Hunkering Down & Cutting Back – Where is the fairness?

Here in Alberta we are confronting a new possible normal…in 2 to 3 years back to oil at $45/barrel? We are staring at a 7.9% unemployment rate – the highest since August 1995, and the natural resources/mining sector has been hard hit with losses of some 15,200 jobs in the past year. Wilma Slenders of Transcend Management Advisors Inc hosted a very interesting discussion with us recently, and we examined the behaviour and the reaction in the Calgary workplace to the depressing economic environment.

To set the context Wilma reminded us that as Milton Friedman asserted in 1970, that the sole purpose of a business is to make a profit for shareholders. While we may disagree that it is its sole purpose, without profitability businesses would not exist. At a recent Soul of the City event (hosted by Calgary Economic Development) discussion centred around the economic challenges and the fact that Calgary is not known for innovation. As the pressure increases, companies are hunkering down and cutting back. One would think that a natural reaction would be to innovate, however, a quick survey around the table did not reveal much evidence of innovation.


As the pressure increases in Alberta companies are hunkering down and cutting back.

So we talked lay-offs, using as the basis for our wide-ranging discussion several case studies which Wilma introduced. For me, there were a few significant takeaways.

Stress leads to poor decision making. Uncertainty leads to stress. We agreed that though it can be difficult, the worker who is able to take control of their own life will make better decisions and provide better support for their staff. We heard an example of the HR director who sees their name on the cut list and takes the bull by the horns to negotiate their package first before tackling the others. It takes courage! But it leads to certainty.

“Don’t take it personally” is a phrase which will never land well. The leader who anthropomorphizes “the company” and uses that as an excuse can never get away from sounding pejorative. It is personal.

The high performing team or individual can get isolated. When you are on sinking ship watching the captain load supplies onto a dinghy you know you can’t get on, it can test your spirit of generosity. Different business, and indeed different units of the same business, are having very different experiences in this downturn. Some are contracting and some are growing. When both are happening in the same company it is challenging. To keep staff motivated, managers must be transparent and open with the challenges they face.

Involve employees in the decision making. This can be good for keeping employees engaged, but it can also be dangerous – as it is not always possible to keep promises made even with the best of intentions. When the price of oil changes, everything changes.

Separate the people from the problem? This is a quote we use quite often in conflict resolution. One story shared tested this – the fellow who arrives at “the meeting” with the spreadsheet of metrics & performance statistics to make the cut decisions, looking around the room. Didn’t you bring your spreadsheet? he says to the others. No. We know who has to go. All decisions are made at some level on emotion and gut instinct. Every company facing cuts is facing complex decisions – laying off the high performer to save the job of the new parent? This is a problem that cannot be separated from the people.

There are no rules for this new normal. We struggle with a larger than ever and uncontrollable circle of concern. As we grapple to enlarge our circle of influence, our values will be tested, our security will be tested, and so will our conscience. Hang on, it is going to be quite the ride; it isn’t over yet.

Through Transcend Management Advisors Inc. Wilma Slenders provides professional objective guidance for growth and change. 

10 Best Practices in the Workplace Restoration Process

A workplace harassment investigation can be a traumatic event which affects not only those directly involved, but often causes extensive collateral damage.  A healing process which helps staff feel heard and acknowledged is a very important step for re-establishing or rebuilding workplace norms.

Restoring norms following a harassment investigation is an important step.

Restoring norms following an harassment investigation is an important step.

Following a discussion about the role the of the investigation and the purpose and goals of the Workplace Restoration, participants at a recent Workplace Fairness lunch identified 10 best practices.  Whether an investigation is founded or unfounded these are important steps:

  1. Facilitate, when appropriate, a confidential written agreement between the complainant and the respondent that is separate from performance measures.
  2. Provide regular and ongoing feedback to all staff.
  3. Ensure leadership is visible and committed to “say” and “do” accountability.
  4. Support leadership to share and acknowledge ownership of contributing factors.
  5. Follow up with the team and others affected to develop a plan and strategy with common goals and processes for the group.
  6. Facilitate a safe dialogue to re-establish the norms of respect and dignity by asking questions, creating a common language, and ensure the experience is normalized for all affected.
  7. Provide skill-building support for supervisors and those involved through training and 1-on-1 coaching, focusing on listening skills and “I language”.
  8. Maintain a forward-looking aspect to the restoration process.
  9. Appoint a new neutral facilitator who was not involved in the investigation and ensure impartiality in all follow-up dialogue.
  10. Ensure a restorative and healing process which allows all to be acknowledged for their experiences.

We would love your comments! Do you have anything to add? join the discussion below.

SCARF it up for workplace productivity and engagement

Social Neuroscience and the SCARF Model indicates Fairness is Important in the Workplace.

Thanks to Erika Deines for sharing the SCARF model with our Workplace Fairness Luncheon group. David Rock is a leading neuroscience practitioner.  The SCARF model builds on the understanding that the brain is focused on increasing or sustaining reward and avoiding negative experiences (threats). This focus on reward and threats drives behaviors in the workplace. Negativity, irrational behavior and conflict isn’t just something that makes our jobs uncomfortable, it is a real cost to business in the emotional toll it takes in our working environment. It translates to lost time due to a lack of engagement leading to lower productivity, increased time spent by human resources and others who end up dealing with these issues.

Here are the five areas of social response that each of us need in the workplace to ensure we are not feeling threatened:


Status – are we comfortable with our relative importance to others?
Our sense of worth. Our sense of where we fit into the hierarchy at work both socially and organizationally

David Rock, SCARF

Every workplace benefits from status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness

Certainty –are we able to predict the future?
Clarity around tasks, clarity around people and how people communicate is more important than we realize. When we are asked to complete tasks or be involved in situations where we don’t have certainty about process or what the persons expects from us, it increases our stress levels dramatically and impairs our ability to be able to make effective balanced decisions.

Autonomy – do we have a sense of control over events?
Our need to feel safe in our abilities to get our job done competently without overt interference enhances our productivity, our engagement, our effectiveness and our accuracy. Lack of autonomy can be processed as a threat situation and hence will promote stress and its negative implications in the brain.

Relatedness – do we feel a sense of safety with others?
The social wiring in our brains means that we form social groups and build relationships. These groups build mutual trust and form a barrier against the unknown. These feelings and the interpersonal bonding promote the production of oxytocin, the trust and bonding hormone, which increases the positive feeling of trust and stabilizes these relationships.

Fairness – do we see our exchanges between others as fair?
Unfairness stimulates a strong emotional reaction in the brain, an automatic defense mechanism. This feeling of unfairness can unintentionally be promoted in organizations through unclear and in-transparent communication. When we experience a strong unfairness threat we can quite often respond in a way that either exacerbates the situation or attempts to avoid the threat.

Knowing about the drivers that can activate a reward response enables people to motivate others more effectively by tapping into internal rewards and reducing reliance on external rewards such as money. SCARF points to more creative ways to reward others that are stronger and more sustainable. It also assists us to become more self-aware of what our negative experiences (threats) are and aid in our ability to self-manage.

Above and Beyond Undercover Boss

Recently Calgary Transit Director Doug Morgan appeared on an episode of Undercover Boss Canada with a goal of giving Calgarians a behind-the-scenes look at the work of employees who make his organization tick and, according to Ruth Myles of the Calgary Herald, a chance to hear an uncensored take on the workplace from employees.

Working Statues

All too often in the workplace there is disconnect between the corner office and frontline workers, reinforced by everyday barriers including assistants’ desks, dress codes, and separate floors and buildings. Doug Morgan had to take a pretty extreme measure to vault the barriers at Calgary Transit, donning an uncomfortable dark wig and in his own words “crazy shoes”, but he relished the opportunity to connect on a new level with his staff and is now looking for ways to continue and reinforce that “connection back into the organization.”

You don’t need to get on Undercover Boss Canada and don a crazy uncomfortable disguise to connect with your employees says Michelle Phaneuf, Alberta Co-Director of the Workplace Fairness Institute. Michelle says “owners may be aware that there are issues in the workplace, but employees are often missing that safe environment to provide direct feedback.”

Michelle and her fellow Workplace Fairness co-director, Marjorie Munroe, have developed a process to engage employees for that all important feedback. The Discovery Interview process is the first step in supporting organizations to instill fairness in the workplace. Using skills gained in their extensive mediation experience, Marjorie and Michelle establish a safe environment and gather anonymous and frank data around issues that impact employees. This data is compiled and presented in a report that highlights concerns, often revolving around trust, respect, leadership and transparency. Marjorie Munroe acknowledges that management often has a good idea of what is going on within the organization but adds “nonetheless Discovery Interviews serve two very important purposes: they provide a forum for employees to feel heard an acknowledged, and they send a firm and transparent message that management is concerned about learning the truth.”

Discovery Interviews are only the first step. The second step is often a group conversation facilitated by Michelle and Marjorie to ask: How can the employees work with management to find solutions to enhance their organizational culture? Together, staff and management work on a specific plan to address concerns. Through careful professional facilitation, staff are empowered to contribute to a solution which will meet needs in the workplace they have defined. Because both staff and management define the terms for success, success becomes achievable.

The Workplace Fairness Institute is a Canadian company focused on enhancing organizational culture through collaboration, communication and proactivity in managing conflict.

The Workplace Fairness Ombudsman Office is a new initiative of the Workplace Fairness Institute which offers ombuds services to small and mid-sized organizations. Trained as ombudsman through the Forum of Canadian Ombudsman and the Osgoode Hall Law School and with backgrounds as Chartered Mediators , Marjorie and Michelle bring abundant experience and ample expertise to the Ombudsman office. The Workplace Fairness Ombudsman Office will support individuals by working with them to understand and consider options regarding their concerns, answering questions, facilitating communication, and providing information and referral.

The Workplace Fairness Ombudsman Office will provide a service which emphasizes independence, impartiality, fairness and accountability. Additionally the service will help organizations recognize and address systemic issues early.

November is Workplace Fairness Ombuds-month

In November we will celebrate the organizational ombudsman.

You are probably familiar with the ombuds function of municipalities, governments and large organizations, but do you wonder about the benefit and value for a small organization?

If you are you a business owner/manager or Human Resource Professional of a small to mid-sized firm curious to explore ways to attract and engage employees and mitigate risk, we would like to invite you to a reception on November 6 to explore how it can help you.

Wednesday, November 6th

4:30-7:00 pm

Ranchmen’s Club

710 13 Ave SW
Refreshments provided

Join like-minded professionals as Marjorie Munroe and Michelle Phaneuf with Workplace Fairness Alberta facilitate a discussion about the foundational principles of the ombuds office: fairness, impartiality, independence, accountability.

You will have an opportunity to:

  • gain insight into how an ombuds function could benefit your organization
  • network with like-minded professionals
  • explore fairness, impartiality, independence and accountability and how your organization currently fosters these values

To RSVP (required) and learn more:

See you there!

Trico Homes Models Workplace Fairness and Fosters Engagement

Employees of Trico Homes are engaged, recognized, committed, and passionate about the work they do.  

Organizations can learn a lot from the way Trico manages fairness and employee relationships.  Michelle Phaneuf and I sat down recently with Maaike Ezinga to learn more specifically about what Trico does to foster working relationships and employee retention.  We were curious to know how the principles of Workplace Fairness were cultivated at an award-winning organization.

Employees are engaged at Trico Homes

Trico has won “Canada’s Best Workplaces” for five consecutive years.

Workplace Fairness is focused on seven desired organization culture outcomes, including such things as productive working relationships, diversity and inclusion, employee engagement and organizational reputation.  Trico is a leader in fostering Workplace Fairness, with tangible strategies which promote these outcomes. Here are some examples from our recent conversation with Ezinga.

Employee Engagement at Trico Homes.  It is easy to talk about engagement, but as we all know, talk and action are often separated by a chasm, and we don’t always know specifically what steps to take, even when we recognize a problem.  Ask the leadership of Trico Homes – they know how to engage and retain employees, and they have a well-earned shelf of rewards in the lobby recognizing their successes.  Knowing the boss on a personal level and understanding what he cares about goes a long way to serving workers’ sense of purpose and engagement.  When people understand that the boss cares, they care.

Ezinga, the current HR Director at Trico Homes has been there less than a year, but already she speaks passionately about what drives her commitment to this privately owned Calgary business. “Wayne and Eleanor Chiu have a personal investment.  For them, their relationship with employees is personal, and it is demonstrated with everything they do.”  Work gets done because the staff know the Chius care about them, and this is demonstrated in myriad ways through flexibility and openness.

The Trico Group was established in 1989 from humble beginnings by Wayne Chiu, a mechanical engineer educated in Winnipeg and Hong Kong.  Eleanor Chiu has been the Chief Financial Officer since 1998. In 2008 the Trico Charitable Foundation emerged to support the Chiu’s vision to create an impactful legacy within the non-profit sector. This is a natural outgrowth of the Trico Group’s long history of corporate social responsibility, which involves extensive financial and organizational commitment to numerous charitable and community causes.

Fostering organizational reputation.  In addition to chairing the Trico Foundation, Wayne Chiu is a director for the Canadian Youth Business Foundation, a national non-profit which supports young entrepreneurs with mentoring and business resources.  Eleanor Chiu has served on the board of Bow Valley College, and Trico has generously supported this organization financially.  Their influence in the community runs deep and wide, with a presence which attracts long-term employees and talented newcomers with a shared sense of values.

The Charitable Foundation builds and supports another pillar of positive culture outcomes in Workplace Fairness: Positive Organizational Reputation.

The value of diversity and inclusion.  The Trico community is a vibrant one in its diversity.  Ezinga herself is Dutch, and understands the challenges of working and living in a second language.  As she described her work environment, and how comfortable it feels to be able to say – “I’m sorry, I don’t understand you” I realized she was talking about safety.  There is willingness and an acceptance here to participate in the difficult conversations without judgment.  This may start with the advantage of having a boss from Hong Kong who understands what it means to work in an adopted culture, but it doesn’t stop there because of the openness that has developed.  The Trico environment is a clear example of the positive cultural outcome of Diversity and Inclusion.  Positive diversity fosters a safe environment, benefits all workers and is a tenet of Workplace Fairness.

Productive working relationships.  At Trico resources are directed and allocated to celebrate events which are meaningful to all workers and to the business.  The very active social committee, composed of both frontline and management employees, is supported financially by the company and organizes regular, inclusive events.  Appreciation events are held in new show homes and employees are presented with the opportunity to share pride in the work they do and be recognized on the team for their contribution.  Communication and collaboration are strengthened on an ongoing basis as teams are brought together in celebration.  We know from Dan Pink and others that people are more engaged when they understand how their work contributes to the whole and are acknowledged for making a contribution.

Productive working relationships are also built through the mentoring and job-shadowing program which is inter-departmental.  The strong culture of working together benefits the succession plan as well as contributes to Workplace Fairness.

Our conversation with Ezinga also touched on the silos that inevitably develop between differing working groups.  Collaboration does not just happen between different groups.  As she said it, “people need to be forced together.”  Social events are one way of doing that, but it is not enough.  The social events will help build personal relationships and deliberate business processes can help as well.  It takes commitment on all sides, and it is critical to ensuring long-term productive working relationships throughout an organization.

So from recruiting to succession planning, from good conversation through bad, the folks at Trico Homes have fostered a culture of flexibility, trust, responsiveness, safety and recognition which attracts and retains quality employees.  And the mere fact that we are sitting in the office of the HR Director of a firm with 120 full-time employees tells me something as well – all too often, the budget for the HR director is way down the list of priorities.  It speaks to a commitment to the people.

About Trico. Trico Homes is a Calgary based builder of both single and multi-family homes and was established in 1993 by Wayne Chiu, a mechanical engineer educated in Winnipeg and Hong Kong.  Currently ranked as one of Calgary’s top residential builders, Trico has built an enviable reputation for integrity, innovative design, quality workmanship and customer service.  Trico has won Canada’s Best Workplacesfor five consecutive years.  

About Workplace Fairness. The Workplace Fairness Institute is a Canadian organization founded in Toronto by Blaine Donais, a labour lawyer and expert in both the practice and theory of assisted labour/management negotiation, mediation, arbitration and facilitation. Marjorie and Michelle have brought the concept of Workplace Fairness to Alberta to support leaders and champions to develop workplaces which treat employees with equality of concern and respect through collaboration, communication and a proactive approach.   Workplace Fairness focuses on seven main culture outcomes to enable businesses to create an organizational culture that ensures success; Employee Engagement, Diversity & Inclusion, Health & Wellness, Productive Working Relationships, Managing Change, Efficiency & Innovation & Organizational Reputation.

Contact us if you would like to learn more about increasing Employee Engagement in your organization.

Standards for a Psychologically Healthy Workplace

Last week I spent a very worthwhile day at the Bottom Line Conference.   The Canadian Mental Health Association, Calgary Region, has announced the launch of its Workplace Mental Health Program.  And, the conference also celebrated the launch of a new standard for psychological health and safety in the workplace.


Do you work in a workplace with a positive approach to psychological health and safety?  One that is better able to recruit and retain talent, has improved employee engagement, enhanced productivity, is more creative and innovative, and has higher profit levels?  The new voluntary standard provides a road-map to get there, with implementation scenarios for small and large enterprises.  You can download it for free here.

In addition to providing a road-map for small and large business alike, the new voluntary standard talks to diversity, change management, leadership, data collection,  and education.  It is a valuable resource.

So how do you know if you work in a psychologically healthy workplace?  What evidence would you see, or do you see now? I would love to hear from you.  Please respond below.