Employees without choices will stay silent

The one-size-fits all template for harassment investigations no longer aligns with the growing respect of and desire for self-determination.  Employees would rather stay silent than come forward to be part of an investigation process and the fallout, as we have seen recently at the CBC and in the Houses of Parliament, can be acute.

In both of these highly publicized cases, complainants had few choices. Like many employees, they lack a safe environment and have few choices when it comes to reporting harassment. Is this typical? What resources are employers providing to their staff to help them work through their options when they are feeling victimized? How do current conflict management systems support respondents? Do they have the before, during and after support they need to go back to work if the investigation is unfounded?

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FYI Here is your code of conduct

This was the title of an email sent out recently to a surprised worker whose job involves Diversity and Inclusion. It was a story told during a discussion of the 3 tenets of Workplace Fairness: Proactivity, Communication and Collaboration.

 

An effective code of conduct results from a collaborative process and will reflect the personality and culture of your workforce.

An effective code of conduct results from a collaborative process and will reflect the personality and culture of your workforce.

When we are busy, it is easy to take shortcuts in consultation with potentially dire results. We invented the word proactivity to describe the ongoing, preventative, and proactive process which engages employees within all levels and departments of an organization to consult. The Code of Conduct is a great example; let’s take two scenarios.

Manager A, cognizant of the pressures on her staff’s time and resources, takes on the grunt work of developing the code of conduct. Her thinking is that since most of it is common sense, people will be relieved because everyone is pushed for time. She does recognize that participation is the key to engagement. So, once she has done most of the legwork, she asks volunteers to review, discuss and fine-tune the final document. She is happy to note that there are very few changes proposed to the original document, and she emails it out “FYI” to the full group and staples it to the bulletin board of the lunchroom.

Manager B is not particularly fond of policy and conduct discussions, but recognizes their importance. So, partly out of a desire to offload the task, and partly out of a desire to engage people in the process, he allocates the first 10 minutes of every staff meeting to a Code of Conduct discussion. It takes a few months, but eventually they finalize a document and ceremoniously hang it in the lunchroom during their monthly potluck.

People take ownership of language. Manager A’s language may be clear and sensical, but it is not her staff’s language. When there are bumps in the road, she will be held to a high standard for owning, acting and leading with her code of conduct. Conflict seeks somewhere to lay blame. Manager A and her code of conduct become easy targets.

Manager B involves everyone from the beginning, and as a group, they stand a better chance of holding each other to account for their Code of Conduct. Though he risks Code-of-Conduct-saturation and boredom by drawing it out, there are high rewards for keeping the discussion front and centre, and ensuring there is group buy-in.

Consultation and collaboration require being open to new information and a commitment through all stages of a discussion, not just the final review.

Vista Projects embarked on a Workplace Fairness Assessment in November 2011, and the results have seen an increased more accessible profile for HR in the management of workplace conflict and a new tool for enhancing employee engagement.

In Alberta’s booming oil and gas sector it is becoming increasingly important for competitive companies to differentiate themselves for potential employees.  Vista Projects, a privately held full services engineering and procurement (EP) company, has been ranked among the best small and medium employers in Canada for three years since 2010, and they are not resting on their laurels.  In a few short years Vista Projects has grown to a mid-sized company of nearly 400 employees.  Management at Vista recognize the importance of cultivating, maintaining and promoting a healthy work environment and they are committed to working for it.

In November 2011 Leah Eggen, Human Resources Manager at Vista Projects Ltd, decided to do a Workplace Fairness Assessment.   Michelle Phaneuf (REA Agreements) and I worked closely with Amie Oslund (HR Generalist) to do it, and despite the serious hurdle of getting time commitment from busy staff working for billable hours, we completed a research project which has led Vista’s HR group to implement positive changes.  This decision was made with the understanding that planning for conflict management will reap dividends and avoid the necessity for costly crisis management later.

Amie joined us at our Workplace Fairness lunch on June 26 2012 to tell us why Vista decided to do the audit, to describe the process, the results, the implementation of changes, and talk about some of the benefits and lessons learned.   The audience of HR professionals and consultants had plenty of questions, and were intrigued and impressed with the forward thinking and strategically oriented HR group led by Leah Eggen.

The decision to proceed.  There were three primary reasons Vista chose to invest in a Workplace Fairness Assessment:

  1. To understand conflict management and how it was working
  2. To identify areas for improvement (e.g. conflict resolution, training)
  3. To learn how Vista can improve employee communication

Buy in from senior management was critical to the success of this initiative.  One barrier was time.  It was impossible to get commitment for a meeting which would last longer than one half day, and this was only achieved because Amie was able to allow staff to bill their time to the HR budget.  That this is an option at all at Vista is a testament to the commitment Vista has to fostering a healthy workplace, and to their view of the importance of a strategic and well-funded HR group.  

The process.  Amie hand-picked two groups of 6-7 staff for the assessment.  It was important to work with two groups. There is the head office and a 2nd major office that houses a subsidiary, which is a joint venture with another Calgary engineering firm.  Vista is an organization with diversity: corporate cultural diversity, gender diversity (as an engineering firm, it is primarily male) and cultural diversity.  The diversity spectrum was one reason the Workplace Fairness Assessment was important, and though we entered it with knowledge of issues, we gained greater clarity of the impact.  Amie chose participants carefully to ensure groups were representative of different working units.

Michelle and I conducted confidential phone interviews with each individual prior to the in-person meeting.  We asked questions aimed at determining how employees viewed conflict management and the sources of conflict within their immediate unit.  The phone interviews provided an opportunity for employees to speak openly about their experiences resolving interpersonal conflict.  We then held a half-day meeting with each group, and an HR person sat in at each meeting.  The goal was open and candid discussion about Vista.

The results.  Amie garnered tangible results from these discussions, which she summarized as follows:

  1. Code of Conduct.  Amie identified the need for revisions to the Code of Conduct and policies, and the need to improve distribution of the code and the policies.
  2. Roles.  Staff had been experiencing frustration with the lack of understanding of job roles.
  3. Gender diversity.  Though management was obviously aware of the gender imbalance, the confidential conversations provided a forum to safely bring the issue into the light and discuss it openly.
  4. Cultural diversity.  As with gender diversity, the forums brought cultural diversity to the table, and provided an opportunity to openly discuss language and other issues in a safe environment.
  5. Conflict management processes.  Participants frankly discussed the pros and cons of the open door policy.
  6. Training.  Participants clearly identified the need for training and provided specific feedback for topics.

As a result of the Workplace Fairness Assessment, Amie and her colleagues at Vista have embarked on a number of changes.  In the past six months they tackled the Code of Conduct and adjusted new hire orientations to include information about harassment in the workplace and Workplace Fairness.  They posted the Code of Conduct and policies on their intranet and Quality Management System.  They confirmed and updated job role descriptions and ensured they are accurate and readily available, and they launched a monthly training initiative which includes soft skills, leadership and technical training.

A relationship with Janus Associates has strengthened the Vista EAP program, and the HR group is working hard to publicize it with a soft-sell, talking about it with managers, and slipping pamphlets to staff.  Buying a table at the Women of Influence Speaker Series is a new initiative at Vista aimed at engaging women in the workforce.

Importantly, partly as a result of the Workplace Fairness Assessment, HR has become a widely used resource for staff searching for results in resolving interpersonal conflict.  The Open Door Policy continues to ensure managers are also approachable.

There is work to be done.   Amie has identified a need to formalize the Open Door Policy and to create a more consistent and formal conflict management process.

The Workplace Fairness Audit was successful at Vista because of senior management and shareholder buy in.  Senior management did see the value, and they do see the results coming to fruition.  The initiative continues to build trust between management and the HR group.  Vista is a company committed to building a culture which invests in employees, and is not just a project company.  The timing was also optimal, as it is a period of growth for Vista.

The benefits.  Amie has identified the benefits of the Workplace Fairness Assessment as gaining a greater understanding of how Vista’s staff experience conflict management, understanding communication issues in the workplace.  Now it is possible that Vista can use Workplace Fairness along with the Best Small and Medium Employers Survey to enhance employee engagement.  Vista has incorporated Workplace Fairness language in their policies and their new employee orientation.

Lessons learned.  Amie recommends that if possible, it is important to use a larger cross section of people, larger groups, and allotting more time for the group meetings.  We were severely hampered by time constraints in a busy work environment.  While allotting hours to the HR budget helped to ease this, even more is needed.

A successful Workplace Fairness Assessment requires the commitment of HR, and the buy in of senior staff.  It is possible to learn enough to implement changes with even a small sampling of participants particularly, as in this situation, when you have a simple conflict management system.  Trust between staff, the HR group, and the Workplace Fairness Analysts is critical to the success, as it is a process which relies on frank and open discussion.

To learn more about Workplace Fairness, please visit www.workplacefairness.ca or in Alberta call:

Marjorie Munroe (403) 5432 6998
Michelle Phaneuf (403) 243-0147

A Workplace Fairness Assessment at Vista Projects: Process, Results, and Benefits