Mediation can help open the window and shed light on difficult issues

Crucial Conversations. Difficult Conversations. Dreaded Conversations. Whatever we call them, there comes a time in the workplace when emotions run high and the going gets tough, and despite all the training and all the practice, conversations break down before they get to where they need to go. In the workplace, when it comes to issues around diversity, around mental health, illness and bereavement for example, emotions, fear of doing more harm, or fear of invading privacy and fear of lack of skills in dealing with the outcome may prevent the conversation from even beginning. Unfortunately, often in these situations, a crisis will ensue before a productive action step is taken.

My colleague Michelle Phaneuf and I collaborated with Morgan Craig-Broadwith of the Canadian Mental Health Association (Calgary Chapter) to demonstrate in front of a live audience a workplace mediation around a mental health issue.  In our simulated workplace environment, a Vice President has offered the opportunity to two vital workplace players to settle their differences with the help of a mediator. Performance has suffered, communication has broken down, rumours are circulating — in short the entire workplace is impacted by the behaviour of two key people.

Mount Royal University Continuing Studies videotaped the session, and we will post that when it is edited and polished.

Bratislava_window_by_C_Munroe

A mediator can help open the window and shed light on difficult issues, empowering people to reach a resolution before a crisis.

The audience asked some good questions.

When is it appropriate to call a mediator? In the workplace, it can be particularly helpful to call a mediator when poor or no communication between two people in an interdependent working relationship has an impact on others around them and work productivity.

How often is a mediation successful?  The earlier the intervention, the  more likely the success.  Mediation is most successful when the process is voluntary; when the participants have the skills and wherewithal to speak and advocate for themselves; and are well informed about their rights. Mediation can be  mandated by an employer, and still a mediator can invite people to participate.  In fact, when mandated into a room, people have an opportunity to save face with colleagues.

What role does the mediator have to hold people to account who choose not to participate? The mediator’s role is only to facilitate the process, and to ask the difficult questions, not to provide or suggest solutions. A combination of conflict coaching and mediation ensures that participants have the opportunity to explore all their options both inside and outside the mediation process.

What information from the mediation does the mediator share with their client? At a minimum, the mediator will share information about the process and the timing.  The mediator will discuss information to be shared with the participants, and together they will agree on wording and who, if anyone, will receive the information.

What is the benefit of having two mediators? Two mediators have a greater opportunity to work together to hear all concerns. It is particularly helpful to hire two facilitators when dealing with a group larger than two.

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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.

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.

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 www.workplacefairness.ca 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.

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