An Inquiry into the State of HR in Canada in 2013: Executive Summary

Queen’s University Industrial Relations Centre (Queen’s IRC) is pleased to announce the release of An Inquiry into the State of HR in Canada in 2013. This executive summary is based on a survey of over 400 HR practitioners and explores the current and changing state of the HR profession in Canada. It also compares the findings with our 2011 survey, An Inquiry into the State of HR in Canada in 2011.

The questions in the first section of the survey were designed to better understand the demographic characteristics of HR practitioners, their roles and responsibilities, the characteristics of the organizations for which they work, and the career development strategies of HR practitioners. This section of the survey plays an extremely important role in determining who is practicing HR, where HR practitioners fit into contemporary organizations, and the strategies used by HR practitioners and their organizational sponsors to develop and advance individual careers and the profession as a whole.

The second section of the survey sought practitioners’ perspectives on the HR profession in Canada. It  included questions about the extent to which the HR function shapes organizations’ strategic directions, the importance of various activities to the HR function, practitioners’ involvement in the same activities, the knowledge and skills required by practitioners, the HR challenges facing organizations, practitioners’ outlook on the future of HR in Canada, and organizational HR priorities. This section included both qualitative and quantitative questions. This mixed methodology is important in understanding the broader trends and challenges facing HR practitioners and the profession as a whole.

Download Executive Summary (PDF)

An Inquiry into the State of HR in the Caribbean

Queen’s IRC has begun to develop a strong working relationship with the HR community in the Caribbean. Partnerships with the Cave Hill School of Business in Barbados and the Arthur Lok Jack School of Business in Trinidad and Tobago have allowed the IRC to bring its unique brand of programming to practitioners from almost a dozen Caribbean nations. Building partnerships such as these are critical to understanding the innovations and challenges in the global HR community. They have also allowed Queen’s IRC to extend our research beyond Canadian borders.

This report summarizes and analyzes the results of a survey of HR practitioners from the Caribbean conducted in 2012. The survey is a key component of the IRC’s commitment to engaging with international practitioner communities. More specifically, the results of the survey provide insight into several key aspects of Caribbean HR practitioners’ working lives. These include the demographic characteristics of practitioners, their roles and responsibilities, the nature of the organizations for which they work, their education and career development, the knowledge and skills required to thrive in the Caribbean, and of course, their perspectives on important issues, innovations and challenges in the HR profession today. The information in this report provides an important foundation to track ongoing trends and innovations in the Caribbean HR community and serves as a useful comparator when combined with recent (and forthcoming) surveys of Canadian HR practitioners.

Download PDF: An Inquiry into the State of HR in the Caribbean (2012)

Exploring the HR Function at Maersk Oil

Stina Bjerg Nielsen is currently the Head of Human Resources for Maersk Oil, part of the A.P. Moller – Maersk Group, one of Denmark’s largest companies. Since joining in 2009, Stina has been involved in transforming both the Maersk Oil organization and the strategic direction of the human resources function. In this Queen’s IRC interview, Stina candidly talks about her experiences within the human resources profession in Denmark and Europe, and her role at Maersk Oil. She notes that the challenges and opportunities facing Denmark are similar to those facing other countries, and encourages HR professionals to stay connected with the business in which they operate and to develop their own tool kit of competencies and experiences to facilitate success in their roles.

Download PDF: Exploring the HR Function at Maersk Oil

The State of HR in Canada: 2011 Survey Results

In response to increasing demands from organizations, the skills and knowledge that HR professionals require in the workplace continue to shift. As many of our program participants are likely aware, HR professionals are now more involved in strategic roles that help to shape organizational culture, effectiveness, and design.

To target the professional development needs of HR practitioners, the IRC thought it was necessary to reach out to our HR community and gain insights on the complexities of the work HR professionals perform and the challenges they face in their work. We wanted to describe and analyze the state of the HR profession in Canada, based directly on the perspectives of practitioners.

In February 2011, the IRC surveyed HR professionals across Canada to glean their perspectives on HR, the challenges and priorities for HR departments, and the kinds of skills and knowledge that are perceived as critical for the practice. Our 53-question survey was divided into two sections: demographic information and perspectives on the profession. HR professionals were keen to share their insights; we collected over 450 complete survey responses.

This article provides a synthesis of some of our data. Please note that a complimentary copy of An Inquiry into the State of HR in Canada: Executive Summary is available for download from the Queen’s IRC website.


 Executive Summary
An Inquiry into the State of HR: Executive Summary

The majority of our respondents, 73%, are female. Respondents are concentrated in the 46 to 55 age bracket, with 33.7% of respondents in this category. Years of HR experience vary amongst respondents, ranging from less than five years to more than 25 years. Job titles range from professional/technical through to CEO/President. Approximately 31% of respondents are HR generalists, while approximately 28% are senior leaders. In general, a respondent is likely to hold an undergraduate university degree (43.5%), a CHRP designation (52.1%), and belong to a provincial HR association (76.1%).

Our sample includes diverse organization sizes, with respondents employed in organizations with fewer than 100 employees to more than 5000 employees. There is a relatively even split in public and private sector representation: 43.7% of respondents work in the public sector, while 42.8% are part of the private sector. An additional 8.0% are from non-profit organizations.

We received many responses from the Prairie region; 66.3% of respondents are from Alberta, Saskatchewan, or Manitoba. The high percentage of respondents from the Prairie region is due in part to the Human Resource Institute of Alberta (HRIA) offering to forward our survey to their membership. In addition, 19.3% of our survey respondents are from Ontario, 8.0% from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, or Prince Edward Island, and 4.2% from British Columbia. The IRC recognizes that there is a distinct lack of responses from Quebec. We suspect that this finding is due to the fact that our survey was only available in English. Moving forward, the IRC may conduct a bilingual survey.

Perspectives on the HR Profession

We now provide a summary of the HR activities in which respondents are involved, the perceived challenges, along with the immediate and long-range priorities for HR departments in Canada. Then, we present the skills and knowledge that HR professionals perceive as critical for their work.

Using a Likert scale, participants reported the extent to which they are currently involved in a select set of 16 HR activities, and also the extent to which they were involved in those same activities two years ago. With the exception of recruitment, on average HR professionals rated their current involvement higher than their involvement two years ago in all of the HR activities we listed. The five activities that were rated highest in current involvement were employee relations, employee engagement, organizational culture, employee training and learning, and change management.

To determine the top challenges faced by HR departments in organizations across Canada, participants were asked to rank order a list of 18 items. Almost three quarters of the respondents (73.8%) ranked talent management in their personal top-five list. Rounding out the rest of the top five were employee engagement (58.5%), succession planning (54.3%), change management (46.6%), and organizational culture creation/maintenance (42.1%). Further analysis showed that these rankings were consistent with no significant difference found based on region or between private and public sectors.

Despite the challenges HR departments encounter, 80.7% of respondents have an optimistic outlook on the future of the profession. This optimism is consistent across sectors and regions. We are encouraged by this optimism.

We then sought to determine the top three immediate priorities (i.e., within the next 12 months) for HR departments. We invited participants to cite the top three priorities for their HR departments. Based on the responses to this open-ended question, the immediate priorities facing HR departments include succession planning, employee engagement, talent management, and training, learning and development.

Similarly, we asked participants to list the top three long-range priorities (i.e., next three to five years) for their HR departments. The results suggest that the long-range priorities are comparable to the immediate priorities. The top three long-range priorities include succession planning, talent management, and recruitment.

Given an understanding of the challenges and priorities facing HR departments, what are the skills and knowledge that HR professionals deem critical for their work? To unpack the skills and knowledge required by HR professionals, we created two open-ended questions that allowed participants to cite their own answers. An interesting finding was that even though the questions were open-ended, themes did prevail in the data. It was clear that HR professionals share similar perspectives on the essential skills and knowledge for their work. Required skills for HR professionals include communication, the ability to think analytically, critically, and strategically, interpersonal skills, technical skills, and conflict resolution. Knowledge required by HR professionals includes business acumen, employment law/legislation, talent management, employee/labour relations, and a broad understanding of HR. Reflecting on this data, it is interesting to note that the skills and knowledge perceived as critical by HR professionals seem to exceed what is typically deemed as “traditional” HR functionalities.


Intuitively, HR is, at its core, about people. The role of HR includes, but is not limited to, engaging employees and supporting their professional development, helping employees to manage change, along with organizational culture creation and maintenance. These trends were evident in the top five HR challenges elicited by our respondents.

According to our survey, talent management is perceived as both a challenge and a priority for HR departments, including developing and implementing succession plans, as well as building the capacity of the organization, through effective learning strategies. As such, the IRC has elected to launch a Talent Management program in Fall 2011. The program is still in the development phase; however, the focus of Talent Management is devising effective strategies for recruiting, training, and developing an organization’s talent pool. The program will be designed to allow participants to acquire the skills and knowledge to build an effective talent management strategy for their own organization, discover gaps in existing recruitment and retention practices, and become an important internal resource and advocate on talent management.

In closing, the data collected in our recent HR survey have allowed the IRC to better understand and describe the state of the HR profession in Canada. As intended, the survey findings are helping the IRC to better match our program offerings with the professional development needs of our HR community. Now that we have collected baseline data, the IRC plans to conduct a similar HR survey every two years moving forward. This survey will allow the Centre to compare trends in the profession and continue to provide quality programming for our participants. Our Executive Summary has highlighted only a few of the findings. We intend to rely on the full dataset for future IRC work.

Download Executive Summary

An Inquiry Into the State of Labour Relations in Canada: Executive Summary

In November 2011, Queen’s IRC launched a 37-question survey, “An Inquiry into the State of LR in Canada.” The purpose of this survey was to describe the state of the labour relations (LR) profession in Canada, based on the perspectives of practitioners. When the survey closed on December 16, 2011, a total of 184 responses were collected.

This practitioner-focused research complements our 2011 exploration of the state of the human resources profession in Canada, and builds on the our 2009 labour relations survey.

This survey was comprised of two sections. In the first section, we explored the varied roles, responsibilities, and credentials of LR professionals. We also probed some of the characteristics of the organizations in which LR professionals are employed. In the second section, we inquired about the level of knowledge, skills, and abilities required for a successful LR professional. We also sought perspectives on the future of the LR profession, including the challenges and opportunities facing the profession and changes that have, and are anticipated to occur, to jobs held by LR professionals. The survey included both closed- and open-ended questions.

This Executive Summary presents an overview of the aggregated survey data.

Download Executive Summary

Talent Management: Affirming Strategy and Acquiring New Tools

Queen’s IRC is continuing to build its human resource (HR) programming. To complement our successful Advanced HR programming, in 2011, we launched Talent Management. The catalyst for this program launch was, in part, the results of the IRC’s 2011 national survey of Canadian HR professionals. Results from this survey indicated that 73.8% of respondents viewed talent management as a critical HR challenge (Juniper & Hill, 2011). Talent management was also perceived to be one of the top immediate and long-range priorities for Canadian HR departments (Juniper & Hill). In addition, respondents indicated that talent management is a critical knowledge area for HR professionals to hone. The message was clear: HR professionals recognize the importance of understanding talent management; it will continue to be a challenge and priority for Canadian organizations and their HR professionals.

With this knowledge in mind, the IRC embarked on designing a Talent Management program that would meet the learning needs of practitioners. Diane Locke was involved in the curriculum development, helping to shape the learning objectives, and the program content. Diane has extensive experience in the area of talent management and her subject matter expertise facilitated the IRC’s Talent Management program launch (November, 2011). Following the programming, I spoke with Diane, program facilitator, and four participants to glean their thoughts on the programming.

This article highlights some of the themes that emerged in my discussions, including some of the topics that are perceived as integral to the notion of talent management, such as focusing on performance evaluation frameworks, knowledge transfer, and formal mentoring programs.

Effective talent management, according to Diane Locke, encompasses strategies and systems to improve processes for recruiting, developing, and retaining people with required competencies to meet current and future strategic objectives. To determine the right people for the right roles, it is important to break down silos and recognize the potential of employees across the organization, and this is not an easy task.

Diane recognizes that it is challenging to obtain executive support for talent management, but it is also increasingly critical that this support is developed. In addition, adjusting HR processes to effectively support talent management is difficult, but necessary. A talent management plan requires performance evaluation frameworks that are well defined, with clear measurement of outcomes. Discussions during the IRC’s November 2011 program revealed that several of the participants are not integrating competencies into performance evaluation. Moving forward, the IRC will continue to emphasize the need for creating and implementing performance evaluation frameworks in its talent management programming.

Knowledge transfer is not a new concept for organizations; however, the importance of drawing on employees’ collective tacit and explicit knowledge will continue to increase as a large percentage of managers and knowledge workers approach retirement age. Feedback from supervisors, mentoring, and coaching within organizations are becoming increasingly critical development strategies. It is important for staff members to have targeted development plans in place, but few organizations are actually promoting the importance of transparency and clear communication in their talent management planning and succession planning practices. According to Diane, organizations need to develop their talent through strategies other than just formal training. For example, emphasizing action learning, mentoring, peer mentoring, and reverse mentoring. Diane urges organizations to think outside the box when considering the development (or perhaps redevelopment) of their talent management strategies.

The Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) has developed and launched some particularly innovative and noteworthy formal mentoring programs. In my conversation with Bob Andrews, Manager, Retail Succession Planning, at the LCBO, he talked about how the organization is forward thinking when it comes to talent management. Recognizing that a significant number of senior employees will soon be retiring, the LCBO has established a mentoring program that allows “new employees to have a built in network where they can learn the ropes. The mentoring program allows for relationship building and trust, leading to knowledge transfer in a supportive environment.”

Like the LCBO, ATCO Power realizes the need to develop and retain high potential talent. According to Trevor Adams, Senior Manager, Talent Management, ATCO Power, ATCO has recently articulated its employee value proposition on its corporate website, choosing to clearly communicate to current and prospective employees the organization’s core beliefs and values; what the organization can offer to employees and its community involvement (refer to: Trevor spoke about how talent management is critical to business success. The tools and resources provided in the IRC’s programming provide HR professionals with concrete resources to inform their work. Trevor cited the Succession Slate as a pragmatic and useful tool that he has already reviewed and compared to the succession chart currently in place in his organization.

To close, a prevailing theme in my conversations with participants is that too often HR professionals lack validation that their talent management strategies are rigorous and well designed. The IRC’s talent management programming reaffirmed in the minds of the participants with whom I spoke that while they are doing things right when it comes to talent management, there is still room for improvement. A realization for Kevin Judge, Learning and Development Leader, MD Physician Services, was that talent management is “not rocket science and doesn’t need to be intimidating for organizations to tackle.” The relevant, practical material, time for group discussions, networking, and learning resulted in a positive learning experience for many of the participants with whom I spoke. Kevin described the IRC’s Talent Management program as “an absolutely great program. It provides a holistic view of the concept of talent management, accurately and effectively integrating all components.” Doug Miron, Senior OD and Learning Consultant, Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital, referred to the programming as “good value for money; an excellent addition to the Queen’s IRC learning suite.”

On behalf of the IRC, I would like to acknowledge and thank Diane, and the Talent Management program participants who spoke with me about their IRC experience: Trevor Adams, Bob Andrews, Doug Miron, and Kevin Judge. Your thoughtful insights are greatly appreciated.

For more information on the topic of talent management, we suggest that you peruse Diane Locke’s 2011 article, Talent Management, Beyond the Buzzwords.

Mastering Fact-Finding and Investigation: Post-Program Perspectives

In 2009, the IRC conducted a survey of LR professionals to glean their insights on the level of skills, knowledge, and abilities required for the profession. The survey also explored the amount of time LR professionals were spending on certain LR tasks. Based on this research, led by Anne Grant and Stephanie Noel, the IRC determined that Mastering Fact-Finding and Investigation is a critical skill that LR professionals must hone. Accordingly, earlier this year, the IRC launched its inaugural Mastering Fact-Finding and Investigation program. The program is part of the IRC’s new Advanced Labour Relations certificate, which builds on the skills and knowledge acquired in the Labour Relations certificate series. The Advanced Labour Relations certificate includes three programs: Mastering Fact-Finding and Investigation (launched in April 2011), Strategic Grievance Handling (launching in May 2012), and Optimizing the Labour-Management Relationship: Leadership Skills for LR professionals (launching in 2013).

I recently spoke with two participants from the April 2011 Mastering Fact-Finding and Investigation program. During our conversations, the participants were asked to reflect on their IRC experience and provide their honest feedback on the program, including not only the positive aspects of the program, but the ways in which the IRC can improve the program moving forward. This article provides a summary of my conversations with Larry Sparks and Lori Aselstine.

Mr. Larry Sparks is an HR Manager with Omya Canada Inc. In his role, Mr. Sparks is responsible for investigating grievances and employee complaints. The Mastering Fact-Finding and Investigation program was relevant for Mr. Sparks because it gave him a guide for the fact-finding process. In particular, he came away from the IRC’s programming with a grievance model and the ability to ensure that “all parties are more comfortable with investigation reports.” The program exceeded his expectations, balancing theoretical knowledge with a practical, adaptable model that easily translated to his workplace and the work he is doing.

Mr. Sparks commented on the importance of networking during the program. Throughout the program, Mr. Sparks had the opportunity to dialogue with peers, and talk about organizational issues. As a result of the conversations he had with program participants, he realized the extent to which the problems and scenarios he is faced with are similar to those experienced by his colleagues. Informal learning was a helpful component of the program. Mr. Sparks referred to the IRC’s program as, “good value for your money.” He heard from senior subject matter experts and learned from their expertise. “The quality of the instructors is important to the success of the program,” said Mr. Sparks.

Ms. Lori Aselstine is currently the Director of Strategic HR with the Ministries of Health and Long-Term Care and Health Promotion and Sport in the Ontario Public Service (OPS). This is a new role for her; when she engaged in the IRC’s program she was the Director of the Centre for Employee Relations for the OPS. She chose to participate in the IRC’s programming because it targeted the work she was responsible for managing. Her employees were intimately involved in fact-finding investigations and she provided advice and guidance to employees in these roles. Ms. Aselstine attended the program with the goal of evaluating its relevancy and applicability for the public service. That is, to determine if her staff and colleagues should register in the program, or if her organization should develop a custom Mastering Fact-Finding and Investigation program.

While Ms. Aselstine’s role has since changed, she remains involved with ensuring that people in the public service have the right kinds of skills and knowledge regarding fact-finding and investigation to facilitate their day-to-day work. In her 31 years of experience in the LR field, Ms. Aselstine has participated in hundreds of investigations. The IRC’s programming, however, was a chance for her to learn more about the preparation and organization of an investigation, and improve her skills in questioning witnesses.

Ms. Aselstine praised the IRC program for its hands-on learning opportunities. “The program has a good mix of lectures and practical exercises. This kind of experiential learning provides a chance to apply the skills and knowledge that are being taught in the program,”

Based on her IRC experience, Ms. Aselstine walked away from the program thinking “how can I bring this training in-house to the public service?” A custom program would allow the material to be directly targeted to human resources, labour relations and occupational health & safety specialists and others responsible for managing investigations. Ms. Aselstine realizes that Mastering Fact-Finding and Investigation is “so important for us in a workplace of 60,000 people that is 80% unionized. The program would provide one more tool to facilitate investigations.”

In closing, the IRC is grateful to Larry Sparks and Lori Aselstine for their participation in this initiative. Post-program conversations with participants are a component of our program evaluation strategy, allowing our participants to reflect on their learning and provide us with their critical feedback on our programs.

The IRC promotes its programs as an opportunity to “Learn. Apply. Transform.” We perceive the feedback received from participants as an opportunity for the IRC to learn, apply, and transform. Speaking with participants enables us to learn more about the professional development needs of our client community, reflect on and apply the insights we glean to improve our programming, thereby transforming our programs to better meet the needs of our participants and their sponsor organizations. Suggestions for improving the IRC’s Mastering Fact-Finding and Investigation program included spending more time on role-playing and report writing, through group work and practical exercises. The IRC strives to create an experiential learning experience for our participants. This feedback underscores the perceived value of the hands-on, practical learning that we offer.

Advancing HR at Encana: A Conversation with Dave Urquhart

Queen’s IRC has now successfully delivered several iterations of our Advanced HR programming. During the program, participants are often engaged with the material and the discussions. But, to what extent is this engagement with learning maintained outside of the classroom? To answer this question, IRC Research Associate, Alison Hill, spoke with Dave Urquhart, Team Lead, HR Advisory, Staffing and Development at Encana. Dave has been a participant in the Advanced HR programming, and has sponsored several of his employees to attend as well.

This article provides one senior-level HR professional’s perspective on the value of the IRC’s Advanced HR programming. In particular, the article highlights Dave’s views on the Queen’s IRC advantage, the program content, and the ways in which he and his employees have shifted their thinking about HR as a result of the Advanced HR programming.

The Queen’s IRC Advantage

According to Dave, “The Advanced HR programming offered by Queen’s IRC is one-of-a kind. Though my organization is located in Alberta, I cannot find a comparable program offered by any of the academic institutions in the West. The IRC targets a niche market, with a program that is particularly geared towards HR generalists.”

Program Content

The IRC’s Advanced HR programming relies on the work of Ulrich, Brockbank, Johnson, Sandholtz, and Younger (2008). Their text, HR Competencies: Mastery at the Intersection of People and Business, is the program’s primary resource. The competency model developed by Ulrich and presented during the Advanced HR programming was a key takeaway for Dave. As an HR professional, Dave was already familiar with Ulrich’s work prior to his IRC experience. The Advanced HR program, however, provided a more in-depth exploration of Ulrich’s work. For Dave, this exploration broadened and deepened his awareness and understanding of HR’s functions and true capacities. “I’m encouraging every HR Advisor to get involved in the business,” said Dave. “The Ulrich model is a good way to understand this. What is our strategy? What skills are needed to implement this strategy? How can leadership endeavour to support the strategy across the organization? The Advanced HR program gives its participants the credibility to work within the business.”

Reframing Thinking

Gaining a holistic perspective on HR was another key learning for Dave and his employees. The content presented throughout the program encouraged Dave and his colleagues to consider approaching HR with a systems view, and to a more clearly articulate how interconnected HR is to other departments within the organization. At Encana, HR Advisors need to be acutely aware of how individual business units operate, and to cultivate partnerships across these units so that the organization can minimize production costs and maximize efficiency.

The discussion on organizational structure resonated with and was beneficial to Dave. The IRC’s program enabled Dave to reflect on and critically think about how and why Encana is structured and how this structure relates to processes, people, and reward systems. Working to mitigate stress caused by organizational change, and to answer questions associated with organizational change, Dave’s HR Advisors have a better understanding of their role and how it aligns within the organization by following the IRC’s Advanced HR programming.

Advancing HR at Encana

Since participating in the Advanced HR program, Dave, in particular, and Encana, more broadly, have continued to adapt and utilize the Ulrich model to develop HR Advisors professionally and understand how to strive for the next level of partnership with the business.  Dave has embedded HR activists within the individual business units at Encana. Taking a team approach, HR Advisors attend management meetings, and are integral members of the senior leadership teams. HR Advisors, it seems, are recognizing the value of their role, and are gradually elevating their skills to become Credible Activists. Dave emphasizes that understanding the business, not only the internal operations, but that of the competitors is imperative. This understanding provides Encana with a competitive edge.

Closing Thoughts

In closing, Dave summarized why he advocates the value of the IRC’s Advanced HR programming by saying: “I highly recommend the IRC’s Advanced HR programming to those in a generalist role, those who currently sit at the leadership table, or should be sitting at the table. For my employees, the programming helped to reiterate why they are at the table. They aren’t there just to provide updates on HR functions, but rather to be part of the leadership team and provide strategic direction on decisions and crucial organizational issues and matters. The Advanced HR programming enables a more holistic understanding of HR, including strategy, structure, performance, and leadership development. It gives participants an understanding of how to be a player at the table and the ability to question decisions, ask “Why,” and to think critically about matters related to HR.”

IRC Director, Paul Juniper, applauds Dave for being a forward-thinking HR leader. Paul is pleased that the learning acquired in the IRC’s Advanced HR program has practical applications for organizations, such as Encana, and that the programming is perceived as valuable by its participants.

A Western Canadian Perspective on the HR Profession in Canada

Todd den Engelsen is currently the Director of Organizational Development with Canyon Technical Services limited. He is Chair of the Human Resource Institute of Alberta (HRIA). Queen’s IRC Research Associate, Alison Hill, spoke with Todd to hear his perspectives on the role of the HR profession, and the challenges that lie ahead.

Todd believes that the future of HR is filled with opportunity and possibility, especially as corporations continue to operate within increasingly complex working environments, on a global scale. To meet these challenges, Todd encourages HR professionals to be continuous learners, to seek out and engage in professional development opportunities, and to cultivate a culture of learning within their organizations.

Download PDF: A Western Canadian Perspective on the HR Profession in Canada

Managing Unionized Environments: Post-Program Perspectives

Following the IRC’s inaugural Managing Unionized Environments (MUE) program, I conducted brief interviews with a small sample of participants. The purpose of these conversations was to glean the participants’ feedback on this new program offering and to discern the extent to which the programming met the expectations of the participants. In addition to speaking directly with participants, I also held conversations with Stephanie Noel, the IRC’s Business Development Manager, and Gary Furlong, facilitator for the MUE program. This article provides an overview of the MUE program, based on the perspectives of the individuals with whom I spoke.

MUE Program Development

The catalyst for the development and successful launch of the MUE program lies in the many conversations IRC representative, Stephanie Noel, has held with participants. Stephanie attends many of the IRC’s programs; you’ve likely seen her in the room or at the social events planned to celebrate the learning that takes place in the programming. With each program season, Stephanie realized that there was a gap in the labour relations (LR) training and learning offered by the IRC. “During our programming I’ve heard HR and LR managers express a need for frontline supervisors and their union counterparts to gain education, training, and learning around the collective agreement,” said Stephanie.

IRC facilitator Gary Furlong has been offering similar programs to organizations in-house. The IRC’s MUE program takes a different approach. Rather than targeting the specific concerns of one organization, the MUE has as its goal a holistic understanding of the collective bargaining agreements and associated processes. A diverse array of industries, such as the steel and education sectors, was represented in the inaugural MUE program. These varied perspectives enabled interesting conversations in the classroom. It soon became evident that while the industries differed, there was a commonality in the problems facing organizations. Thus, it seems that the IRC’s MUE programming is applicable across organizations and industry sectors.

According to Gary, “it is very typical that organizations may promote supervisors or managers, without providing them with a solid knowledge of the collective agreement.” In some cases, individuals are promoted from within the organization, but it is likely that the individuals come from outside the organization. The assumption is that managers know how to manage unions. Tension arises between unions and management when managers violate the collective agreement, or demonstrate an inability to effectively manage the collective agreement.

The IRC’s MUE program has both broad and specific aims. Broadly, the program provides participants with an understanding of the collective agreement framework. More specifically, the program addresses problem areas, such as management rights and grievances. The program is designed to give participants the tools to hold constructive conversations with unions, and to perceive the collective agreement as a resource, rather than a source of conflict. According to Stephanie, “the MUE program provides its participants with concrete skills in an experiential learning environment. Examples of learning outcomes include: identifying and addressing hot spots of the collective agreement, employing appropriate processes and approaches to support the collective agreement, and setting expectations to build trust with management and motivate workers.”

The MUE program is uniquely designed to bring together senior leaders and union stewards, where both parties can collaboratively learn the essentials of collective bargaining agreements. This joint-training approach considers the roles and responsibilities of both management and union representatives in the collective bargaining process. The program focuses on frontline supervisors and builds their capacity to effectively manage in a unionized environment.

The MUE program is also unique to the IRC’s professional development portfolio. Indeed, the program does strongly adhere to adult learning principles, and provides opportunities for participants to apply their learning to practical exercises. The program, however, is not part of the labour relations certificate series. It is currently offered as a three-day special interest program.

Participant Perspectives

Both Stephanie and Gary were pleased, but not surprised, with the positive anecdotal feedback received from participants throughout the program. Post-program conversations with two participants echoed the sentiments expressed during the programming. These conversations revealed an overall favourable perception of the program, and especially the ways in which the programming is directly applicable to the work that participants do in their organizations. Below, I summarize conversations with Serge Larre and Scott Sincerbox.

Serge Larre

Serge Larre is a Federation Officer with the Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens (AEFO). Serge has over ten years of experience in union work. As such, he was already familiar with much of the material presented in the MUE program. Since the IRC’s MUE program is offered in English only, Serge took it upon himself to translate some of the IRC’s material into French for use in his organization. Accordingly, it seems clear that Serge deems the IRC’s material engaging and directly relevant to his work.

Serge praised Gary’s facilitation skills. “Gary is very good and is an asset to the IRC,” said Serge. “He is knowledgeable and gives good suggestions for solutions to problems.” Serge also appreciated the fact that both union and management were in the room. He said that the program met his expectations. “The MUE program is great!”

Scott Sincerbox

Scott Sincerbox, Superintendent of Human Resources, with the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board also participated in the April 2011 MUE program. In our conversation, Scott spoke about the quality of the learning he received throughout the program. Like Serge, he was particularly impressed with facilitator Gary Furlong’s breadth of knowledge and expertise. In addition to the specific knowledge acquired, such as a better understanding of the union perspective around contentious issues, and collective agreements, Scott commented on the diverse aggregation of sectors represented in the program. Similar to Serge, this diversity, according to Scott, enhanced his learning experience.

Further, Scott commented that the program has instilled in him an excitement about and desire to continue learning on the job. Recently Scott was a guest instructor at a course for principal candidates. In preparing for his discussion on labour relations type topics, Scott relied heavily on the IRC’s MUE program materials. For Scott, this reliance was a definitive exemplification of the applicability of the material delivered in the IRC’s programming. Scott talked about the ways in which the IRC’s programming met his expectations: “The theory is terrific. The discussions are great. The IRC’s programming was exactly what I was looking for and has pointed me in the direction that I want to go. I am anxious to take additional IRC’s programs, such as negotiation skills. I think the MUE program was beneficial not only for my own learning, but will complement my team learning in my organization.”

Future MUE Programming

Ongoing feedback from participants is invaluable to help the IRC with designing and delivering programming that meets the needs of our clients. My conversations with two participants elicited some recommendations on the ways in which the IRC can enhance its MUE programming. According to the participants with whom I spoke, putting more emphasis on specific skills and adding to the number of practical cases already addressed in the course were suggestions for consideration. Experiential learning is a key component of the IRC’s programming; we want to ensure that participants have the time they need to put theory into practice. These recommendations will be considered when developing the curriculum for future MUE programming.

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