Archives for January 2006

You Think You Have Language Issues at Work?

Queen’s IRC Facilitator Lucinda Bray is a management development consultant based in Dublin, Ireland. In the following piece, she muses on the brilliant cultural chaos of the European Commission workforce.

The Head of the Department is Italian, who also speaks fluent French and passable English. Her deputy is from Finland, and has excellent English and useable Russian. They have just hired a new project manager from Lithuania, whose second language is Russian and who is currently learning English. The rest of the department is a mixture of European nationalities and languages: Greek, English, Dutch, Portuguese, French, Austrian, and Czech.

Welcome to the European Commission.

The European Commission is the public service of the European Union which, since May 2004, now includes 25 countries and operates in 20 official languages. Within the Commission itself, there are three working languages – French, English, and German, which means that everybody has to be able to speak at least one of these. To add to the complication, most of the staffers come from previous careers in their member states and bring different organisational cultures with them.

The Italian Head of Department wonders if her Finnish deputy is a bit slow because he says very little and shows no reaction to her comments. The Finn admires his boss (of course he won’t tell her!) but finds her a little emotionally overwhelming. They are both wondering how the Lithuanian project manager will turn out – she’s only 30, so won’t have been molded by the Communist work ethic, but still… And the Lithuanian is starting to get frustrated by all the bureaucracy and red tape.

I have been leading management development seminars within the Commission for the past 10 years, and am fascinated by the place. At first glance, it looks chaotic. By any normal organisational standard, it shouldn’t work. The whole thing should have collapsed years ago. Traditional bitter enemies working side by side? Twenty official languages? No majority language or working culture? Crazy!

In fact it works very well, by capitalising on those enormous cultural differences. Canadians are used to multinational workforces, but there is always a dominant organisation culture to which the various nationalities are expected to adapt. This does not exist in the Commission. Although the organisation structure is modelled on the French civil service (very hierarchical and vertical), the day-to-day working culture varies from department to department, depending on the nationality of the senior manager. And because of the Commission’s mobility policy, managers must change positions every four years, so the working style in any department shifts constantly.

This multicultural vegetable soup appears to be one of the Commission’s major attractions for new recruits, who look forward to the challenge of working with such a wide cross-section of people. Surprisingly, the Commission provides almost no diversity training apart from an initial induction programme. Yet the atmosphere in the offices is one of respect, tolerance, and good-humoured willingness to accept others’ differences. Racism is almost unheard of.

So… the Italian department head learns that the Finn only speaks when he has something constructive to say, and that he can sum up entire discussions in a single sentence. The Finn learns not to be distracted by his boss’s exuberant body language. The Lithuanian starts to streamline the department’s procedures. And the work gets done.

Stop Pushing the Punishment Default Button

Too often, the determination of just cause and application of discipline is not straightforward. This discussion paper explores why managers have such difficulty dealing with these kinds of situations, and provides a decision-making tool that can significantly reduce the need for discipline, while increasing the opportunity for positive, development-focused approaches for corrective action. It also reviews some of the very persuasive arguments that have been brought forward in recent years regarding why a new understanding and new resolution strategies are needed. Further, the paper builds a case for organizations and unions working together to adopt these new approaches.

Download PDF: Stop Pushing the Punishment Default Button

Harold’s Change Dilemma

During Queen’s IRC’s popular Change Management program last June, real estate and environmental consultant Harold Kenny shared his unique, sometimes unorthodox thoughts about how stakeholder communications can help make your change happen – in his case, years ahead of schedule and millions under budget. Here’s what Harold has to say about engaging stakeholders so that the sticks stay out of your wheels, and change keeps rolling smoothly forward.

Harold Kenny learned a lot about stakeholder communications while leading the reclamation of a contaminated former CN railway site in downtown Moncton, NB. As general manager of a Canada Lands Company (CLC) project to transform the former train repair site into a residential, business and recreational development, he found himself the central player in a complex change scenario with many different stakeholders.

In 1995 when responsibility for the site was given to CLC – a Crown Corporation responsible for making dormant land productive – the 280-acre former CN railway shops had been sitting vacant, surrounded by barbed wire, for a decade.

Harold’s was no easy task. Regulatory authorities, understandably, were keeping close tabs on the cleanup. As well, politicians and local people – who had strong feelings around the CN railway shops – had to be brought onside.

Volatile emotions had swirled around the shops since the mid-80s, when their closure meant layoffs for 2,500 people. It was a huge economic blow to the local economy, which had been dominated for 90 years by the railway, the single largest employer in Moncton’s history.

As well, many local people who had worked there felt guilty that perhaps they had contributed to the pollution. Citizens feared that potentially toxic dust would blow into their neighbourhoods, and about the costs of a cleanup. Wild stories began to circulate. “At one point, there was even a rumour that Jimmy Hoffa was buried there,” Harold recalls with a laugh.

It was clear that two things had to happen at once: a large environmental cleanup and a change in public perceptions about the decontamination of the land. Harold had to secure regulatory cooperation and local buy-in – quickly.

In accomplishing this, Harold says he learned many important lessons about what really works in communicating with stakeholders:

Lesson 1: Have all the facts

“Embracing GIS [Geographic Information System] technology helped us deliver our messages. It was a great planning tool for communications and management. It helped us with local buy-in and regulatory cooperation. For example, it allowed us to make detailed maps showing people where the contaminants were, how deep they went, and explaining how we’d clean it up.”

Lesson 2: Keep your polyaromatic hydrocarbons in perspective

“One site visit we had all the city councillors in. We were driving along with two scientists – one with a PhD in toxicology and another in biology – who were telling the councillors, ‘A big problem was identified in a previous scientific report; a problem with polyaromatic hydrocarbons.’ We get out of the bus, and the scientist continues, ‘Yes, we’ve got these polyaromatic hydrocarbons. They are known to cause cancer and we have to get them all out of here.’

“Whenever we talked about this, everybody went catatonic: ‘Oh no not the polyaromatic hydrocarbons; what an awful thing!’ Then the scientist reaches down and picks up a piece from a pile of roofing from one of the buildings. ‘There you go, that’s polyaromatic hydrocarbon. It is roofing: it’s on everyone’s house, everyone’s foundation is tarred with it, your pavement is made of it. Now if you are going to sit down and eat it, that is a problem. But if you don’t eat it…’ Then we explained to the councillors how we were going to collect it and take it to a disposal site.

“You’ve got to work to keep things in perspective.”

Lesson 3: Bring everyone in to keep sticks out of your wheels

“Stakeholders – it’s like a big clock, with all these wheels and wheels going around. This guy went to university with the other guy, he picks up the phone and says, ‘How’s this project going?’ That’s why it was so important to work at the grassroots level, at the citizen’s level. You never know who is out there that’s got a lot of influence on people’s opinion in the Ministry of the Environment, for example.

“Don’t ever underestimate who has got a lot of influence over whether you are going to succeed or fail – unexpected people can bring you some real gems of information.

“That’s why all our key stakeholders were involved simultaneously, and I had them focus on the same goal. They all put pressure on one another to move forward once they were pointed in the same direction. Be careful not to ignore anyone, or next thing you know you are going to have a big stick in your wheel.

“Local participation was a real success factor for us. We had regular roundtables, community town hall meetings, and site visits, which were very popular as people liked seeing what was going on.”

Lesson 4: Encourage open dialogue

“We had a formal weekly meeting, and everyone on site had a rep who sat at the meeting and had a voice. If a truck driver didn’t agree with a scientist about how much material he could move because he knew the truck couldn’t handle that amount, he’d tell him. There was no pecking order; just a very open dialogue.

“This openness extended from everyone on site to the local community to the wider community. It is risky, because things pop up. But when they do, you can deal with them. We had some rough days, but things don’t come up as violently if there is transparency.”

Lesson 5: Keep your head in all boxes

“I tried as much as possible to keep my head out of one box. If I got too far into one, then I’m leaving out too many others – I had to see from all stakeholder perspectives simultaneously. Otherwise people would say, ‘He’s championing the citizens at the price of the environment, ‘or whatever. You have to see from all viewpoints at once.”

Lesson 6: Know who your taxi drivers are

“I was obsessed with getting the word on the street. We put on a session once and invited all the taxi drivers for free coffee and donuts and a visit to the site. This was because when people come to town, the first thing they do is step off that airplane and into a cab, and say, “How ya doing? I hear you’ve got a property you are cleaning up there?’ ‘Yeah’ – and the driver starts telling him all kinds of stuff, and most of the time he doesn’t know what’s going on if we don’t tell him. So we invited them, and said, ‘Here’s what’s going on, here’s what we are doing, here’s the site – don’t worry, we work here all the time, get on the bus.’

“Every time I’d go out for a drink and take a taxi home I’d pepper the driver with questions to get some feedback. When taxi drivers started telling me things were good, that was my validation we were succeeding. Taxi drivers are like canaries in the mine – if you start getting badmouthed by the taxi drivers you know you are in big trouble.

“Then there are the bartenders – those guys know all kinds of stuff…”

Work Stress Among Nurses in Ontario

Since the 1980s, a great deal of research has looked at the possible causes and impact of work stress on health. While the links between specific diseases and stress are complex and often unclear, it has long been accepted in the health literature that negative health outcomes and stress are related. Nursing is a particularly stressful occupation and there is an emerging body of literature devoted specifically to the prevalence, sources, impacts of, and responses to organizational work stress among nurses. This discussion paper looks at the Canadian and global research in this area, the workplace context, changes in the occupation of nursing, the role of hospital restructuring on workplace stress, and responses to stress among nurses.

Download PDF: Work Stress Among Nurses in Ontario

The Visible Minority Experience of Marginalization in the Canadian Labour Force – A Proposal to the Ontario Government to Reintroduce Employment Equity Legislation in Ontario

Visible minorities still face barriers that impede their success in the workforce. The most powerful force preventing them from entering the labour market and climbing the corporate ladder is systemic discrimination. This paper seeks to shed some light on the damaging effects of systemic discrimination through the eyes of visible minorities. It contends that the existence of federal employment equity legislation has improved the representation of visible minorities in the labour force. Therefore, the author proposes that similar legislation be reintroduced in Ontario in an effort to do the same.

Download PDF: The Visible Minority Experience of Marginalization in the Canadian Labour Force

The Effects of Human Resource Management and Union Member Status on Employees’ Intentions to Quit

This discussion paper reports on research that looked at whether the relationship between employee intention to quit and human resource management (HRM) changed based on union membership. The investigation first considered whether HRM reduced or increased an employee’s intention to quit. Next, the moderating effect of union membership on the relationship between HRM and quit intent was considered. Did an employee’s union member/non-member status in any way change the effects of HRM on employee quit intent, and if so, how?

Download PDF: The Effects of Human Resource Management and Union Member Status on Employees’ Intentions to Quit

The CEOs Speak: What Makes an HR Star?

What do top leaders want from HR professionals? The following information, drawn from the author’s ongoing research, provides valuable insight into what CEOs think HR managers are doing well and what competencies need developing. In general, the CEOs agreed that their HR departments did a good job in the transactional aspects of their work but that more skill in leadership and strategic areas was needed. Their responses underline the new role for HR practitioners being written into the organizational script: that of a strategic business partner to senior leadership.

Download PDF: The CEOs Speak: What Makes an HR Star?

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