There are three topics in particular that business owners should refresh and/or make sure they include in their HR policies and employee handbook. Photo via Getty Images

Just as we typically look to freshen up our homes this time of year, the same needs to be done for employee handbooks. Employee handbooks streamline HR operations, mitigate risks and set expectations to protect a business from negative workplace behavior by outlining employee policies and procedures.

There are three topics in particular that business owners should refresh and/or make sure they include in their HR policies and employee handbook: in-office attendance, social media and artificial intelligence (AI).

In-office attendance

When taking a closer look at hybrid workplace policies, the in-office attendance policies should align with your organizational goals. Whether you decide to implement hybrid work permanently or eventually return to being in the office completely, the return-to-office (RTO) policies should reflect those goals.

Clear expectations are especially important when defining office attendance rules. When attendance policies are set, employees respond best when they are fair, accessible and easily understood. Detailed policies outlining the nuances and consequences can help reduce noncompliance while supporting accountability.

Policies need consistent enforcement for them to be effective. Hybrid policies set prior to or during the pandemic may now be loosely enforced. The policies may state for employees to be in the office three days a week, but there may be no accountability for not meeting the mandate. Not enforcing attendance policies can give the impression that it is okay to violate other policies, too. Reviewing your policies allows you to course correct and write a policy reflecting your corporate culture and goals. You’ll then be able to reintroduce the attendance policy and enforce it across the board as intended.

Social media

You are hard pressed to find an employee without a social media account, whether it is TikTok or LinkedIn. If your business does not have a social media policy with guidelines surrounding employees’ online behaviors, now is the time to put one in place. If you do have a policy, social media changes quickly enough to warrant an annual review.

Social media policies should set boundaries between personal and professional use of social media. Employee activity on social media outside of work can influence business, as employees are often seen as reflecting the company. It is also important to note that social media policies should be based on input from senior management, HR, legal and IT, not just marketing.

The social media policy should delineate between an employee’s personal and professional use, establish a code of conduct and outline its use as part of crisis communications. Social media can just as easily elevate your brand, and you can potentially ask employees to share positive work experiences online.

Cybersecurity should also be addressed in social media policies. As it has become more common for hackers to infiltrate personal emails and social media accounts, policies can prohibit employees from storing company documents in their personal social media and email accounts for security purposes.

Artificial Intelligence (AI)

AI seems to be changing the way we do business daily. However, the policies surrounding company use of AI are lacking at many organizations. Research from McKinsey states only one in five employers have established policies governing their employees use of AI.

AI technology has already streamlined many business practices, but it can also present major risks. Inaccuracy can threaten your business if employees use generative AI for assistance in completing writing tasks, for instance, and the system may not generate accurate or original information.

As we learn the evolving and complex nuances of AI, creating a policy needs careful attention. You may consider developing an AI team to write a comprehensive, well-researched AI policy tailored to your organization. This working group should gather insights from leaders within the organization, including frontline managers, to fully understand how employees use, or might use, AI. This team should be charged with considering the ethical aspects of AI’s use and ensuring the policy aligns with company values.

One of the most critical elements of the policy is an accountability process or system. The policy should clearly outline any corrective action or disciplinary steps associated with using AI in a manner that harms the business and/or its clients. Just as important, the policy should outline how to use and how to avoid misusing AI. Since AI continues to evolve month to month, this is a policy that will require more attention and revisioning throughout the year.

Keeping a critical eye on HR policies is an important part of business success. Setting aside time to review, update and even create new policies now – before being faced with an issue – can potentially mitigate costly challenges down the road.

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Karen Leal is performance specialist with Houston-based Insperity, a provider of human resources offering a suite of scalable HR solutions available in the marketplace.

In times of crisis, here's what businesses big and small need from a human resources team. Photo via Getty Images

What HR can provide in times of company crisis, according to this Houston expert

GUEST COLUMN

In times of crisis, organizations face numerous challenges that can disrupt operations, impact employee well-being and jeopardize the overall success of the company. During these trying times, the role of human resources becomes absolutely critical.

HR professionals play a multifaceted and indispensable role in managing crises, supporting employees, and ensuring business continuity. While it may not seem obvious, HR takes on a pivotal role in times of crisis, and organizations should take this into consideration when developing crisis communications plans. A few of the key responsibilities are as follows.

Crisis communications and employee support

During a crisis, effective communication is paramount. HR professionals work closely with leadership and the crisis communications team to act as the primary communicators within the organization, providing timely and accurate information to employees. As leadership deals with the crisis at hand, HR acts as the bridge between senior management and employees, ensuring crucial updates, safety measures, and policies are effectively communicated.

HR teams also play a crucial role in providing emotional support to employees. Crises often create anxiety, stress and uncertainty among the workforce. HR professionals are trained to provide guidance, reassurance and resources for employees to cope with the situation. Measures to provide support to employees include organizing counseling sessions, creating support networks, and establishing appropriate channels for employees to voice their concerns.

Emergency response and preparedness

HR departments are responsible for developing and implementing emergency response plans and protocols. They collaborate with relevant stakeholders to ensure the organization has effective crisis management strategies in place. This includes creating evacuation plans, establishing communication channels, and coordinating with external agencies, like emergency services and healthcare providers.

In a crisis, HR professionals also ensure the well-being and safety of employees. They coordinate efforts to provide necessary resources, such as personal protective equipment (PPE), medical support or remote working arrangements. Additionally, HR teams facilitate employee training programs to enhance preparedness and provide guidance on crisis-specific protocols.

Workforce management and business continuity

HR plays a vital role in managing the workforce during a crisis. They assess the impact of the crisis on the organization's operations and help formulate strategies to mitigate risks and ensure business continuity. No matter how much crisis planning is done prior to an incident, each issue is unique and will require custom solutions. HR professionals work closely with department heads and managers to identify critical roles, create contingency plans, and redistribute workload as necessary.

Moreover, HR departments are responsible for addressing workforce-related challenges arising from the crisis. This includes managing employee absences, ensuring leave policies are flexible, and implementing work-from-home arrangements where feasible. HR professionals also evaluate and adapt performance management systems to accommodate the unique circumstances of the crisis.

Legal compliance and ethical considerations

During a crisis, organizations must navigate legal and ethical considerations. HR professionals are compliance experts who ensure the company follows labor laws, health and safety regulations, and employment standards. HR teams stay abreast of changing legislation, update policies and advise senior management on legal implications and requirements, both in times of crisis and not.

In addition, HR professionals must consider ethical aspects of crisis management. They advocate for fair treatment, equal opportunities and non-discriminatory practices. HR plays a crucial role in preventing discrimination, supporting diversity and inclusion, and maintaining a positive work environment during challenging times.

Talent retention and recruitment strategies

Even in the midst of a crisis, HR professionals actively engage in talent management. While workforce reductions may be necessary, HR plays a pivotal role in retaining critical talent and ensuring a smooth transition during downsizing. Communication is always key in these situations, and HR develops strategies to minimize the negative impact on the workforce, provide assistance with job placements and offer career counseling.

Furthermore, HR professionals remain involved in recruitment efforts during a crisis, particularly for essential roles. They adapt recruitment processes to accommodate remote hiring, conduct virtual interviews and collaborate with managers to identify urgent hiring needs. HR's role in talent acquisition ensures the organization can continue to operate effectively and recover from the crisis with a skilled workforce.

In times of crisis, the role of HR is indispensable. From crisis communications and employee support to emergency response, HR truly envelopes the human aspect of business. No matter the size of the organization, ensuring HR is incorporated prior to a crisis, whether it is outsourced guidance or an in-house team, is vital to business success.

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Karen Leal is performance specialist with Houston-based Insperity, a provider of human resources offering a suite of scalable HR solutions available in the marketplace.

During a crisis, it's easy for startup leaders to panic and make things worse. Here, we'll discuss how staying grounded will get you through a crisis. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

3 crisis management tips for Houston business leaders

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The great pandemic of 2020 has brought to the surface the issue of crisis management. Especially with nationwide business shut downs in the last eight months, many companies are on a rocky road of uncertainty. Entrepreneurs are unsure of what the future holds after seeing revenues slow or halt in some cases. Layoffs, RIFs, budget cuts, departmental downsizing; all inevitable.

Way too many startup founders aren't equipped or experienced when it comes to crisis management. "In order to keep your startup going, you have to know how to identify a crisis before it spreads like a cancer and how to make big changes and big decisions fast and often," says Gael O'Brien, the ethics coach for Entrepreneur.com.

"Any time in which the world stops functioning in a way we're used to, a deviation from the norm, that might be the biggest early sign of a crisis about to rear its head," she continued.

Admitting you have a problem

O'Brien stresses that a leader should create an easy process whereby one can identify a crisis in its infancy. The key here, she says, is to make sure to recognize a crisis before it starts to consume your company. You'll have to learn how to contain the crisis by leading the charge in rapid decision making. Many entrepreneurs simply refuse to admit there's a problem at hand. Many times, admitting there's a crisis means admitting one was wrong. It also means they may have been wrong for years.

These entrepreneurs that refuse admitting there's a crisis often do so with common refrains like "I didn't want to scare anyone" or "if I admit I was wrong this whole time I'll lose respect."

"Great leaders aren't afraid to put their company first, even if it means a blow to the ego. These leaders are not afraid to inform everyone that might be affected know there is a crisis," O'Brien explained.

"They contain the problem and prevent it from becoming unmanageable. Good leaders don't opt for a temporary Band-Aid-like fix either. They aim for a permanent solution."

Casting for a crisis management team

There are two common mistakes startup leaders make when it comes to crisis management. The first is that they can miscast a crisis management team. Meaning, they put the wrong people in decision-making roles. You want people on your crisis management team who are not going to feel they will be blamed for a crisis or for controversial decisions.

When one is afraid of being blamed for something, they are more likely to obstruct and lie so that the team's focus is diverted. "These are people that will omit objective and relevant information if it means saving their own reputation or job. You want people that put the team first," said O'Brien.

Communication during a crisis

The second common mistake startup leaders make during a crisis is that they tend to under-communicate. It becomes habitual to keep things close to the chest. To become secretive during a crisis. Managers might feel that the less people know, the less chance there is of panic. However, doing this opens your company up to wild speculation among employees. Assumptions. And these assumptions are never good.

"You have to be forthright. It's not just that people have a right to know what's going on in their own company. It's also that if you leave yourself up to speculation, people will grow frustrated and worse, scared. Scared people make crises worse," said O'Brien.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Rene Cantu, the author of this piece, is the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.

When faced with a crisis, it's essential to deliver clear, authentic messages to your target audiences. Getty Images

Houston entrepreneur shares communication tips for today's coronavirus environment

Guest column

The reality for business owners is that everything you say matters; your words are reverberated and felt throughout the company and all of your stakeholders.

During times of crisis, your voice is amplified to the max, and people listen to every word you have to say, which is why — if not completely thought-through — your voice can breed misinformation, confusion and stress. As we face the increasing uncertainty in our community due to the spread of COVID-19, it's critical for business owners to say the right things, to the right people, that will inform and motivate, and use their presence and organization to be leaders within the community.

Practicing what we preach, we understand that as communication experts, it is our mission and responsibility during this time to help our local business community. We are putting our money where our mouth is and for the last week have been offering free communication and marketing consultation to any business in need.

So, what is top of mind to our team right now, as we work with these businesses? Besides following recommendations from the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention to curb the virus's spread, companies should actively be communicating to all stakeholders about the impact COVID-19 is having or could have on operations. Here are a few dos and don'ts to get you started.

Offer valuable tips to prevent the spread of respiratory diseases, but we all know to wash our hands by now.

You have to make sure that you are communicating valuable information with internal and external stakeholders — but through your own authentic voice. Offer suggestions on how to "social distance" or use your service/product remotely.

Internal stakeholders need to understand what's hard facts, what's soft facts (opinions and feelings) and what's just hearsay. They need to understand clear expectations when working from home and employees need to feel safe, accommodated and heard. Externally, be sensitive to what your customers and the community at large are going through and update your business practices and communications accordingly.

Communication with customers can be in an email, but you can also connect through text, through an online chat, via infographics or memes on social media, or an "on-brand" (and possibly witty!) reminder on what social distance may mean.

Don't stay silent — even if you don't know everything.

Don't let others control your company's narrative. As humans, we naturally fill in gaps in communication to understand what's going on around us. Rather than letting people assume information about your business, get in front of the conversation and share real-time updates as you adjust business-as-usual.

Consider alternative ways to reach external audiences and vice versa.

What happens if the majority of your customer acquisition model is door-to-door and no one wants to open the door to a stranger, or you have a centralized call center to handle customer service complaints, but these employees are now all working from home? Now is the time to reconsider how you'll engage with your audiences and win customers.

We recommend a significant shift to digital acquisition as people are going to be spending more and more time online in the coming weeks from home and there is a ripe opportunity to stay top of mind through targeted display campaigns and send interested customers to your website.

Create a proactive plan for shut downs.

Coronavirus is still an emerging, rapidly evolving situation and we have no idea what could happen but create contingency plans and have a crisis comms plan ready to deploy. Think through possible scenarios (closures, supply limitations, employee diagnosis, etc.) and have social media posts, email blasts and internal messaging ready to deploy should worst case scenario occur.

What your business says is just as important as who says it.

A spokesperson is your organization's mouthpiece. Choosing the right person is just as important as saying the right thing. Without the right person to speak on behalf of your organization, your message could be lost — or worse, they choke.

Your spokesperson should be credible, empathetic and authoritative.


Bottom line: When faced with a crisis, it's essential to deliver clear, authentic messages to your target audiences, stay true to your brand voice and position yourself as a leader – both internally and externally. Your company will thank you later.

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Allie Danziger is the founder and president of Houston-based Integrate Agency, which focuses on digital marketing and public relations.

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16 Houston-based companies hailed best places to work by U.S. News

the standouts

More than a dozen Houston-based companies are sharing the spotlight in U.S. News and World Report's collection of the "Best Companies to Work For" in 2024-2025.

The annual report examines publicly-traded companies around the world to determine the best employers based on six metrics including work-life balance and flexibility; quality of pay and benefits; job and company stability; career opportunities and professional development; and more. The companies were not ranked, but included based on reader surveys and publicly available data about each workplace.

New for the 2024-2025 report, U.S. News analyzed549 companies across 29 different lists, including the overall best companies list — which includes the best 300 companies across the U.S., the United Kingdom, Ireland, Switzerland, Luxembourg, and Bermuda — 24 industry-specific lists, and four regional lists.

There were 16 total companies based around Houston that made the lists, with the majority being based in the city, while one each were located in Spring and The Woodlands.

Leading the pack in Houston is construction company Comfort Systems USA, which provides HVAC, plumbing, and electrical services. Comfort Systems employs 15,800 people, brings in $5.57 billion in annual revenue, and has a market cap of $11.21 billion. The company earned high ratings for its job stability, "belongingness," and professional development opportunities, according to U.S. News.

Comfort Systems also made appearances on U.S. News' industry-specific "Best in Construction" list, and the "Best Companies in the South" list.

Independent energy company Marathon Oil was another top-rated Houston employer, with nearly 1,700 employees, an annual revenue stream of $6.38 billion, and a $15.4 billion market cap. The company was specifically highlighted with a "Top Quality of Pay" label, but also boasts high ratings for its employees' work-life balance, job stability, and belongingness.

In addition to being included in the overall "Best Companies" list, Marathon Oil earned recognition in the industry-specific "Best in Energy" list and the "Best Companies in the South" list.

A second Houston-based energy company earning a spot among the top employers is Occidental (also known as Oxy). The petroleum corporation, which has been in operation since 1920, has nearly 12,600 employees and brings in $27,43 billion in revenue every year.

According to U.S. News, Occidental offers many financial, health and wellness, and workplace benefits including 401k matching, tuition assistance, an employee assistance program, flexible work arrangements, and much more. The company was also given a "Top Quality of Pay" designation.

Occidental appeared in U.S. News' "Best in Mining and Raw Materials," the overall "Best Companies," and "Best Companies in the South" lists.

Other top companies to work for in Houston include:

  • Insperity, Kingwood – Best in Professional Services; Best Companies (overall); Best Companies in the South
  • Southwestern Energy Company, Spring – Best in Energy; Best Companies (overall); Best Companies in the South
  • PROS – Best in IT, Software and Services; Best Companies (overall); Best Companies in the South
  • Powell Industries – Best in Manufacturing; Best Companies (overall); Best Companies in the South
  • Stewart – Best in Insurance; Best Companies (overall); Best Companies in the South
  • ConocoPhillips – Best in Energy, Best Companies in the South
  • LGI Homes, The Woodlands – Best in Construction; Best Companies in the South
  • Service Corporation International – Best in Consumer Products and Services; Best Companies in the South
  • Skyward Specialty Insurance – Best Companies in the South
  • Camden Property Trust – Best in Real Estate; Best Companies in the South
  • Cheniere – Best in Energy
  • EOG Resources – Best in Energy
  • Murphy Oil Corporation – Best in Energy

"Prospective and current employees understand the significant impact their employer has on their quality of life," said Carly Chase, vice president of careers at U.S. News and World Report, in a release. "Whether a new grad seeking a company to launch their career, an established professional looking for a change or an HR professional researching the strengths of their company and others, Best Companies to Work For provides a central space to see which companies are meeting their employees' needs best.

Top workplaces around Texas
In all, 42 different employers headquartered in the Lone Star State made it onto U.S. News' 2024-2025 "Best Places to Work For" lists. The Houston metro area tied with Dallas-Fort Worth with the highest number of top-rated employers, at 16 each. Only one company from West Texas made it onto the list: Diamondback Energy in Midland.

The top companies to work for in Austin are:

  • Cirrus Logic
  • CrowdStrike
  • Digital Realty
  • Silicon Labs
  • E2open
  • Q2

The top companies to work for in San Antonio are:

  • Frost Bank
  • iHeartMedia
  • Rush Enterprises, Inc., New Braunfels

The best places to work for across Dallas-Fort Worth are:

  • Thryv Holdings, Inc., Dallas
  • Comerica, Dallas
  • Veritex Community Bank, Dallas
  • Charles Schwab, Westlake
  • Southwest Airlines, Dallas
  • CMC, Irving
  • Sabre, Southlake
  • Texas Instrument, Dallas
  • Omnicell, Fort Worth
  • Enhabit, Dallas
  • Builders FirstSource, Irving
  • Invitation Homes, Dallas
  • Celanese, Irving
  • Atmos Energy, Dallas
  • Lennox, Richardson
  • Caterpillar, Irving
The full list of the best companies to work for can be found at usnews.com

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

$1M donation to Rice establishes pioneering neuro-policy center in Houston

brainy support

A big donation to Rice University will soon help researchers better understand the workings of the human brain.

Harry Yan and Weiman Gao have bestowed $1 million on the Baker Institute of Public Policy to establish the interdisciplinary Neuro-Policy Program.

Neuro-policy is a newer field that explores how brain health and function can help to fuel economic growth.

“The Neuro-Policy Program is at the forefront of pioneering data analysis, empirical research and policy application,” says Harris Eyre, the lead for the program, as well as a senior fellow in brain health at the Baker Institute, in a news release. “Investing in evidence-based strategies for prevention, diagnosis and treatment can reduce brain and mental health disparities, optimize cognitive development and performance and foster innovation to build more resilient communities.”

Eyre describes the collective value of the human brain as “brain capital.” That’s because brains that are suffering from any number of neurodegenerative or mental health disorders (including depression, anxiety, brain injury and Alzheimer’s disease) have actually taken a toll on the U.S. economy, Eyre explains.

The Neuro-Policy Program seeks to improve brain performance, and consequently enhance economic growth, national security, and our overall standing as a nation of healthy brains. The program’s primary projects include establishing a task force to advise Texas “brain and mind” legislative efforts as well as a Texas Brain Capital Dashboard, collaborating on Texas Forward (Texas Brain Health Plan) with the UT Dallas Center for BrainHealth, thereby working toward U.S. brain capital policy and investment advances. These projects are expected to yield deliverables as early as 2026.

“The Neuro-Policy Program aims to leverage the university’s proximity to the Texas Medical Center and the institute’s strong connections to state and federal policymakers. This is an important yet underrepresented area of research that Houston is poised to lead,” says David Satterfield, the director of the Baker Institute.

Yan and Gao said in a press release that they were inspired to gift the grant funds to Eyre and his research after attending a March 28 Baker Institute event on brain health that featured U.S. Rep. Morgan Luttrell, a co-chair of the Congressional Neuroscience Caucus.

"We are honored to support Dr. Harris Eyre and the Neuro-Policy program he leads. Dr. Eyre’s work has greatly impressed us, highlighting the critical importance of brain health in our society today,” say Yan and Gao. “We hope our contribution can inspire further support and advocacy in the field, helping individuals lead healthier lives through a comprehensive approach to prevention.”