the Abbreviated Tenure of John Maeda Teach RISD about Hiring a New Leader

Most parents don’t lie awake at night praying that their children will grow up to be struggling artists. Dazzled by the wonders of a career in STEM, most high school seniors don’t see an art school as one of their top picks. For those reasons alone, leading an art college has to be among the world’s toughest jobs. In 2008, when the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) hired John Maeda to be its new leader, the tanking economy and the underfunding of arts education made the job even more challenging.

When Maeda was chosen as the new president to succeed Roger Mandle (1993–2008), it appeared that the RISD Board of Trustees had found the perfect successor. Maeda had degrees in software engineering, design and business. He had an academic background. He was a prolific writer and designer. He seemed to have precisely the skills to transform RISD into a major player in the new age of technology. But in the end, although he appeared capable of all things, Maeda was unable to stay at RISD long enough to institutionalize his vision and see his plans to completion.

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My goal in this post is not to relive every skid and stumble of Maeda’s abruptly abbreviated five-year tenure, nor to divulge some new morsel of inside information – of which I have none. Perhaps Maeda faced unique problems above and beyond those that all university presidents must overcome. He certainly faced harsh criticism for his methods of high-tech communication, his cleaning house of over twenty administrators, his disregard for faculty input, his willingness to upend long-standing courses, programs and requirements, and his tin ear to the essence of RISD. Whether or not these criticisms were justified, they certainly prevented Maeda from being the change agent that he was hired to be.

Instead, I want to make a critical point:

What happened during John Maeda’s tenure presents a road map for how to hire the next leader at RISD.

If we’re going to look backward at all, we need to ask these questions: Back in 2008, did the RISD Board of Trustees determine if Maeda had the temperament, the patience and consensus-building skills to stay the course? Did the Board carefully the study the abundance of readily available writings that so clearly defined Maeda? Did the Board too easily overlook his lack of experience in the usual training grounds for college leaders? Did the Board buy into his tempting vision without looking too closely at how he meant to get to the Promised Land?

Let me put a few ideas on the table for the RISD Board to consider before it chooses its next president.

First, RISD should give itself a healthy amount of time to vet its next leader.

When a board is hiring at the highest level – whether it’s the CEO of a for-profit corporation or the president of a nonprofit organization –there is a natural tendency to look for a superstar. That makes a lot of sense. After all, it’s an important role.

But all to often, superstars have less visible inadequacies in key areas that are overshadowed by their public persona. In the end, the cost of a flawed leader can far exceed his notoriety value. Only careful vetting can ensure that any identified weaknesses can be compensated for – by hiring the appropriate senior staff, by redefining of the mission of the leader, or simply by announcing more realistic expectations. Vetting a prospective leader is not necessarily a job for a private investigator. In fact, it is rarely the case that a candidate’s less visible inadequacies are hidden from the public view. Quite often, these inadequacies can be identified and analyzed if the decision makers on the Board have the motivation to do so.

Second, when the RISD Board evaluates candidates to be the new leader, it should have a good idea of who will stay and who will leave.

It is not uncommon for a new leader to “clean house.” In fact, it is often a good thing for a university or for any organization. But there is a right and wrong way to go about it. Turnover is costly in terms of severance pay, morale, institutional knowledge and efficiency. Turnover should not be an end in itself, but a tool to effect strategic goals. People should be let go because there is a clearly articulated business need for someone different. It is frustrating when qualified people are let go because their views are inconsistent with the new goals of the organization, yet these so-called new goals remain unclear and the funds and compensation aren’t there to support them.

Third, the RISD Board must ensure that the next leader will be able to cultivate trust and communicate effectively to all interested parties.

Communication is key. But communication that is superficial or inauthentic is useless. Before the different parts of an organization can communicate real ideas and tolerate real criticism, there must be trust. If a leader is not trusted, and people don’t believe that their ideas will be received fairly without retaliation, then communication fails. Communication without trust not only fails to improve the organization, but it becomes a basis for polarization and inflexibility.

Fourth, the RISD Board must agree that there is an essence of the institution, a look and feel that will not change.

The culture of an organization is made up of lots of little things – customs, signs, traditions, the configuration of its spaces, titles, schedules and institutional stories and key figures.  Changing these little things is rarely worth the pain and bad feelings that it engenders. There are some areas where a leader is well advised to tread lightly.

Fifth, the new leader must have a vision that is consistent with the values of the organization, feasible to achieve and forward looking.

The vision must come first. It is the basis on which the goals and plans are based. The new leader must believe in the vision and be able to get all parts of the organization to buy into and cooperate with this vision.

The Road Ahead

Maeda’s five-year tenure appears to have been accompanied by many successes. The School is ranked highly. The student body is more diverse. Job placement seems high. Tuition is stable. Fundraising is rebounding. RISD is a strong voice in the global conversation about the role of art in innovation and economic progress. The task of RISD’s Board is to find someone who will not only build upon these successes, but also minimize future disruption and dissension.

Copyright © 2013–2014 Johanna Harris

About the Author: Johanna Harris has been on the board of directors of seven nonprofit organizations, most recently as Co-Chairman of Preserve Rhode Island, as well as in-house labor counsel for two multinational corporations. She is currently the CEO of Hire Fire and Retire LLC. Her new book is USE PROTECTION: An Employee’s Guide to Advancement in the Workplace (i Book, Kindle, Amazon Paperback).

Workplace Q&A: Part 10

Q: Can I be fired because I’m against abortion?

“I am pro-life and opposed to abortion. I was just called into my manager’s office and summarily fired. I pointed out that I couldn’t be terminated for thoughts or feelings that had nothing to do with my job. My manager responded that this was not the reason for my termination. He said that I was fired because I was trying to convince others that abortion was wrong. Can I really be fired for that?”

A: It depends.

You have the right to think or feel whatever you want. But your fellow employees also have the right to work without being aggressively confronted with others’ viewpoints. They are, after all, captive audiences. So, it’s one thing if you happened to express your opinion in a conversation with your co-workers. But if they complained that you persistently harassed them with anti-abortion rants, then your employer could indeed terminate you.

Q: Can I bring my 11-year-old to work?

“I don’t have child care on those occasional days when my 11-year-old daughter’s school closes for teacher conferences or bad weather. On one of those days, I asked my manager if I could bring my daughter to work. I even offered to have her do some filing. My manager’s unequivocal response was, ‘No.’ Isn’t this overly strict?”

A: No.

Many employers don’t let children spend more than a very limited time in the workplace, and the reasons for such a restriction can be entirely legitimate. For example, they may fear accidents or are concerned about disruption of other workers. When it comes to your offer to have your daughter do some filing, you should be aware that there are strict limits on what an 11-year-old can do in the workplace. Perhaps there are many tasks that she could perform quite competently. But your company may not want to risk a legal citation for exploiting underage labor.

Workplace-Q-and-A

Q: My co-worker just returned from 2 years of active military duty and was given a big raise. Is that fair?

“I am really upset. One of my co-workers just returned from two years of active military duty in Germany. My company immediately gave him a major promotion and a big raise. Is that really fair?”

A: Not only fair, but required by law.

Federal law mandates that an employee returning from military service must be placed in the job he would have had if he had remained with the company during the entire period of his military leave. He must also receive the level of pay and any pay raises that he would have received if he had stayed on the job.

Copyright © 2013–2014 Johanna Harris

Disclaimer: This blog is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship. This post contains numerous questions describing common recurring problems in the workplace. The circumstances described in these questions, including the names of characters and business firms, are fictitious.

About the Author: Johanna Harris has been a trial attorney with the U.S. Department of Labor and in-house labor counsel for two multinational corporations. She is currently the CEO of Hire Fire and Retire LLC. Her new book, USE PROTECTION: An Employee’s Guide to Advancement in the Workplace (i Book, Kindle, Amazon Paperback), is intended to help you learn enough about labor law and personnel practices so that you don’t get derailed from the career track you should be on.