Inside HR at the Ontario Public Service

In April 2014, as Lori Aselstine began her retirement from the Government of Ontario, she sat down with Queen’s IRC to talk about her career, the HR profession and practising HR in an environment that is 85% unionized.

Lori talks candidly about her experience rising through the ranks in the Government of Ontario, as well as the challenges and opportunities that come from working in labour relations for the government, which often plays the role of the employer and legislator. Lori shares which skills and knowledge she wishes she had acquired earlier in her career, and her thoughts on how HR can play an integral role in the development of corporate strategy and performance. Lori notes that in the next decade, we are going to see a push towards alternate work strategies, and this will present a host of challenges and questions, particularly with a unionized workforce.

Lori has over 33 years of experience with the Government of Ontario, most of which was in the human resources field. She has held positions such as director of Ontario Public Service labour relations, director of Broader Public Sector labour relations and director of strategic human resources business.

Download PDF: Inside HR at the Ontario Public Service

Queen’s IRC Awards First Advanced HR Certificate

When Paul Juniper became the Director of Queen’s University Industrial Relations Centre (IRC) in 2006, he recognized the need for more senior level training in the changing human resources (HR) profession. To accomplish this, he designed a new series of Advanced HR programs to enhance the strategic knowledge, ability, and capability of HR practitioners. The goal was to enable HR practitioners to shift from an administrative and/or transactional role, to one that has become an integral part of an organization’s business strategy – an HR business partner.

By 2012, with a series of Advanced HR programming in place, the Advanced HR Certificate was introduced. This spring, Erin O’Flynn became the first IRC participant to earn this coveted certificate.

O’Flynn, who is the Director of Human Resources at Cogeco Data Services Inc., started her training with Queen’s IRC in 2008, with the popular Negotiation Skills program. While she had a wish list of IRC programs she wanted take, she wasn’t sure it would ever happen. “Training dollars are so scarce,” she said. “But over time, I was given the chance to take one here and one there, and then I just needed one more.” That one more was the Linking HR Strategy to Business Strategy program, which O’Flynn completed in April 2013.

“The most beneficial programs for me were the Advanced HR, and Linking HR Strategy to Business Strategy programs.” O’Flynn noted that the focus on culture change, how to become a business ally, and change management from a business perspective, were all key takeaways for her.

“I was at a point in my career where the programs underpinned everything I had learned to date, and they helped me to finesse what I’ve learned as an HR professional.”

O’Flynn also found the networking opportunities in the IRC programs very beneficial. She enjoyed the quality of the programs, and the hands-on experience that they offered. “I found the facilitators very good. They are all experts in their field, and they bring their experience to the table, not just the theory.”

“In the Talent Management program, the facilitator provided a lot of great tools. I was able to implement those as soon as I returned to work.”

“Overall, the IRC’s programming is fabulous,”O’Flynn said. “The IRC is very good at making people feel comfortable. It’s a rich learning experience, and very customer friendly.”

It is precisely these reasons why O’Flynn has arranged for other employees to attend the IRC’s programs. “We were coming up to bargaining, and I sponsored two people to attend the Negotiation Skills program. Both walked away with a whole new perspective.”

She describes one employee, who had an ‘I throw out my number and you throw out yours’ approach to collective bargaining. After attending the program, he was able to apply the skills and knowledge right away. “He learned the benefits of interest-based bargaining, and was looking for collaborative ways to negotiate. We saw an immediate cause and effect.”

O’Flynn was excited to earn her Advanced HR certificate – she already has it hanging on the wall in her office. “This certificate, coupled with my on-the-job experience, has further enhanced my credibility as an HR practitioner,” she said. O’Flynn is also excited to be a valued strategic business partner at Cogeco, and to have the skills and knowledge to help shape the company’s strategic goals.

The IRC’s Advanced Human Resources programming began with the foundational program, Advanced HR. It was designed for HR and labour relations professionals currently in a middle management role, with at least three to five years experience managing an HR department, who hold a CHRP designation or equivalent profile. Additional programs include: Succession Planning, Talent Management, HR Decision Making, and Linking HR Strategy to Business Strategy.

Training Employees is Key to Effective Union-Management Relationships

For practitioners in Queen’s University’s Human Resources (HR) department, the past two years have brought about a number of changes in the way they do their jobs. Two years ago, there were four union contracts at the University, and today, the tenth contract is being negotiated. With about 80% of the University’s employees now unionized, Al Orth, Associate Vice-Principal (Human Resources) at Queen’s University, says the environment has changed significantly. The University had to think ahead about how it was going to support its employees in this new world. “For the vast majority of our supervisors and managers, managing in a unionized environment will be a new experience,” Al says.

Al immediately saw the importance of investing in training for the front-line workers who will be dealing with the application of the collective agreements on a daily basis. “It is important that we, as an institution, provide this kind of background, and train individuals in these key management and supervisory roles to continue to build positive employee relations.”

With the goal of achieving a respectful and productive work environment, the Queen’s HR department reached out to one of the University’s own Centres, the Industrial Relations Centre (IRC), to provide training for the University’s supervisors and managers. Al was familiar with the IRC’s programs, including the Managing Unionized Environments (MUE) program, and says choosing the IRC to provide the training was a natural partnership.

Queen’s IRC Director, Paul Juniper, says that the IRC is very happy to be working with Queen’s HR on this university-wide initiative. “Our commitment to adult learning principles and skill-based training is recognized across Canada and now, in Kingston, at our home institution. The opportunity to work with HR professionals is why the IRC exists, so it is particularly pleasing for us to work at home with Queen’s HR.”

In August 2012, the IRC ran four, two-day custom versions of its Managing Unionized Environments program for University staff. Additional programs for December 2012, January 2013, and February 2013 were then added. The unique program is facilitated by Gary Furlong, a mediator who has spent many years teaching collective bargaining to union, management, and joint union-management teams. He has often been asked to help rebuild union-management relationships that have broken down, and knows first-hand why an effective union management relationship is so critical to an organization.

“One of the key reasons for that breakdown is a lack of understanding of what an effective union-management relationship is, how the collective agreement operates, and even what the collective agreement says.” Developing the skills to manage this relationship is key to creating a strong, effective work environment, according to Gary.

In the program, Gary emphasizes the critical relationship between front-line leadership in management and front-line union representation.

“The IRC’s approach to labour relations is rooted in a philosophy of strong collaboration, combined with a set of practical skills and tools that all front-line leaders can apply immediately in many day-to-day situations,” says Gary. “This collaborative approach fits the academic and collegial culture of an institution like Queen’s very effectively.”

While the MUE program is typically offered as an open-enrollment program, the University chose to have a custom program so that the content could be tailored to its specific needs. Stephanie Noel, Queen’s IRC Business Development Manager, works with clients to design content. “When we design a custom program in-house, we are able to identify the top two or three organizational hotspots in addition to the content we deliver with every MUE public program.” Stephanie says that Queen’s IRC considers both the management and union perspectives, and then creates specific scenarios to teach participants the best way to approach the key issues in the organization.

Both Paul and Stephanie feel that this approach delivers high value for an organization like Queen’s University.

Al agrees, and is pleased that the custom program allowed the University to bring very current and relevant information to its employees. “It’s a unique program because it provides both management and union perspectives. There’s no other program like that, so we are fortunate to be able to provide that type of training to our supervisors and managers.”

Al said that, going into the training, many managers and supervisors hadn’t had any exposure to unions, and they were unsure of how things would change. “It helped them to better understand union-management relations, showed that they can work, and how they can work positively.” Participants learned that the relationship doesn’t need to change. “They still need to practice good HR skills, and it can still be an environment that is founded on positive employee relations.”

Participants with all levels of experience are able to benefit from this training. “For a newer supervisor or manager, the understanding of how a collective agreement operates and how human rights work in the workplace were seen to be very helpful,” says Gary. “For more experienced supervisors and managers, the focus on performance management, along with the more advanced discipline handling skills is high value. Overall, however, demystifying the union presence and union relationship was welcomed by all participants.”

Valerie Bartlett, Resources and Communications Officer in the Department of Medicine at Queen’s, felt like she learned a lot from the MUE program. “It has shown me the shift from a confrontational relationship to a true partnership.”

Shannon Hill, Learning and Development Specialist with Queen’s HR, also noted the valuable opportunity to meet colleagues from other departments. “It is great for networking, and also provides us with colleagues we can call when we need some help, and to share best practices.”

Gary is pleased to help the University create a smooth transition to high-quality union relations. He offers some advice for labour relations professionals who are new to managing in a unionized workplace.

  1. Read the Collective agreement – First and foremost, read, understand, and don’t be afraid of the Collective Agreement. It is framework that helps to define and support the working relationship of both parties. When seen as a way to ensure both the fair protection of employee rights along with helping deliver a productive and effective working relationship, a unionized environment can be a strong enabler of success. If management sees the union as a resource to help build a strong workplace, and if the union sees management as a critical leadership role helping build a successful organization, both parties will thrive.
  2. Train your leaders – Take the time and effort to train front-line leadership on both sides, management and union. Enable and support the success of the front-line leadership, and the organization will thrive.

In 2012, the IRC delivered five, custom MUE programs for Queen’s University, with approximately 150 participants in total. With more programs scheduled for 2013, the IRC is pleased to offer this exceptional learning experience to many more Queen’s supervisors and managers.

Ontario experts pessimistic about the future: Ontario 2020 Delphi forecast

Last year, OPSEU brought together business, labour, government, and community agencies for an in-depth exploration of the possible futures for Ontario with Ontario 2020. The Ontario 2020 Delphi forecast has now been released, which shows that experts are concerned and pessimistic about the future of the province.

Queen’s IRC Director Paul Juniper was a member of the steering committee for the Ontario 2020 project, which included a two-day conference in Toronto. Experts in four areas – community services, the economy, education and health care – were invited to evaluate how the province will develop in the next decade. Four possible scenarios of the future were assessed for each of the key areas.

The practical objective of the Ontario 2020 project was to make Ontario organizations more effective by focusing on the need to anticipate a wholly different province in 2020. The steering committee was founded by OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas. Thomas said it’s important to stop the finger-pointing and blame over the past, and focus on the challenges and opportunities in the future. “No one else is doing this important work. To succeed as organizations and a province we must begin to take it on.”

One of the panelists summed up their view of Ontario in 2020: “I believe that we can imagine a great future, but many are pessimistic about what lies before us.”


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