Author: Norma Shirk

My company, Corporate Compliance Risk Advisor, helps employers (with up to 50 employees) to create human resources policies and employee benefit programs that are appropriate to the employer’s size and budget. The goal is to help small companies grow by creating the necessary back office administrative structure while avoiding the dead weight of a bureaucracy.  To read my musings on the wacky world of HR, see my weekly blog HR Compliance Jungle ( which publishes every Wednesday morning. To read my musings on a variety of topics, see my posts on Her Savvy (

Covid Surges Back

Covid infections are rising again across the country. There is widespread speculation that we’re facing the predicted second wave of the virus in tandem with flu season. A second covid wave threatens small businesses that have survived so far, especially since there are few signs of relief or assistance.

Don’t expect any federal government action until after the next president and Congressional delegation are sworn into office in January. Tennessee’s state government has initiated several programs to help small businesses but that money was quickly depleted.
So what is a small business owner to do? Take a breath and look past the bottom line.

  1. If your company is still in business, celebrate that fact. Nashville thrives on the tourist industry which has been clobbered by covid and caused many small businesses to close. Anyone still in business needs to celebrate that fact.
  2. Be transparent with employees and your independent contractors. We all know it’s tough for everyone. In my career, I’ve been downsized from a factory job and from corporate lawyer jobs. The worst feeling is wondering when the axe will chop off your job as you listen to the management team blow smoke and tap dance around the truth.
  3. Show your appreciation for your employees and independent contractors by hosting a low cost event. Outdoor events, such as gathering at a pavilion in a local park or on the patio of a restaurant would allow everyone to maintain social distancing. The event itself is less important than being able to show your workers that you care about them.
  4. Create a list of local social welfare resources and distribute it to your employees and independent contractors. The list should include food banks, mental health counseling services, domestic abuse and suicide hotline numbers, locations of low-cost medical clinics for those without health insurance, and so on. Reminding your workers of the available resources can help them cope with the stresses we all face.
  5. Take another look at your HR policies and procedures. The policies and procedures may need tweaking to reduce confusion and potential inequities with workforces split between those who must go to a jobsite and those who can work from home.

If your company is struggling with the new “normal”, Corporate Compliance Risk Advisor can help you. We can create or update HR policies that adapt to the new normal and then serve as a resource after the policies are implemented.

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Emerging from the Cocoon

Who could have imagined in January how much would change this year?  We’re in our seventh month of the covid pandemic which has killed over 180,000 Americans.  Our workplaces are splitting between those who can work from home (generally higher paid) and those who can’t.  

Employers and employees are working through the financial strains caused by the economic fallout from the pandemic.  At the same time, there is a renewed focus on issues of diversity and racial equality as we struggle with the demographic changes in our country.  Overlaying all of these challenges is the most polarizing political election in decades.

It’s time to emerge from our cocoon and accept that we’re not going back to our old routine.  The new “normal” routine is that many people will be working from home permanently.  The new normal also means acknowledging and adapting to the demands for racial equality, gender equality, and sexual orientation protections.

HR policies need to be adapted to the new normal and Q4 is a great time to take a look at what should change.

Paid sick leave

Employers with less than 50 employees were introduced to an FMLA-lite model of paid leave for covid-related illnesses.   Employers with 51 – 499 employees adapted to a two-track FMLA model with unpaid leave for traditional FMLA and paid leave for covid-related illnesses.  Now employers need to prepare for the day when all employers are required to offer paid sick leave for any illness.  Several bills are currently pending in Congress and it’s a safe bet that at least one of them will become law.


Despite the economic slowdown, some companies may now be understaffed as employees (mostly women) have cut back on hours or quit to devote more time to looking after their children who are learning remotely.  To avoid the talent drain, companies may need to offer modified work schedules and job-sharing.  Another option is to hire more workers from the pool of talented people who are currently unemployed.

Demands for equality

Meeting the minimum legal requirements of Title VII may not be sufficient to keep up with the demographic changes in the workforce.  America is becoming more blended and brown. LGBTQ individuals are now protected under Title VII.  HR managers should urge employers to adapt their corporate culture to become a more inclusive workplace or risk losing out in the race for top talent.

Our new normal will temporarily feature a short-tempered, disillusioned workforce that is struggling fear of covid and financial stresses. Layoffs, terminations and business closures will continue until the economy fully recovers.   

But longer term, our new normal will require adapting HR practices in the workplace.  Q4 is a great time to create a strategy for living in the new normal so that your company can start 2021 ahead of the competition.

If your company is struggling with the new “normal”, Corporate Compliance Risk Advisor can help you.  We can create or update HR policies that adapt to the new normal and then serve as a resource after the policies are implemented.

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Back to the Office So Soon?

Rebecca has been busy since the COVID-19 pandemic turned the world upside down.  As an experienced HR manager, she thought she’d seen and heard it all but recent events are providing new frontiers to fascinate a student of human behavior.

Zoom meetings are an excellent lab for studying humans. Debbie’s co-workers have doubled down on hating her for taking over meetings with rambling updates and for her clothes. Who the heck puts on a professional suit for a video meeting when there’s not a customer in sight? 

Dark rumblings are bubbling up to Rebecca’s ear about brown-nose Debbie trying to make the rest of the team look bad.

Mike and Emmy, who Rebecca privately calls the Evil Twins because they work together when causing trouble, are again complaining that Alice is a rotten manager who is taking all the joy out of working from home.  Rebecca suppresses her overwhelming urge to tune them out as white noise.  When you’re the HR manager, you have to listen to all the whining because there may be an actual violation of the law buried in there somewhere.

Worse, since the work-from-home initiative began, the company has split into two factions. Lower paid employees visibly sour as higher income employees casually chatter about their on-line buying habits and the difficulties of doing business while the cleaning lady is running the vacuum.   Rebecca’s bracing for a corporate version of Les Miserables if the higher paid employees ignore her hints about empathy.  

Mack, the company owner, recently asked Rebecca to redesign the office space so that the staff can return.  Mack is struggling to renegotiate the contract of a key vendor.  He thinks the negotiations would be easier if he could yell across the hallway of the office when he needs help instead of wasting time sending emails and attending Zoom meetings.  

When rumors leaked of a possible return to the office, several employees offered Rebecca bribes to think of clever reasons why returning to the office is “bad”.  For parents, there are obvious childcare challenges with the school year beginning on-line only.  But Rebecca has also noticed that productivity is up since everyone went home.  Even micro-manager Ron’s subordinates have settled into a level of contentment leaving Rebecca free to deal with the Evil Twins.

How should Rebecca advise Mack on requiring employees to return to the office?


  1. She can point out that during a Zoom meeting Mack can turn off the video allowing him to do other work during the boring bits of the meeting.
  2. She can show him the stats that employees are happier and more productive working from home.
  3. She can hint that parents will bring their children to work until schools reopen for in-person teaching.

Government guidelines on safely reopening are just one aspect of the myriad issues a company should consider before calling employees back to the office.


If your company is struggling, Corporate Compliance Risk Advisor can help you create HR policies that are appropriate for your company’s size and then serve as a resource as the policies are implemented.


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I Want a New Plan

Back in the 1980’s Huey Lewis sang about wanting a new drug.  Small business owners want a new plan for coping with the pandemic.  Instead of slowly re-opening, they are facing a new partial lockdown as covid-19 infection rates increase again.

Small companies that survived the initial lockdown are wondering whether they can survive a second lockdown.  The owners face hard decisions, like telling employees who were laid off during the initial lockdown period that their jobs are gone permanently or laying off more workers. 

Meanwhile, their employees are also facing hard choices.  The ones still on the job wonder if they’ll be the next to go.  The ones receiving unemployment are wondering how they’ll survive when the extra $600 federal government top up goes away on July 31st.  It isn’t easy trying to find a new job in the middle of a pandemic with a stalling economy.

There are no right answers to any of these problems. There never are. It’s about assessing the risks based on the information available and then moving forward with a decision. For employers planning their next steps, consider the following.

  1.   If the employee’s old job is gone to never-never land, can the employee be re-trained to do a different job that still exists at the company?
  2.   If a lack of customers means termination is the only option, what do the soon-to-be former employees look like?  If only older folks, brown-skinned folks, women and other “protected classes” are let go, the EEOC may become overly interested in the company’s employment practices. 
  3.   Is the company financially able to soften the blow of a termination?  For example, Tennessee’s “mini-COBRA” law which applies to companies with less than 20 employees, allows an employee to stay on the employer’s group health plan for three months after the date of termination. Paying the employee’s portion of the premium during those three months can ease the transition for the employee.

Whatever the final decision, it will be hard on everyone. No one likes layoffs or terminations, but the company has to be able to survive so that it can provide a living to those still employed.  If the final decision is to reduce the workforce permanently, I’d like to suggest an approach that is not required by any employment law. 

Be kind to the employees who will no longer have a job.  Everyone is experiencing financial distress at the moment and that increases emotional distress.  Employers can’t be a substitute for mental health counselors or go bankrupt trying to fix employees’ financial problems.  But employers should think about how to soften the blow, beginning with how the news is delivered and when feasible, offering severance packages.   

If your company has questions about how to deal with employment issues related to covid-19, Corporate Compliance Risk Advisor can help.  Whether it means answering HR questions, revising policies, or being a sounding board for ideas on getting through the pandemic, we’re here as a resource for your team.

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Opportunities in the Covid Carnage

We’re going through economic carnage due to the closures required to slow the COVID-19 infection rate.  Unfortunately, many small businesses were financially unable to survive the shutdown. More businesses will close when customers fail to return either because they are too afraid of risking infection or because they have changed how they buy things.

But it’s not all doom and gloom.  A long list of “essential” businesses continued to operate during the shutdown. Aside from the obvious, such as hospitals and emergency responders, essential businesses include IT support companies, construction companies, waste management companies, grocery stores, and banks.  Non-essential businesses offering internet-based sales and services have also done well during the closures. 

As the economy re-opens, there are opportunities for employers and employees.  For unemployed workers, this is an opportunity to change the trajectory of their careers.  Many skills transfer across industries so this could be a chance to restart a career with a new employer.  There will be opportunities because laid off workers may have found other jobs. In other instances, employees who have been working reduced work schedules may decide to stay part-time.  

Whatever the reason, unemployed workers should step up their job searches now because competition will heat up quickly.  At the end of July, unemployed workers receiving unemployment are scheduled to lose the federally funded $600 top-up of unemployment benefits.  That top-up has allowed some lower income workers to make more money from unemployment than they did in their old low-paying jobs.  When the extra money goes away, unemployed workers will need to look for jobs.

Meanwhile, businesses have an opportunity to pick up top-notch employees among the vast swathes of currently unemployed workers.  Of course, for employers to capitalize, a few tasks must be done now. 

  1.   Rethink the back-to-the-office notion. If productivity and employee morale are good, maybe most employees should continue to work remotely.
  2.   For those who most return to the office, create a safety policy that follows CDC guidelines for reducing the chances that employees will be exposed to the COVID-19 virus in the workplace. 
  3.   Demonstrate to current employees (and everyone they tell on social media) that the company takes safety seriously.  That means senior managers need to wear a mask, use hand sanitizer and maintain social distance just like everyone else in the office.
  4.   Ensure the company’s leave policies comply with federal law which allows employees to take paid sick leave for their own or a family member’s COVID-19 illness or when there is no child care available due to COVID-19.   
  5.   Be willing to prove to employees that they really are the company’s “talent” by investing in them. Training programs allow current employees to brush up on their skills and help new hires understand the company’s processes.

If your company has questions about how to complete all these tasks while keeping up with daily operations, Corporate Compliance Risk Advisor can help.  Whether it means answering HR questions or revising policies, we’re here as a resource for your team.

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Back to the Office

Becky is actually looking forward to getting back to the office now that the Covid-19 lockdown has eased.  If she reads one more e-book downloaded from the public library or binge watches one more show on Netflix, her head may explode.  Whatever lurks at the office doesn’t seem as dreadful as continuing to stay at home.

Not that she has been living a life of leisure, of course. As the HR manager for the company, she is now an experienced organizer of Zoom meetings with Bob the owner and with employees.  She even visited the office a couple of times to track the progress of the cleaning crew as they deep cleaned the office.

So this morning, Becky awoke to the alarm for the first time in two months.  Then she had to dig an old pair of stretchy slacks out of the bag destined for Goodwill donations.  Who knew that reading books and binge watching TV could be so detrimental to the waistline? A quick look in the mirror revealed limp hair with dark roots. She briefly cursed the government men who thought gun shops were an essential service, but not hair salons. What kind of idiot believes that, she wondered as she wrapped her hair in a scarf and grabbed a homemade mask on her way out the door?   

The commute felt odd after two months at home. She arrived at the parking lot and pulled into a space near Paula’s SUV.  Paula wore a face mask and plastic gloves. She was busy donning a homemade hazmat suit consisting of garbage bags held together with duct tape.

As Becky emerged from her car and waved, Paula shrieked at her to maintain social distance.  Becky lowered her head and trotted toward the building.  In the lobby, a nurse ordered her to stop at the blue tape line for a temperature reading and to answer a couple of questions. After a short delay, the nurse waved her through with a reminder to avoid crowded elevators.

Becky dumped her purse at her desk and strolled around the office.  She had spent hours of Zoom meetings with Bob the owner and the IT guy rejigging the office layout in the hopes of keeping everyone six feet apart.  Every workstation had a box of tissues and hand sanitizer.

A quick check of the bathrooms showed they were well-stocked with toilet paper, soap and hand sanitizers, and paper towels. 

Employees began sidling into the office, like bears emerging from hibernation, unsure what awaited them.  Becky returned to her desk to find several messages from employees who were too afraid to come to the office. Sighing, Becky sat down and started her work day. 

If your company has questions about bringing staff back to the office, Corporate Compliance Risk Advisor can help.  Whether it means reassuring employees that it is safe to return or revising policies to allow continued telecommuting, we’re here as a resource for your staff.

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Beyond Covid-19

At the moment, the covid-19 crisis rages on.  Almost every day there is a new directive telling us to stay at home or extending the length of time to remain at home, but the covid-19 pandemic will eventually recede and a new normal will be established. 

Whatever the new normal brings now is a good time to think about how to cope with the next crisis.  There’s always a next crisis as any HR professional or business owner will attest. To jumpstart your modeling of how to handle a future crisis, here’s a couple of case studies.

 Hershey’s bittersweet chocolate

Many years ago, Hershey decided to upgrade their technology to link their chocolate factories to their suppliers and to the retail locations selling Hershey’s candy.  Here’s how it was supposed to work. When a customer bought a bag of Hershey’s Kisses, an electronic message would be sent to the factory so that more candy could be made. Simultaneously, the factory would electronically notify the suppliers to deliver more sugar and cocoa to the factory.

Hershey decided to flip the switch on their new integrated supply chain system as stores were preparing for Valentine’s Day and Easter chocolate sales.  The system crashed. Store shelves quickly emptied of Hershey’s chocolates without being replenished. Hershey had no backup plan or workarounds because no one expected such a colossal failure.  Hershey’s dominance of U.S. chocolate sales has never fully recovered.

ZFS insurance fail

In the 1990’s, Zurich Financial Services (ZFS) decided to buy an insurance company based in the U.K.  During the due diligence phase of the acquisition, the IT staff noted that the English and Swiss companies used very different computer technology. In plain terms, the two IT systems couldn’t “talk” to each other.  For a variety of reasons, the business leaders plowed ahead anyway, apparently expecting IT to overcome the programming issues by the date of the merger.

The deal closed on time and the management team uncorked champagne to celebrate.  But IT was still nowhere close to finding a technology solution. The system crashed.  English customers received multiple monthly invoices or no invoices or random cancellation notices.  The ZFS bottom line took a huge hit as the company endured regulatory investigations, its English subsidiary lost market share leading to staff reductions, and the company paid for a massive IT upgrade.

The moral of the (case study) story:  Disaster planning depends less on the size of the company than on the willingness to imagine the worst case scenario.  Effective disaster planning begins with the recognition that an epic fail is always an option.

If your company is struggling with all the changes required by the new normal, Corporate Compliance Risk Advisor can help you adapt your HR policies for telecommuting workers and to prepare for the next disaster.

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Commuting to the Kitchen  

I’ve worked from a home office for years and enjoyed it.  The business overhead is low and the commute is fantastic. I can be in the office within a minute. 

Of course, the quick commute has its perils. My commute takes me through the kitchen and I love to cook.  It’s too easy to avoid work projects that may take hours to complete in order to begin working on a recipe that will take hours to complete. 

But working from home feels different at the moment.  The internet is slowing to a crawl as more people work from home or binge watch TV while they can still afford subscription fees.  The panic buying at the grocery store feels like a disaster movie.  Buy toilet paper before the shark shows up and the avalanche crashes down the mountain!

If you’re new to telecommuting, take a little break with your favorite beverage to consider a few survival tips.

  1. Do the work that pays the bills first.  That means practicing self-discipline by setting regular work hours.  If you don’t, you’ll be up at 2 am feverishly working on that big project before the boss figures out that you’ve spent the week sprawled on the couch drinking beer and eating nachos while binge watching movies.    
  2. Pretend there’s a timed lock, like on a bank’s vault, on the fridge and the pantry.  Let’s be honest. Self-discipline only works for so long and the kitchen is right there and it’s full of good stuff.  The weighty truth about the freedom of working remotely is that it may take weeks to shed the results of commuting through the kitchen.
  3. Don’t despair parents. The government will eventually take pity on you and reopen the schools.  Show your gratitude with a gift for the little darling’s teacher. 
  4. Turn off the news. Credible news sources are giving us fact-based reports about the coronavirus, but the news biz is a for-profit industry. Even credible news sources engage in sensationalist headlines, like barkers at a circus side show, to attract an audience.  Or to put it another way, too much news will have you reaching for an extra helping of mashed potatoes or another six-pack.   
  5. Telecommuters are darned lucky to have jobs that can be done from home.  Many low wage jobs from hospitality to nursing homes to gas stations and grocery stores can’t be done remotely.  These workers are facing either no income or a higher risk of infection for themselves and their families.

If your company is struggling with all the changes required by our rather scary new world, Corporate Compliance Risk Advisor can help you adapt your HR policies for telecommuting workers and continuing work during a disaster. We will be a resource for your staff as the policies are implemented.

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The Sky Is Falling!

Carla dreads going to work these days because her co-workers have gone crazy.  She hears the shark music as she nears the office door.   Everyone is in a tizzy about the coronavirus or the stock market meltdown or both.

Last week, Reba breathlessly announced that everyone was doomed because the coronavirus had invaded America.  Rick claimed the coronavirus is a myth made up by shadowy deep state operators aiming to replace the government with a socialist system that will outlaw fantasy football. Everyone ignored Rick because it’s common knowledge he often forgets to take his meds.    

Last Thursday Reba and Caroline went to lunch and disappeared for half a day.   They triumphantly returned at quitting time to gloat about fighting off other shoppers to nab the last ten packages of toilet paper on the store shelf.  On Friday, Teresa bragged of snagging ten pounds of dried beans and five gallons of milk at the grocery store on the way home the night before.  Teresa’s lactose intolerant and she sheepishly admitted that her husband profanely refuses to drink a gallon a day to avoid spoilage.

A new week has brought fresh hysteria. This morning Reba dashed through the office announcing that Rick had the coronavirus.  Co-workers shrieked and ran away as Rick approached making him wonder if he had forgotten to use deodorant that morning.  Caroline ran into Scott’s office sobbing and demanding to go home because she didn’t want to die. 

That’s when Scott blew a gasket. Scott’s the owner of the company.  He’s been so busy running the company he wasn’t paying attention to what was going on outside his office door.  Scott privately believes he spends too much of his managerial time wondering what the heck is going on. 

He yelled at Caroline to stop being a baby. Then he demanded to know what the heck had happened. The answer left him apoplectic.  It turns out that Rick was eating his usual donuts for breakfast when some of the powdered sugar blew up his nose.  Reba heard him sneezing and coughing and leaped to the conclusion that he had shown up sick with covid-19.

What options are available to Scott to deal with this crisis?

  1. He can brain Reba for starting unfounded rumors that caused a panic.
  2. He can tell everyone to get back to work because if the company shuts down, so do their paychecks.
  3. He can distribute the CDC’s guidelines for reducing the risk of infection.

Covid-19 is a serious public health threat, but hysteria is the enemy of common sense.  Companies can reduce hysteria by providing credible information on safety guidelines and adding flexibility to their paid leave policies for employees who need time away from the office. Company leaders can set an example by remaining calm.    

If your company is struggling with HR issues, Corporate Compliance Risk Advisor can help you create HR policies that are appropriate for your company’s size and then serve as a resource to your staff as the policies are implemented.

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I Need a Change

Brittney is finding her first job since leaving college to be scarier than she expected.  The company has been in perpetual chaos as the senior management team feuds.  Her supervisor, Christy, says the feud started when Weldon got a promotion that should have gone to Randy.  Christy calls Weldon a weasel and encourages her subordinates to push back against any requests from his staff.

Brittney unwittingly supported Christy’s “don’t cooperate” policy a month after she was hired, when she received an email from Weldon’s assistant, Sue, asking for the “bullet point” guide. Brittney searched diligently, but couldn’t find anything labeled as a guide.  She didn’t want to admit her ignorance, so she told Sue that she was unable to find the requested guide.  The following day, Christy congratulated her for being a team player.

A couple of months ago, the board of directors panicked when they saw the downward slope of revenue and announced that they were hiring a new CEO, Tom.  Tom’s first act as CEO was to stop all production so that he could hold a company-wide meeting to introduce himself.

He announced that big changes were coming and only those absolutely loyal to him could expect to keep their jobs.  He blamed falling sales on Weldon’s horrible management skills and announced that Weldon had resigned, even though Weldon was at the meeting.

Tom hired his son to replace Weldon.  Tom junior browbeats the sales staff like a Soviet apparatchik demanding higher wheat production from farm collectives.  The sales staff thinks he’s a dud and the marketable ones are fleeing to competitors.

Next Tom pushed out Trish, the CFO, after she said there was no money in the budget for Tom to hire his wife’s consulting business to redecorate the CEO’s office.  In revenge for Tom’s insulting personal remarks, Trish leaked a few of the choicer details of Tom’s platinum plated compensation package to the largest shareholders who are now suing the board of directors for fiduciary lapses.     

As senior managers whiz out the door to be replaced by Tom’s family and friends, no one feels safe.  Brittney watches as Christy is effectively demoted despite her sycophantic support for Tom.  Christy is still a senior manager but all her decisions must be approved by Tom’s daughter, the new VP.

Brittney is sick of it all. What options are available to her?

  1. She can move home to her parents where their nagging will seem restful after the goings-on at her job.
  2. She can practice acting like Tom since that seems to be the way to the top.
  3. She can send her resume to everyone she knows in hopes of finding a better job quickly.

Companies that fail to create a good work environment for their employees tend to underperform against their competitors. 

If your company is struggling with HR issues, Corporate Compliance Risk Advisor can help you create HR policies that are appropriate for your company’s size and then serve as a resource to your staff as the policies are implemented.

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