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 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

Workplace Fairness and the Role of the Union

We were very fortunate to welcome Al Brown on Friday (March  23) for our most recent Workplace Fairness Luncheon. Al is the Labour Relations Officer for the SAIT Faculty Association.  Al addressed the topic of the union and Workplace Fairness. He brings to the table a wealth of experience, and broad knowledge of the Alberta Labour Relations Code.

I asked Al what he considered the most important learning the non-union employer can gain from the union, and he suggested that it is the concept of fairness. Unions will step in to fill the breach when there is a perception of unfairness in a workplace.

The role of the union rep is one of witness, ensuring the worker is treated with fairness and fully understands the case and the circumstances. At SAIT, there is an opportunity for circumstances to be resolved at an informal meeting before the grievance process is initiated. This requires a good working relationship between the union and Human Resources.  Open and honest communication about the circumstances will ensure that the appropriate process is followed.

The union will not always pursue the grievance. The union may settle or drop grievances even if the affected employee disagrees. The duty of fair representation ensures that the decision to drop a grievance will not be arbitrary or wrongful. The union must carefully consider the significance of the case and its consequences for the union and the employee.

Strict timelines govern the filing process, as it moves from initiation through three steps. At SAIT, a grievance must be filed with the Director of Human Resources within 10 days of the date of the alleged occurrence. The timeline may range from 5 to 15 days, depending on the collective agreement.

There are 3 possible levels in the grievance procedure. In the final arbitration, at level 3, the proof is reasonableness, not beyond a shadow of a doubt. Between Level 2 and 3, parties may go to non-binding mediation to settle the dispute.

Our lunch participants were very interested to learn more about the union’s role. Most work in a non-union environment. Those who do work in a unionized environment may wish to refer to Blaine Donais’s book Engaging Unionized Employees: Employee Morale and Productivity. The book is based on the very pragmatic view that the key to engaging unionized employees is to involve their unions in the process of engagement, and it provides specific tools and steps for doing just that.

Our next workplace Fairness Luncheon will be held on April 27. Join us, and stay tuned for information on our topic and speaker.

Keep Calm and Carry On

One of the leading questions from my class this week was: how do you stay calm? And how do you not get emotionally involved in conflict? I usually respond that this is a journey for many of us. It certainly has been for me. I know that when I perceive a threat I run, or freeze in the moment and am never quite sure what to say. I find it very difficult to engage when emotions are running high. The key is full body listening, and a desire to change, or to at least engage in conversation.

I will never forget my first conflict resolution class. It was quite a revelation to discover that conflict could be good. I still remember that sense of disbelief and awe that anyone could feel that way.

My initial light-bulb moment led to a journey in confidence and skill-building. It has been valuable to me to intellectualize it. I was relieved to learn about the hard-wired physiology of fight and flight. Once I could describe my reactions biologically and normalize them, I was free to get practical.

I offer my students the analogy of a stake in the sand. I remember planting that stake as a child and measuring the creeping or receding tide. Our path to better communication in conflict is like that. We have to take small manageable steps and measure them against a marker. It is a skill-building journey that, like that of the tide, creeps further up the beach as we practice, and then gently recedes again when emotions are running or we are not deliberately working at it.

The practical skills that are most important to me now prepare me to listen without being defensive. I have moved that stake in the sand a long way up the beach. And preparing myself to listen means that I also have the skills to keep calm and carry on.

I set a time for important conversations, and do not let myself get dragged in on the spot.

I walk to clear my mind, and enter a room in advance so I can sit at the blank table and lay my hands palm down in a meditative posture, allowing my busy thoughts to run away through my hands into the table.

I know and remind myself constantly that listening is a job. It is a job you can only do well when you do not have anything else to do.

I write a list of things that are important to me, or that I have to learn, decide on, or do, before the conversation begins. Setting them aside gives me the freedom to listen to another side and ideas while knowing my own thoughts are safe.

I convince myself to be open new stories. Once I have written my thoughts down, I have to remind myself that I may change my mind or alter my thinking. I have a judging hat which I can remove only with difficulty. When I feel judgmental, I deliberately tell myself to be curious. What motivates this person to act or behave this way? Why am I reacting so strongly to it?

Listening acutely and with full body attention is an act of suspension for me, because the act of allowing myself to fully take in what I am hearing and empathize with the speaker, forces my own thoughts into suspension. I think it helps to visualize full detachment from your thinking. Maybe thoughts are tidied into a tethered hot air balloon which is allowed to float up into the sky. You can retrieve them easily, but they are out of reach.


Image via Wikipedia

Full body listening is hard work. It can be exhausting. But once someone feels heard, understood and acknowledged, they will be ready to hear your side, and you can bring that tethered hot air balloon of thoughts back to earth, and sort through the pieces that are most relevant and appropriate to share. You have won yourself a hearing.

Why do a Workplace Fairness Assessment?

Why do a Workplace Fairness Assessment?

One day, manager Dean invites new worker Melinda into his office to discuss comments he has received about her from her co-worker. He opens is conversation warmly: “Hi. I have been really happy about your work – it is timely and accurate, and I think you are a real asset to this team Melinda. ”And follows with “but I would like to talk with you about your relationship with the others on the team. Some things have come up.” Melinda is taken aback “What? What sort of things? What’s this about?” Dean is forced to continue, defensively. “Well, I’d like to be very honest with you. Each person’s contribution to the team is important. Some people think that you are interfering with their work and publically coming down on them about their performance.”

Where did this conversation go wrong? How can a Workplace Fairness Assessment help both Dean and Melinda understand their situation better, and learn to assess and improve the tools they have to address workplace conflicts?

The Workplace Fairness Assessment is a series of questions asked and interpreted of key stakeholders by a trained Workplace Fairness Analyst. Categorized by workplace culture, workplace conflict, and conflict management, the analyst asks a series of questions designed to paint a picture of the effectiveness of existing conflict management systems within an organization.

The data is analyzed and evaluated through 4 measures: justice, efficiency, engagement, and resources. Like four legs of a stool, healthy systems score well on all four measures.

Once the data is tabulated, organizations have comparative data with others in like industry sector and size. Melinda can seek information about standards, and be reassured that she is working for an organization that has the systems in place to address her concerns in a fair, economical, and effective way.

Dean will have clear insight into how to best use limited resources to change workplace conflict systems if he has concerns that Melinda and her colleagues do not have access to the help they need to address workplace conflicts.

Duty to Accommodate and Gentle, Honest, Open, Specific Talk

An engaged employee is held capable and trusts that you will consistently treat them with integrity, impartiality, and respect. Gentle, honest, open, specific, talk with your staff will set the ground work for a relationship that will pay dividends when the tide turns and it comes time to ask the difficult questions.

As a supervisor you have a duty to accommodate, and you have a right to know. We may feel backed into situations where we hesitate to ask the difficult questions, or we confuse a person’s right to privacy with our own right, and indeed duty, to foster an open, constructive and productive working environment.

Let’s take the example of a suspected addiction. You notice increasingly erratic behaviour with a particular employee, and their sick days are on the rise. How do you balance your need to know with their right to privacy? How do you identify when your duty to accommodate kicks in? Under Alberta Human Rights legislation addiction is considered a disability and the duty to accommodate may apply. If this is the case, you need a doctor’s note, even as you cannot inquire about a staff member’s complete medical history. How do you verify your hunch? What if, based on past experience with the employee, you are wondering if the poor behaviour is simply workplace foolishness? How can you be sure? It is also not unusual for biases to get in the way of sound decision-making. Our own view of, or experience with, addictions may be getting in the way of our approach.

In this procedural and legal minefield it is imperative to discuss your proposed actions with your HR department and/or a senior manager. Once that has been done, and you have decided on a procedural plan, the relationship you have built with your staff member will stand you in good stead. If you have consistently conducted your conversations with a gentle, honest, open, specific protocol, and if you consistently hold your staff member capable and trust that they are doing the best they can with what they know, then you have the foundation in place to conduct a conversation to learn what you need to know to move forward. You will be able to discuss a medical condition frankly, and in a safe space, and determine if it is indeed a condition which limits the staff’s ability to perform their duties.

The gentle, honest, open specific, talk (or GHOST) protocol is a protocol for speaking and listening:

  • Gentle: to say what needs to be said in a manner that does not raise defenses in the other party;
  • Honest: to be true to what is on your mind, and your emotional reaction to the situation;
  • Open: to be open to new information, and to allow it to influence your thinking;
  • Specific: to illustrate what you have to say with clarifying examples and to avoid generalizations;
  • Talk: to take the opportunity of a confidential, safe space to say what you are thinking when it is important. Thinking not Talking is TNT – dangerous!

Modeling GHOST, describing GHOST, and inviting others to use it will set the foundation for improved communication and better information. With each conversation you will build your foundation for establishing and maintaining employee engagement and a productive working environment.

The GHOST protocol is a foundation of the PULSE Conversation. To learn more about PULSE Conversations for Change, discovered and developed by Dr. Nancy Love, please visit

Managing Trust and Transparency for Engagement

It is not an unusual scenario: a new supervisor inherits a bad and undeserving reputation based on staff members’ previous experiences. Every move of a new incumbent is evaluated against the poor communication and bad decisions of a predecessor and the scene is set for “stay-but-go” or even worse, active disengagement. How do you rebuild trust? Trust is built with transparency in our actions (process), in our emotional reaction (response), and in our thinking (content).

Transparency with actions requires a clear and open management process. This may include a predictable and regular routine for employee feedback and performance reviews for example, and extends to the methods used to manage meetings, and to make complex decisions (such as setting annual budgets). A transparent process for decision making will contribute to a climate in which staff are clear on the past, present and future implications of decisions.

The supervisor who is transparent in their actions is aware of not only what they are doing or deciding, but why. When they speak to staff, they communicate clearly their decisions, and the route they used to get to there. Transparency in actions requires taking a deliberate step with each important decision to decide how to decide and then communicating that rationale.

Emotionally mature managers will have the tools to build trust through their response to any given situation. A workplace devoid of emotion is a workplace devoid of passion, and where there are people there is emotion. So trust in the response is also based on trust of the people, and an open and transparent communication about the relationships and the underlying needs and interests between the people in the work environment. A supervisor who experiences a strong reaction can choose how to relate to that emotion. Stepping back and detaching from the situation to look at the business problem will help to determine the right steps to take. Acknowledging others’ emotions without taking responsibility for them will help staff know they are heard.

Transparency with content requires a thorough awareness and sensitivity to context and subject. As with decision making, deliberately deciding what information can be shared and then sharing it in an environment that provides a safe space for discussion will build trust.

Content is also about context. For example, shared confidence in technical or knowledge expertise will provide a strong structure for building trust in actions. A common goal, such as servicing clients exceptionally, building quality widgets, or a united search for innovation for example, will provide a positive force for trust based on content.

Rebuilding trust will take time, patience and open communication. It will be necessary to be open about the management process, the emotional response, and the content. Like a three-legged stool, the process, the response and the content are all critical, and one will not be strong without the other two.

The Human Value Connection

An organization is a community. In today’s people-based economy, the human value connection within an organization determines the health of the organization.  We do our work through conversation, and every conversation reflects the health of the organization. “The quality of conversations within an organization reflects the quality of that organization” notes Dr. Nancy Love (  

Gallup’s Employee Engagement Index indicates that engaged employees report the best health. In fact, a self-reported survey done in November and December 2010 reflects that workers who are emotionally disconnected from their work and workplace are about as likely as the unemployed to report they are in excellent health – only 2 out of 10 of these actively disengaged workers rate their overall health as excellent.  (

But what happens when emotions are elevated? When we are facing potential embarrassment or are under threat?  When we are threatened with looking bad, we enter what William Noonan calls a “defensive routine”.  With our underlying values under threat, we perceive ourselves as acting sensibly and upholding values of integrity and prudence, but we may not believe that others share those values. We have an emotional reaction to something that is said, and we lash out, or react, governed by our fight or flight instinct. Our reaction begets a trigger in the other party, and they in turn react. We find ourselves cycling away from the relationship, into a downward spiral of retaliation.  Our conversations suffer, communication breaks down, and as stress elevates, our health may suffer as well.

Notice what happens when Dean approaches his employee Melinda with some concerns:

Dean: I have been really happy about your work – it is timely and accurate, and I think you are a real asset to this team Melinda. But I would like to talk with you about your relationship with the others on the team. Some things have come up.

Melinda:  What? What sort of things? What is it about?

Dean: Well, I’d like to be very honest with you. Some members of the team think that you are interfering with their work and publically coming down on them about their performance.

Melinda: Are you serious? I have never, ever publically come down on anyone! Sometimes when I finish a project early, I offer help, but that isn’t exactly welcomed. And once, when Jim seemed to be stuck with something I stopped to talk to him about it, but he pretty much told me to mind my own business. To be honest, I am not sure I fit in well here. They are always phoning in to answer those radio show quizzes and talking about the latest hockey pool. I don’t think there is a lot of work going on here. Two people could do the work of those three! They are just hanging around waiting for retirement.

The conversation spirals out of control and emotions run high. As Melinda’s emotions elevate, Dean reacts as well. He may respond to Melinda’s retort with a “Yeah, but we have experienced a lot of growth in these past few months and…” defending his management choices. Once the downward spiral has begun, parties may need to step away and regroup, ensuring blood returns the brain, before they re-engage in the conversation.

A deliberate approach to the conversation prevents the need to do damage control, and results in a healthier more successful community at work.

  1. Eliminate your “buts.”

I have been really happy with your work – it is both timely and accurate.

  1. Choose a neutral and specific title for your conversation.
    I’d like to chat with you about your role on the team.

  2. Start with a question. Listen to their story first.

                How have things been going for you working on this team?

  1. Summarize their comments, and provide evidence that you have been listening.

So it sounds like you have some concerns about how you are all working together and about how well you have been fitting in.

  1. Make your points firmly. State them gently, so people can keep on listening; be honest, be open to what they have to say; and be specific. Take the opportunity to talk it out.

I have some concerns about the teamwork as well. I have noticed in our last few meetings you have been very quiet in the discussions. I am concerned about how the team is collaborating lately and whether we are making the most of everyone’s expertise.  It is important to me that everyone on the team has input, as each member has something unique to contribute. 

Managers who strive to deliberately structure their conversations will enhance a culture of openness and respect within their workplace community.  These small changes with big impact will result in a healthier organization and a healthier and more engaged workforce.