Feature

In your local bookstore, you ask an employee to track down a hard-to-find book. He tells you he just clocked out, but his manager says. "Help the gentleman, then take your break."

That might be viewed as great customer service in action. But for Cristina Banks, PhD, it looks like a lawsuit waiting to happen.

Banks, an industrial/organizational psychologist and one of this month's two Innovative Practitioner awardees, specializes in wage and hour litigation support and has seen firsthand how such seemingly innocent infractions on an employee's free time can quickly escalate into high-stakes, class-action lawsuits.

As president of Lamorinda Consulting in Orinda, Calif., Banks makes it her business to head off such lawsuits, or help when they occur. Lawyers call her when, for example, the company they represent is fielding complaints that employees are so swamped they can't stop for lunch, and Banks figures out how managers can carve out breaks. She also assists with misclassification cases, or when employees claim their jobs are misclassified as overtime-exempt and seek years of back pay.

"Every major U.S. company has been sued along this line," says Banks.

In fact, prior to 1997, when Banks—who was then teaching in the business school at the University of California at Berkeley—used her psychometrics training and job analysis expertise to develop scientifically sound methodology that companies could use to classify jobs as exempt or nonexempt, lawyers had little defense if the company they represented was sued for job misclassification.

"There were hundreds and hundreds of lawsuits back then," says Banks, who achieved rock star status among many in the legal community for that work. "They swept through one industry after another."

Banks and her team at Lamorinda have aided or testified for more than 60 class action lawsuits, and they've helped dozens of other companies alter their practices to ensure employees are treated fairly.

Fellow winner and I/O psychologist David P. Baker, PhD, also strives to ensure people are treated well—in his case, patients. Baker helps physicians, nurses and other hospital staff work together to enhance patient care and improve patient safety.

To do that, Baker uses TeamSTEPPSTM, a training curriculum he and colleagues developed with funding from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) and the Department of Defense. In 2006, AHRQ released TeamSTEPPS in the public domain as the national standard for team training in health care. As a principal research scientist at the American Institutes for Research, Baker and his team have trained more than 1,000 health-care professionals from hospitals across the country as part of AHRQ's national implementation project of the training. Early evidence shows TeamSTEPPS works. The pediatric services unit of Carilion Clinic in Roanoke, Va., where Baker also holds an appointment, has reported an increase in patient satisfaction and a 50 percent reduction in medication errors.

And interest in the TeamSTEPPS program has grown dramatically since its release, Baker says. He has a wait list for training and AHRQ has renewed his work for an additional two years to meet demand.

"Health care is a team sport. Doctors, nurses and other professionals must work together to deliver great care," he says.

—J. Chamberlin


APA President James H. Bray, PhD, is honoring psychologists who have a novel or creative approach to practice with an "Innovative Practitioner Award" in each 2009 issue of the Monitor. To read about past winners, visit Monitor.