When Is Discipline For Political-Related Behavior Appropriate & Legal? How To Have Controversial Conversations In The Workplace

Should We Respect A Law No One Follows?” is the deliberately inflammatory question titling a blog post by Matt Kaiser on Above The Law blog today.

He introduces the topic of respecting laws that are meant to be broken with a few personal stories, among them:

“At some point, I started running an experiment to see how long it would take for a middle-aged white guy in a Prius with a suspended license to get pulled over.

It took about 20 months.

I was given a warning. Which I am grateful for.

Speeding is an odd offense. Under a certain point, no one thinks that speeding is morally problematic. And no one thinks that you should actually drive exactly the speed limit—going 56 in a 55 is illegal, sure, but it isn’t really illegal.”

After other anecdotal evidence, from bogus traffic tickets, speed cameras, or guys being prosecuted for killing fish facing 20-year sentences, the post concludes, “Virtually no one follows the law to its letter. No one respects the law. Do we promote it by slamming the unlucky few?”

“Or, rather, would it be better—if we worry about respect for the law—to write laws that are actually enforced as written?”

It’s easy to sucked into Kaiser’s argument. Anybody who has ever been ticketed for jaywalking, or actually given a $50 fine for throwing out “household trash” in a public street garbage bin, understands the predicament of enforcing laws that don’t really describe illicit behavior.

There are some stranger laws, too, that will rarely be enforced but remain on the books. For example, in Woburn, Massachusetts, it’s illegal to drink alcohol while standing up. Or, in West Lafayette, Ohio, it’s illegal to keep ducks as pets (an Iraq War vet was actually fined for it once).

If you care to look, there are likely dozens of laws that are outdated in your local precinct.

Nevertheless, respect for the law should not be a personal decision, it’s a criminal one—obey the rules or submit to the consequences. What exactly is Matt Kaiser arguing here? (Actually, Kaiser is most peeved about speed cameras, which he calls “a moral abomination that is offensive to the idea of a free society,” but we digress.)

Matt Kaiser, ATL author, writes about white-collar crime from a defense-attorney point-of-view. He has represented stockbrokers, tax preparers, doctors, drug dealers, and political appointees in federal investigations and indicted cases, according to his ATL bio.

Although you may or may not agree with Kaiser’s take on the law, he probably sounds like a few—if not many—of your peers.

Law firm associates love to talk about controversial cases and news items. The more inflammatory the debate, the better.

Whether it’s the current U.S. Presidential candidates, the newest judge appointments, or discussions about whether or not that Trump supporter who suction-cupped his way up Trump tower yesterday should be prosecuted, these topics are provocative and also occupying. Everybody has an opinion.

So what happens when political talk interrupts workflow or escalates to bad behavior? It may surprise you to know that there’s a host of legal concerns surrounding barring political talk or disciplining employees for engaging in political behavior in the office.

To avoid these legal landmines, take C4CM’s webinar, “Politics in the Workplace: How to Legally Manage Politically Charged Activity at Work,” on Wednesday, August 17, 2016 from 2:00 PM To 3:15 PM Eastern. In it you will learn what employers can do to manage political activity in the workplace, including: 

  • What employers can do to manage political discussions and fundraising
  • How to address political discussions in the workplace under federal and state laws
  • What employers should never do when it comes to political activities or chatter
  • How the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) applies
  • How the new SCOTUS ruling Heffernan vs. City of Paterson impacts employers
  • When an employee’s political discussion is protected by the First Amendment

By the end of the information-packed session, you will know more about:

  • When discipline for political-related behavior is appropriate and legal
  • What defines political harassment in the workplace
  • What constitutes business harm from employee’s political speech
  • How to handle controversial or political social media posts by an employee
  • How to handle office sponsored political functions supported by management
  • Dress code do’s and don’ts as they apply to political speech 

It’s ok to ask the question. But, as a law firm manager, you should know the liability issues that come along with answering.

 

-WB

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ABA Adopts Disputed Antidiscrimination Rule: The Law Finally Catches Up To Businesses It Represents

A new ethics rule by the American Bar Association (A.B.A.) sounds more like a satirical headline than a legitimate news article: “The [A.B.A.] says it is professional misconduct to discriminate against or harass opposing counsel, or anyone else for that matter, in the course of practicing law,” writes The New York Times and not, surprisingly, the Onion.

“It is time for the A.B.A. to catch up,” Myles Lynk, chair of the A.B.A.’s ethics committee, said during debate over the rule Monday (via the WSJ Law Blog).

The “new” ethics rule now prevents comments or actions that single out a person based on race, religion, sex, disability or other factors (duh!). Although almost two dozen U.S. State bars, including the District of Columbia, have already enacted such a rule, there was never a national ban on such behavior.

Without a strict rule prohibiting demeaning and misogynist behavior or parlance, it has been easy for opposing counsel or others in the legal profession to use it as an intimidation tactic with zero to no consequences.

“I got the pat on the head,” Jenny Waters, chief executive of the National Association of Women Lawyers, explained to The New York Times earlier this month, discussing a memorable incident while working in private practice (via the Huffington Post). Other attorneys also spoke of receiving “grating” remarks or being victims of demeaning actions, such as having an arm draped around their shoulders.

Shocking as it may seem, the rule has been controversial, igniting debate in the legal industry for months. Some claim the rule limits a lawyer’s personal freedom to practice law as he sees fit. But, to most, the rule was long overdue—now limiting hackneyed “honeys” and “darlings” to courtroom dramas, rather than courtrooms.

“I think it’s absolutely shameless that as lawyers we’re not the model for how businesses should run,” New York lawyer Wendi Lazar told the Wall Street Journal a few months earlier.

Nevertheless, opponents of the rule were able to dampen the language of the original text; in the end, the rule only applies where “the lawyer knows or reasonably should know [behavior] is harassment or discrimination,” which is a demonstratively weaker version than the original, reports the WSJ Law Blog.

Luckily, the rule still spells out what constitutes sexual harassment and which settings are included in this when it comes to practicing law. For example, settings include the courtroom, as well as “interacting with witnesses, co-workers, court personnel, lawyers and others” and “managing a law practice or law firm” or “participating in bar association, business or social activities in connection with the practice of law.”

On that, there seems to be no debate.

“Half my students are women. A quarter are students of color,” legal ethics expert Stephen Gillers, of New York University School of Law, told the Wall Street Journal (via the Huffington Post).

“The ABA has looked to them like an organization of old white guys. This vote will help.”

Let’s hope so. It’s about time.

-WB

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Silver-Linings Playbook? Olympic Upsets, Rio Controversy & Managing Politically-Charged Activities In The Workplace

They say, don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened. But for a few Olympic athletes knocked out in the first rounds of Rio competition, that’s easier said than done.

In tennis, tears were shed on both sides of the court—for Juan Martin del Potro, they were tears of joy at his surprising defeat of frontrunner Novak Djokovic, and for Djokovic, tears of disappointment after his dreams were dashed.

“No doubt it’s one of the toughest losses of my life, in my career,” Djokovic said after the match (via Rolling Stone). 

“It’s not the first or the last time I’m losing a tennis match but Olympic Games, yeah, it’s completely different.”

Djokovic can still snag an Olympic medal in men’s doubles with his partner Nenad Zimonjic, which remains the silver lining after such a clear upset for the gold medalist.

It is rare that the clear favorite goes out in the first round of competition, but the same thing happened in women’s tennis this year. Venus and Serena Williams lost in the first-round at Rio against Lucie Safarova and Barbora Strycova, who defeated the infamous sisters 6-3, 6-4 on Sunday (via Bleacher Report).

The three-time doubles gold medalists will go home without a victory for the first time in their Olympic careers. The good news? Now Venus can prepare for the U.S. Open, where she will enter at her highest ranking since 2011, without further distraction in politically-charged Rio.

In fact, the Rio Olympics has stirred nothing but controversy since it started. The first American gold metal in the games came from shooter Ginny Thrasher, who set an Olympic record of 208.0 in the 10-meter air rifle event, snagging victory in scandalous upset. Instead of cheers, Thrasher got jeers from gun control activists overshadowing the win with discussions about gun rights and associated political debates.

“I just tried to focus on the competition,” said Thrasher about the political distraction (via USA Today).

Nevertheless, the attention her sport gained via the controversy is clear. Air rifle events have never gained so many headlines. 

Outside Olympic rifle ranges and inside law firm boardrooms, what happens when political talk interrupts workflow or escalates to bad behavior?

As an employer trying to retain productivity, keep the peace, and avoid legal landmines can be more challenging than you may think. There are rules for what employers can and can’t do to manage political activity in the workplace, including:

  • How to manage political discussions and fundraising
  • How to address political discussions in the workplace under federal and state laws
  • How the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) applies
  • How the new SCOTUS ruling Heffernan vs. City of Paterson impacts employers
  • When an employee’s political discussion is protected by the First Amendment 

To learn how to avoid being the target of bad policies and possible lawsuits, take C4CM’s webinar, “Politics in the Workplace: How to Legally Manage Politically Charged Activity at Work,” on Wednesday, August 17, 2016 from 2:00 PM To 3:15 PM EasternBy the end of the information-packed session, you will know more about:

  • When discipline for political-related behavior is appropriate and legal
  • What defines political harassment in the workplace
  • What constitutes business harm from employee’s political speech
  • How to handle controversial or political social media posts by an employee
  • How to handle office sponsored political functions supported by management
  • Dress code do’s and don’ts as they apply to political speech

For now, no need to be upset by Olympic upsets—for each competitor, losing gold may lead to even better silver linings.

-WB

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Mid-Year Law Firm Management Update: Tackling Scandal, Suspicious Activities & Compliance Issues In 2016

The U.S. Presidential election has been drowning out once-were headlines: Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court in March, Amber Heard and Johnny Depp’s divorce depositions, and the Panama Papers, to name a few. As for the latter, the matter has made a news-cycle comeback. This week, federal prosecutors launched a criminal investigation into whether or not employees of Mossack Fonseca & Co., the law firm named in the scandal, knowingly helped its clients launder money or evade taxes, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The Panama Papers, for those who have forgotten, revealed a myriad of shell companies and offshore accounts for some wealthy and prominent people, including at least dozens of Americans.

Although federal prosecutors have reportedly already investigated suspects connected to dealings at Mossack Fonseca—and the firm, itself, denies all wrongdoing—prosecutors would have to prove lawyers at the firm actually knew (or turned a knowing blind eye to) the illegal activities conducted by clients.

Unlike banks, however, law firms are not required to perform stringent money-laundering detection services to better understand and identify the source of a client’s money. In fact, since shell companies in the Caribbean, for example, are sources of legal tax reduction, it will be difficult to separate the tax-code savvy from tax-code shifty.

In an April interview with The Wall Street Journal, when the Panama Papers were released, Jürgen Mossack, a co-founder of Mossack Fonseca, said the firm uses intermediaries to help set up shell companies, and stated outright that the firm does not typically know what the companies are used for.

“If we detect suspicious activity or misconduct, we are quick to report it to the authorities,” the firm’s website reads, according to The Wall Street Journal.

“Similarly, when authorities approach us with evidence of possible misconduct, we always cooperate fully with them.” 

The extent of Mossack Fonseca’s liability is uncertain. But while 2016 is coming to end, not so for the number of scandals the year will offer.

In fact, in just the latter half of 2016, there has been a lot of activity—FLSA changes, NLRB lawsuits, states legalizing marijuana, LGBT focus, and paid sick leave and domestic violence leave laws passing around the country.

When’s the last time your employee handbook was updated?  Was it within the last six months? No? Then your handbook is a liability.

If your handbook contains the wrong language, if it’s filled with outdated content, or if you don’t enforce it consistently, you could find yourself facing a myriad of employment-related lawsuits.

Your policies are the front-line of your defense against legal action from your workforce. The language you use, and the provisions you include, can make or break a lawsuit — and may even stop disputes before they arise.

Take C4CM’s webinar, “Employee Handbook Mid-Year Updates: 2016 Compliance Alerts, Rules & Regulations, Policies & Procedures,” on Tuesday, August 16, 2016 from 2:00 PM To 3:15 PM Eastern.

With the recent onslaught of new rules and regulations, you need to make sure your handbooks don’t land you in hot water. This information-packed webinar focuses on the top areas to update now, including:

  • EEO rules and recent NLRB rulings
  • Social media policies
  • ACA and benefits
  • Workplace violence
  • Legalization of marijuana
  • LGBT employees
  • Paid sick leave laws
  • BYOD (bring your own device) policies

Plus, seasoned employment law attorney, David C. Whitlock, will share best practices on updating your employee handbook to minimize your liability and protect your organization and your employees.

  • Crucial elements and policies that your handbook must include, and guidance for other components to consider
  • Get the latest in federal laws and regulations that require employee handbook updates
  • Beyond fashion: Dress code policy updates your handbook should have
  • Learn best practices for social media privacy and usage policies given NLRB’s stance on the issue
  • Language matters: Discover the best way to state policy and other issues in your handbook, and when – and how – to use flexible language
  • Get up to date on most current advice on BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) policies to maximize cybersecurity and minimize data breaches and IP theft
  • Ensure you’re in compliance with all regulations regarding personnel records
  • Learn techniques for communicating handbook updates so employees are aware of the changes

-WB

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What Victoria Woodhull (Our True First Presidential Nominee) Can Teach Americans About Political Action (& How To Manage Politically Charged Talk In The Office)

On Tuesday, Hillary Clinton became the first woman to head a majority party ticket as the Democratic nominee for President. But did you ever wonder why the press emphasizes the clause, “of a major party ticket”? It’s because almost 150 years ago, the United States witnessed its true first female candidate for President, Victoria Woodhull.

Never heard of her? It’s not surprising. Even in her own time, Victoria Woodhull was controversial.

Like most women of her era, Victoria Woodhull received no formal education. As one of 10 children, she dropped out of school—in favor of marriage—and eventually became a “clairvoyant.” It was through contacting sprits and selling life elixirs that she and her sister, Tennessee, eventually made a living.

Soon, Victoria and her sister caught the eye of railroad baron Cornelius Vanderbilt, who was suspicious of medically-trained doctors. Tennessee would become Vanderbilt’s mistress, and this mutually beneficial relationship (and a few stock tips later) would help finance the women’s stock brokerage firm.

As a result, Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee became the first female brokers on Wall Street (and you thought a woman running for U.S. President in 1872 would be the most surprising part!).

In April 1870, two months after opening up the brokerage firm, Victoria Woodhull announced her candidacy for President of the United States. She advocated for women’s suffrage, regulation of monopolies, nationalization of railroads, an eight-hour workday, direct taxation, abolition of the death penalty, and welfare for the poor (read more on History’s “9 Things You Should Know About Victoria Woodhull“).

So, in many ways, this year wasn’t at all a “crack in the glass ceiling” as Hillary Clinton announced at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. In fact, based on the plethora of platforms for which Victoria Woodhull was already campaigning more than a century earlier, America seems to be behind, rather than ahead.

“While others prayed for the good time coming, I worked for it,” Victoria Woodhull once said. Today, as presidential election looms and Brexit blooms, let’s hope people are prepared for more than rhetoric—like notorius Victoria back in 1870 (read her incredible biography here).

Of course, a bombardment of information and opinions makes political chatter in the workplace inevitable.

But what happens when political talk interrupts workflow or escalates to bad behavior? As an employer trying to retain productivity, keep the peace, and avoid legal landmines can be more challenging than you may think.

In fact, there’s a host of legal concerns surrounding barring political talk or disciplining employees for engaging in political behavior.

Take C4CM’s webinar, “Politics in the Workplace: How to Legally Manage Politically Charged Activity at Work,” on Wednesday, August 17, 2016 from 2:00 PM To 3:15 PM Eastern.

During this practical and timely webinar, you will learn what employers can – and can’t do – to manage political activity in the workplace, including:

  • What employers can do to manage political discussions and fundraising
  • How to address political discussions in the workplace under federal and state laws
  • What employers should never do when it comes to political activities or chatter
  • How the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) applies
  • How the new SCOTUS ruling Heffernan vs. City of Paterson impacts employers
  • When an employee’s political discussion is protected by the First Amendment

By the end of the information-packed session, you will know more about:

  • When discipline for political-related behavior is appropriate and legal
  • What defines political harassment in the workplace
  • What constitutes business harm from employee’s political speech
  • How to handle controversial or political social media posts by an employee
  • How to handle office sponsored political functions supported by management
  • Dress code dos and don’ts

-WB

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Amazon Struggles With Fine Print On Prime Day: Why Your Law Firm Should Educate Its Clients On Contracting

If businesses don’t struggle with the ethics of “consent” to fine print, they should.

The debate has long ended; it is now universally understood that people do not read deeply buried disclosures of “terms and conditions,” and while boilerplates remain industry standard, so is the subsequent outrage by consumers about the morality of this choice.

From subprime mortgage lending to hurricane insurance, fine print once made a fine debate. Today, however, researchers and laymen alike acknowledge that these clandestine clauses remain unread, unrealistic, and therefore unwelcome.

Only a well-trained attorney could possibly decipher these legalese-laden contracts, which begs the question (well-put in the Iowa Law Review), “how seriously should contract law take consent in a world in which consumers must consent lightly to most of their contractual obligations?”

Yesterday, Amazon struck an unlucky deal with Visa on Prime Day. In addition to extra Prime discounts, holders of the Amazon Visa card also received 30% off all-day orders. Except, those coupon-cutting customers who didn’t read the fine print stating “while supplies last” were out of luck at check-out. Apparently, supplies didn’t last past 1pm and Amazon’s customer service lines fielded complaints.

What could Amazon have learned from the exchange?

  1. Don’t deliberately confuse clients with legalese

Sometimes it’s impossible to edit out all the legalese. After all, contracts must be succinct, legally binding documents requiring many years of experience and thousands of dollars to draft them.

Nevertheless, boilerplate verbiage and ultra fine print are things of the past. “Most disclosures arise in an already crowded field of boilerplate. As such, most people have no choice but to perform a kind of triage on their reading priorities due to the overwhelming volume of information that disclosees face in a given day,” explains Tess Wilkinson-Ryan, in “A Psychological Account of Consent to Fine Print,” in Faculty Scholarship.

“Distorted risk perceptions, salience biases, and framing effects make it very unlikely that consumers will read the terms of form contracts—and even if they do read the terms, it is unlikely that they will integrate the information into their decision-making process in a sensible way.”

Instead of frustrating your clients with ex-post explanations like, “it was in the fine print,” or “you read the contact before you signed it,” avoid complaints and liability later by writing clear-cut contracting language today. Include “while supplies last” in large print with the title, or–for law firm contracting–keep contracts at 12pt font and limit the number of pages.

  1. Clients are overconfident about their own understanding of contracting

So now you have a contract and you’re ready for clients to sign it. They consent—or do they?

People overestimate their abilities in general and, specifically, overestimate their natural talent for reading and understanding contracts.

For example, 88% of the American population rates their own driving as safer than the median driver. And, 85% of a random sample of residents of New Jersey thought that they had “below-average” risk of getting food poisoning [via Faculty Scholarship].

Most likely your clients will never admit they’re confused about terms and conditions your lawyers have laid out. So, take a minute to explain it again verbally. It may not be legally-binding like a signature, but it protects your practice ethically.

  1. Think more about what you should do as opposed to what you’re legally bound to do

Yes, fine print exists. Yes, consumers and clients are aware of it. Yes, unread terms of agreement are legally binding. No, it doesn’t absolve your firm from blame.

As lawyers or law firm managers, don’t get bogged down by requisite behaviors, such as including a boilerplate. Take a moment to think about what you should do as opposed to what you’re minimally required to do.

In the least, if you’re Amazon, you’ll save time, cost, and effort justifying your actions and, instead, lock-in loyal customers or clients—while supplies last.

 

-WB

For audio and training courses (including CLEs) on law firm management, including drafting contracts, maximizing legal networks, and building a productive, profitable law firm, go to C4CM’s website here.

References:

  1. Wilkinson-Ryan, Tess, “A Psychological Account of Consent to Fine Print” (2014). Faculty Scholarship. Paper 1301. http://bit.ly/29PRsaV

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Merger Mania: Microsoft Buys LinkedIn In Record Deal (& MS Word Tips For Lawyers)

The world looked one direction, and Microsoft slipped a multi-billion dollar cash purchase past us.

While political news dominated the air and digital waves, the acquisition of LinkedIn by Microsoft almost went without notice. But, this week, it’s finally possible to let Microsoft’s largest acquisition in history sink in. At $26.2 billion, the acquisition of LinkedIn is more than three times the size of Microsoft’s acquisition of Skype in 2011 for (what’s now, a mere) $8.5 billion (via CNN Money).

It may not come as a total surprise, however, as Microsoft has been hedging its bets in the social networking world for a few years now.

Microsoft bought Yammer, a “freemium” private social network for corporate use similar to Facebook, for $1.2 billion back in 2012. Yammer came with a user base of more than 200,000 companies, which—one can guess—would help Microsoft build a larger B2B clientele for its Office products (via Forbes).

LinkedIn, with more than 433 million members, seems to have added to Microsoft’s incentive to invest in the corporate world of networking. LinkedIn, for its part, has been equally eager to grow.

In February 2016, LinkedIn shares closed down 43.6 percent, which represented $11 billion in market value. Furthermore, LinkedIn reported that online ad revenue growth slowed to 20 percent in the latest quarter from 56 percent a year earlier, as reported by Reuters.

All in all, LinkedIn may have been looking for the kind of leverage Microsoft offers to pull them out of a financial funk.

Chief executive at Microsoft, Satya Nadella, shed some light on the purchase, saying in an email to Microsoft employees, “This combination [of Microsoft and LinkedIn] will make it possible for new experiences,” such as “Office suggesting an expert to connect with via LinkedIn to help with a task you’re trying to complete.”

In addition, he said that these experiences will “get more intelligent and delightful.”

Some, however, are convinced that this combination will be, in fact, neither intelligent nor delightful.

Randall Stross of The New York Times wrote an opinion article, “Why LinkedIn Will Make You Hate Microsoft Word,” in which he writes:

“Did Mr. Nadella, who has been at Microsoft since 1992, learn nothing from the Clippy disaster? Clippy, the animated anthropomorphic paper clip introduced in 1996, popped up unbidden in Microsoft Office programs to offer advice. ‘Are you writing a letter?’ it would ask annoyingly. Clippy became famous for the ire it provoked and, in 2010, Time magazine included Clippy in a roundup of the 50 worst inventions of all time, along with asbestos, leaded gasoline and pay toilets.”

Mergers are certainly on the mind. It’s hard to know when your firm is falling behind and when it’s correctly eschewing technological change.

Change can be powerful for growth. But even great firms fail. Leadership—and majority market share—in the personal computer industry changed hands often from Altair, to Tandy, to Apple, to IBM, to Compaq, to Dell, to HP (Tellis and Golder 1996; 2001). And, Microsoft executives are acutely aware of the acquisitions made by their social network competitors. Even Mr. Stross for The New York Times laments:

“But I suspect that both Mr. Nadella [of Microsoft] and Mr. Weiner [of LinkedIn] are afflicted with extremely bad cases of Facebook envy. Every tech company, including Microsoft, contemplated buying, or actually tried to buy, Facebook in its early days, and all are haunted by the thought of the deal that got away. Today, Facebook’s market capitalization is about $320 billion, not that far behind Microsoft’s $394 billion.” 

Merger mania is upon us. Yet, key questions remain unanswered: what is more important to success? Does success depend on high-quality products or, today, does it depend entirely on a social network peers?

-WB

Excel, Word, Outlook, PowerPoint… your Office partners are such familiar friends, but when they prevent you from doing what you need to do, they can turn into enemies.

In fact, even if you use Microsoft programs on a daily basis, there’s always something you want to do—and you’re certain it can be done!—but you don’t know how do it.

Have you ever thought:

  • “There’s got to be an easier way?”
  • Are you overwhelmed by the computer work you need to get done every day?
  • Do you feel like it takes too long to get things done in your Office programs but you don’t have the time to learn the shortcuts and new features?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions then take C4CM’s audio course, “Top 10 Microsoft Office Tips, Tools, Tricks and Shortcuts: From Basic Business User to Power User,” on Tuesday, July 12, 2016 from 2:00 PM To 3:15 PM Eastern.

In just 75 minutes you will learn how to work less AND better by using more of the technology you have at your fingertips.

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