Accommodating Disability in the wake of Keays v. Honda Canada

Employers may be relieved now that the Supreme Court of Canada has reversed steep punitive damages in a high-profile wrongful dismissal case involving a disabled worker. But accommodating the needs of employees who have disabilities – in particular depression – is not getting any easier, says Queen’s IRC Facilitator Anthony Griffin. Griffin is counsel for the Ontario Human Rights Commission, which intervened in Keays v. Honda Canada, a case that has been watched closely by Canadian employers for the past four years. (The views expressed are his and do not purport to be the views of the Commission.)

Is the status of employees with disabilities in the Canadian workplace being transformed?

Overwhelmingly, yes. Twenty years ago, if you looked at the percentage of people with disabilities who were unemployed, it was embarrassing. If you look now, it is saddening but not embarrassing.

A huge level of understanding has developed since disability was included in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Also, disability was included in the Human Rights Code in 1985. So until 1984, an employer in Ontario could say, ‘I’m not hiring you because you have a disability,’ and you’d have no recourse.In addition there is the duty to accommodate, which was added in 1988. The Supreme Court has wrestled with what that means, but now pretty much everybody understands that you have to really go to the mat in terms of protecting the rights of people with disabilities when it comes to employment.As a result of these factors, the status of employees with disabilities has been transformed significantly.

Why did the case of Keays versus Honda Canada generate so much interest among Canadian employers?

In June 2008, the Supreme Court decision reversed decisions that had been made in the lower courts relating to the highest punitive damage award ever against an employer in a wrongful-dismissal case – originally set at $500,000.

In 2000, Kevin Keays, an employee of Honda Canada who had chronic fatigue syndrome, was fired after he refused to attend a medical assessment with the company’s doctor. The trial judge, Mr. Justice John McIsaac of the Ontario Superior Court, found in 2005 that Honda wanted to fire Keays, so it wouldn’t have to accommodate his needs.

If that’s your conclusion, you have a sense that Honda did a really bad thing – and that’s why Justice McIsaac went way over to one side and ordered $500,000 in punitive damages, in addition to extending the wrongful dismissal period from the usual 15 months to 24 months in lieu of notice because of the abusive actions that Honda had taken.

This decision created shock waves among employers across the country.

Absolutely. Then the case went up on appeal, and in late 2006 the Ontario Court of Appeal upheld McIsaac’s conclusion that there was wrongful dismissal; it upheld the extension of the notice period from 15 to 24 months; and it said, yes, punitive damages should be awarded. However, it said the number should be reduced from $500,000 to $100,000 in damages.

Then Honda appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada. This case was remarkable: typically on appeal, cases do not get retried. Honda v. Keays got retried in the Court of Appeal, and it got retried in the Supreme Court of Canada. And the Supreme Court took a very different view of Honda’s actions.

So does this latest ruling mean employers may now breathe a collective sigh of relief?

In the Supreme Court, Honda didn’t challenge wrongful dismissal. One of the biggest things in this case is that the Supreme Court set aside the extension from 15 to 24 months in lieu of notice, and also concluded that punitive damages would not be awarded.

Employers are reassured to see that as a result of this decision, the original, high punitive damages are unlikely to become the norm.

They are also relieved because, before, all you had to prove was that the manner of dismissal was nasty. Now you have to prove that it caused mental distress. So employers for the past 10 years have faced so-called Wallace damage claims in almost every wrongful dismissal case – and I assure you, almost every plaintiff’s lawyer pleaded it. Now the plaintiff will have to come up with a doctor’s opinion relating the plaintiff’s mental anguish to the manner of dismissal.

How did the Supreme Court view Honda’s actions?

The court looked at it this way. Honda has an employee with chronic fatigue syndrome. Honda has been told to expect he’ll be off in the neighbourhood of, say, four times in a month. Then he’s away eight times a month. So Honda says, ‘We’d like you to come in and talk to one of our doctors,’ – and he refuses. If you look at it from that perspective, you might think Honda is trying to help manage his absenteeism, and didn’t do anything wrong.

Honda’s program that permitted people to be absent required them to produce a doctor’s note. The court said it’s okay to ask for medical validation of a leave of absence.

So has a new precedent been set, or are any issues still up in the air for managers?

You asked me whether employers can now breathe a sigh of collective relief. The answer is an overwhelming yes.

One of the biggest things in the Supreme Court decision is that it says it’s okay to ask for doctor’s notes when you are excusing absences from what would otherwise be progressive discipline.

So can employers ask someone to see the company doctor? Yes, but only when the information provided by the employee’s doctor is insufficient to let the employer answer this question: ‘Can this person do this job; can we modify this job so this person with this disability can do it.’ The Keays case was simple on one level. When he was there he could do his job and the only need associated with his disability was periodic absences. The tougher cases are the ones in which the questions above need to be answered.

So we all agree that an employer can manage absenteeism with progressive discipline. If you are away too often, we are going to have you in for a talk, give you a verbal warning, give you a written warning, suspend you, and if you keep not coming in regularly, we will fire you. That’s perfectly fine. That’s Column A: those are absences that can lead to discipline.

Column B has got to be absences that can’t lead to discipline. Those are absences caused by a disability. So employers are always trying to figure out, ‘How do I determine which absence goes in Column A and which into Column B?’

And now they can say, ‘The absences in Column B go there as long as they are supported by a doctor’s note, and won’t be subject to progressive discipline.’ This has certainly clarified things quite a bit.

What is the remaining difficulty?

Part of the difficulty when you have someone like Mr. Keays, who has chronic fatigue syndrome – and it’s going to be similar if someone has fibromyalgia or depression – is that the absences are essentially self-reporting.

Say Mr. Keays wakes up one day and says, ‘I feel so rotten today I can’t drag myself in to work,’ so he has to go to his doctor. The doctor knows he has CFS, he goes in and says, ‘I feel so dragged out today I can’t go to work,’ so the doctor basically says, ‘He’s not going to work today as he has CFS.’

That’s not really much more information than Keays had to begin with. What is the doctor adding to it? Similarly, if someone has depression and says, ‘I feel so down today I can’t go to work,’ and he or she goes to get a doctor’s note, what does it add for the doctor to say, ‘He’s feeling so down he can’t go to work’?

Are there better alternatives employers can adopt for monitoring absences?

The minority in the Supreme Court referred to this. They wrote: ‘While monitoring employee absences certainly remains a valid objective, this can be done in a variety of ways. Requiring a doctor’s note for each absence is only one alternative. Others include seeking semi-regular updates from an employee’s physician or requiring doctors’ notes only when the number of absences exceeds the expected number within a particular time frame.’

So there are some disabilities – and I think CFS, depression and fibromyalgia fall into the category – for which there are other ways for employers besides saying ‘You must get a note’ every time.

When you think about it in context, Mr. Keays worked at Honda in Alliston, and lived in a rural area an hour and a half or two hours north of Toronto. Access to doctors is just presumed in all of this. If you phone your doctor and say, ‘I’d like to come in and see you,’ and they say, ‘What’s it for, are you critically injured?’ and you say, ‘No, I need a note,’ you probably aren’t going to get an appointment today. And so you then have to take another day off to go see the doctor. And many people don’t have regular doctors.

So I can understand what the employer is doing: the employer is delegating responsibility over to the medical profession – ‘You tell me he couldn’t come in because of his depression and I’ll say ok.’

But we have to start looking at this from a societal level. Is that a good use of our medical resources, our physicians’ time? And what kind of obligation is this putting on employees – which is going to be onerous? None of that is reflected in the court’s thinking, as they were only looking at the one case.

However, with this decision employers can breathe a collective sigh of relief because if they have a plan that says get a doctor’s note for your absences that are associated with your disability and then we won’t count those absences against you – this decision says that’s okay.

Where do employers most need to improve how they handle accommodation?

Do you know what’s the number one cause of lost time from work in North America? It’s depression. With this employers do a terrible job, and that’s because they have viewed depression as an on/off switch. We’ll give you two weeks away and you’ll be fine. You’ll come back and we’ll throw you right back into the deep end.

This is going to be the most difficult thing for employers over the coming decade, because people who have depression are often not the same as they used to be. And if you give employees two weeks off and then give them the same kind of work they had before, it’s not going to workout.

They’re going to wind up going on long-term disability, and ultimately, on the Ontario Disability Support Program. Employers have this template that says, ‘We expect you to do this amount of work, this is our standard.’ They have to give different standards to employees who are depressed, and they don’t.

This reflects the difficulty that accommodation means you have to treat people differently. That’s always been a problem for employers, for unions, who like to have a methodology where everyone is treated the same way. The accommodation analysis turns that on its head.

Leadership and the Invisible Fence

Do you want to be an enlightened leader? Then actively coach and mentor employees, pay attention to rewards and recognition, and make sure the fence you build for your colleague is far enough away that it cannot be seen, says IRC Facilitator Jean-François Pinsonnault.

How does one become an enlightened leader who nurtures leadership in others?

I am still working toward being an enlightened leader. It is a journey, and each day I make new discoveries. Nurturing leadership in others means creating an environment that enables everyone within your scope of influence to learn, grow, and develop the capacity to inspire others to achieve excellence. In the words of the Roman philosopher and poet Seneca the Younger, “Even while men teach, men learn.”

I compare a leader to an actor on stage or on the big screen. A leader also plays a role: leadership. The difference is that it is very interactive.

An enlightened leader demonstrates leadership by paying attention to a number of key areas, each of which I’ll discuss in turn.

Coaching and mentoring

Through conversation and dialogue, it’s important that a leader encourage individuals to explore possibilities, to go beyond ‘good enough’ and move toward ‘excellent’ and ‘outstanding’. This is accomplished by giving direction on fundamental skills to help the person develop mastery in analyzing situations and making decisions.

I’ve been fortunate throughout my career: I’ve had coaches who taught me how to analyze context, to explore problems or challenges, and to do risk assessments. I would get a clear understanding of what happened, what the results were, what solutions were available to me, and what impact those solutions would have. When I made a decision, whether it worked or not, I was able to defend it later on.

I have to say I’ve been involved in a few blunders! But no matter what the outcome, every one of these coaches would provide guidance in expanding my risk assessment for the next time. When it worked out well, we’d still consider how it could have been even better.

Acquiring insight through reflection

During the various coaching opportunities, it’s valuable to engage your employees and protégés and help them gain a clearer understanding of what transpired. This furthers their appreciation of the situation or circumstances.

Rewards and recognition

Know when to recognize and appreciate your employees’ accomplishments and achievements. Discussing shortcomings is expected, however a good leader must also balance this out with recognition for incremental accomplishments. Doing this once a year during the performance evaluation period is totally insufficient. Don’t wait: “see it, say it” — otherwise, it will be forgotten.

A study of over 200,000 employees and their managers around the globe, conducted over a 10-year period by the Jackson Organization, showed that 79% of employees who quit their jobs cite a lack of appreciation as a key reason for leaving. Further, the study found that 65% of North Americans said that they received no recognition in the previous year.

Similarly, research firm Watson Wyatt in a recent study asked employees to identify “very significant” motivators of performance, and 66 percent said “appreciation.” These conclusions come as no surprise. Recognition and praise for achievement contributes greatly to employee involvement, engagement and motivation.

Opportunities to learn by doing

Know that mistakes will occur. Leadership is helping the individual to understand and learn from mistakes — to explore alternatives in order to achieve goals. So ask, what do we learn from this? You need to coach and mentor to help individuals to be ready for the next time: you have to prepare them.

Guidance through observation

Take the time to talk about what you are observing, and share those observations with employees and protégés. There will be times when people might not see and be aware of their behaviours.

Providing space for action

Keeping a promising individual on a short leash and within your grasp will limit creativity and innovation, the lifeline of continued success and growth. So set boundaries that are clear yet not limiting.

What has been most important to your development as a leader?

Over my 30-plus-year career, I’ve worked with exceptional people whose leadership permitted me to grow, and be comfortable in using my leadership skills.

Of particular note, back in the early 80s when I was a young consultant, I was hired by the dean of social studies at a major university. He was also president of a consulting firm dedicated to enhancing employee participation, thus maximizing the effectiveness of the organization. I had been retained to support a major project. Within a short period of time, he had taken me under his wing, nurturing me to achieve my full potential.

During the course of this project, as well as for several years after, he would bring me with him to attend high-level meetings with senior leaders in order to expose me to various situations. I would observe and listen in on the exchanges. After each meeting, we would have a conversation on my thoughts concerning the exchanges.

He would challenge me to go beyond the obvious and learn how to read between the lines, pick up on various non-verbal cues and better analyze and understand what was happening — including the needs and expectations of a potential client. This provided me with a priceless opportunity to develop my analytical and communications skills.

After a while he transferred the project to me. I’d never have been so successful if he hadn’t fostered my development beforehand.

What’s your most powerful experience with a life-changing leader? How has it influenced the way you support others as they develop?

Working with an Assistant Deputy Minister of human resources in a major government department was my most memorable experience. Whenever I would have ideas that could bring about significant changes or improvements, he would listen, probe to understand, and ask questions that would push my own views to places I often had not explored.

Once we agreed, he gave me the latitude I needed to ensure success. During a farewell get-together when I was leaving this organization to explore other challenges, he told all in attendance that with me, he set clear boundaries, but also knew that if the boundaries were too close, I would not thrive. “I quickly learned that the fence I put around Jean-François had to be quite far away, so he could not see it.” I thought that was wonderful, and have kept it in mind.

Does how you inspire leadership depend on the individual’s generation or background? Or do the same factors apply equally to everyone?

Had you asked me this question 10 years ago, my response would have been quite different. I thought then that the approach was relatively the same for all, regardless of age, experience, and background.

However today, as I am more and more exposed to individuals from various cultures and generations, I realize that people come from different backgrounds and circumstances, and that the context varies from individual to individual.

The latest generation to join the workforce has a higher need for involvement and engagement. So what could be better than having a person from the baby boomer generation and another from the millennial coach each other? Baby boomers will learn and come to appreciate what they may first find challenging in these younger employees, while sharing their own views and knowledge with a younger generation thirsty for knowledge. For the younger generation, this will provide insight into the history of systems, as well as various cultural systems.

And as a leader you need to realize that different generations work differently. I had a co-op student a couple of years back. I gave him a task to do on Monday afternoon, and we agreed to meet Wednesday to discuss his progress. On Tuesday I walked by his desk and saw he was listening to his mp3 player. I almost lost it. Then I saw he was working on the project I’d asked him for, so I let it go.

Later that afternoon he knocked on the door and asked if I had a minute. I asked if he had run into a challenge. “No, I’m finished,” he replied. I couldn’t believe he could be done already. In fact he’d done a fantastic job, even better than I’d anticipated — while listening to music.

I’ve also learned, for instance, that millennials can’t stand the “you’ve got to earn your dues” idea. With boomers the growth and promotion cycle was 10 to 15 years. With millennials it is one to two years. They want to be challenged, engaged, and involved, as research demonstrates.

Is developing younger leaders an issue for CMHC?

CMHC has a relatively low separation and resignation rates compared with the marketplace. Though there is no solid information about reasons for resignations, anecdotal information indicates that many are under 30 years old and have been with us for less than three years. Comments received point to an ineffective use of their skills and capacity, too much bureaucracy, and an insufficient amount of challenging work.

Government in general struggles with this challenge. Government departments, agencies and Crown corporations will need to respond and interact more effectively with the younger generation, which will be coming in droves as the boomers retire over the next few years. The first ones will be eligible to retire by 2011, or before, depending on their individual situation. By the time Canada reaches 2021, 6.7 million baby boomers will be poised to exit the workforce. Private sector leaders and policy-makers need to realize this sooner than later and start developing strategies which will permit their continued growth and success — otherwise they will have a hard time attracting and keeping the next generations, much less developing them as leaders.

Ready for Risky Business?

For human resources professionals, risk readiness means more than just planning for management departures, says Queen’s IRC facilitator Yvonne Latta. Yvonne is a consultant and former senior executive with 31 years in the federal public service, including directorships of HR at Transport Canada and Strategic Business Planning at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. In this article, she talks about succession planning, creating next-generation managers, and the importance of identifying your knowledge experts.

What are the main issues for human resources leaders around risk management?

If you don’t consider employee-related concerns around risk readiness and make a strategic plan, you reduce your own organization’s competitiveness.

For example, with succession planning, what do you do when there’s a shortage, as today with accountants or in the medical technical field? Without a strategic plan for recruitment and retention, the organization is going to lose people who have essential skills. This is the big one – and there’s a direct link to profit, or excellence if you’re in government.

The other issue is that as the boomers retire, organizations have an opportunity they haven’t had in 25 years to shape their leaders in a more deliberate way, to create the next generation of managers.

I’ll give you an example. Right now in government, many departments are using an executive pool rather than hiring a director for a particular job. They’re using a cross-government or cross-department, entry-level executive selection pool. So there’s an opportunity for the people at the top to really define what it is they want those new executives to be competent at, beyond just knowledge.

If you are not being strategic, you’re missing an opportunity for the future of the organization in terms of quality of management. And the quality of management is linked to the quality of results.

Is creating an human resources risk readiness plan complex?

You can do this without spending a lot of time and money. It’s a matter of focus. And you can measure results in this area. Many managers, as soon as you say “succession planning,” think that it’s going to be very expensive. A lot of this is cost neutral, or of low cost.

But rather than doing it by branch or by group, managers need to plan corporately, sharing the costs across the organization. I’ll give you an example. When I was at Transport Canada, over five years we identified 58 potential high-risk departures. So if we break that down, it’s about 15 a year. If four of those happened to be in the Atlantic Region, and significant funding was required, the region wouldn’t be able to afford to put a big plan in place.

But corporately, at the Deputy Minister or President level, there’s access to reserve funds, and these people know when money’s not being spent in one part of the organization that they can then access. Some manager sitting out in Moncton can’t do that.

Managers can do risk planning – it’s not as big a deal as they think it is. And the risks to organizations from not doing it are high, especially in specific shortage areas.

So the biggest risk of all is not having a strategy?

Yes – take the importance of knowledge experts. At Transport Canada we had a chap who was an airline pilot, but he was also a biologist, which is a pretty unusual combination. Over the course of 25 years in his career he became an international expert on the management of wildlife in airports; you know, birds flying into planes, deer running out on runways. There aren’t very many people that study this.

When it became clear he would be retiring, it was a really big issue because there aren’t a lot of these people out there who do this. If you must look for a replacement, are you looking for a biologist or a pilot?

The organization found a really sharp young biology student and brought her in to work under a co-op program. The organization was able to direct her. “What are you taking next year? We’d like you to take this kind of course.” In return, she had a guaranteed job offer as his successor when she was through school.

So the cost was minimal but the payback was huge. A lot of knowledge experts develop over time – and it’s often the quiet and unnoticed person at the back that becomes an expert in something, and everyone relies on him or her.

What can you do to mitigate this kind of risk?

Organizations pay a lot of attention to their management departures but not to their subject matter experts. Not that they shouldn’t deal with management too. But there aren’t a lot of these subject matter experts in organizations. If you start really searching for them, it’s manageable to plan and to find fairly cheap and easy ways to ensure knowledge gets transferred.

Sometimes it’s just a matter of asking someone to document information, in cases where it’s only one person who knows how to do something. If you don’t think about this and he drops dead, you’re in serious difficulty. So you need to be mindful of your risks in the “one of a kind” jobs.

How should risk management within human resources be integrated into the overall management of organizations?

Why not make it part of the annual business planning process? Most senior management teams talk a lot about how to spend their capital money and not as much on how they’re going to spend their human resource money.

So as part of business planning, you determine trends, attrition rates, and high risk departures, and do a risk assessment. Then you target efforts to where a lack of competent staff will hurt you the most.

Make it an executive-level HR committee that manages this – again, most organizations have capital committees. And then link the performance pay to achieving those results. And as I discussed earlier, manage it corporately.

You need an ongoing feedback process at your management level, with tangible results. For example, let’s look at recruitment. Where you have difficult recruitment challenges, part of that process is having feedback to the senior management committee. Is our recruitment strategy working? Having recruited people, what’s our retention? And what’s our annual attrition rate?

Again, it should be like finance. All executive committees get financial information routinely: the quarterly update, the bi-annual update, where are we at with this, how much money have we got flexibility on.

Very few organizations apply the same discipline to the management of people. I don’t know why: if I were president of a bank, I think I’d want to know if part of the organization that had a 30 percent attrition rate.

It’s really quite simple. If you’ve got a structure called “financial”, why don’t you have one called “people”? You can’t do terribly well financially if you have incompetent people, or you don’t have enough people.

Why don’t organizations typically plan this way?

I think our models don’t put a lot of emphasis on people. For a long time in the 1980s and 90s, people were not in short supply. In fact, they were desperate for jobs. Look at the GenXers, who were all hired on contracts: there was always a pool of feeders that the organizations needed.

A lot of organizations still haven’t clued in to the fact that it’s not the case any more; and that what the workforce wants has changed. You hear managers complaining that the younger generation is not loyal. I don’t think it’s got anything to do with loyalty. I think this group is extremely loyal to a good boss, but they have options. So if you’re a lousy organization to work for they won’t stay.

It goes back to competitive advantage, and profitability, or excellence. A lot of places are doing things like interviewing employees three months after they’ve joined to see whether the conditions they were told they would be working under are in fact what they’re experiencing, or they are already looking for another job. Rather than waiting for the exit survey, they conduct an entry survey. This is the kind of thing organizations need to wake up to.

Bah Kumbaya

Respect, not superficial goodwill, is the key to inspired teamwork, says Dr. Shawna O’Grady, Associate Professor of Management at Queen’s School of Business. Great teams work hard at keeping members aligned and making the most of creative conflict. We spoke recently with Shawna about the challenges of creating and sustaining a collaborative work environment.

When you have a team that is generally well-managed, how do you know when things are starting to go wrong?

One of the things that I often notice is when teams stop meeting face-to-face and communicating. Members of a great team will usually want to spend time together and one of the first signs of trouble is when this stops happening. You can have plenty of e-mail and other technology-enabled contact but there must be some time that is spent face-to-face, whether weekly or bi-weekly.

Another thing is what I hear people call “workarounds”, as in, We’re going to work around her. That’s very dangerous. It usually points to an issue of equity, where someone is not pulling his or her weight, and that’s not going anywhere but downhill. It always leads to difficulties if team members avoid assigning work to one or more of their colleagues. It plays to lack of communication. You’re not acknowledging the elephant in the back room.

How is creative tension managed on a team without spiraling into the dark side?

You first need to determine when you want it and when you don’t. Many organizations have a team-based structure and then they think they need to use teams for every decision. You have to remember that simple tasks still require simple solutions. Creative teams are best for complex issues, anything unique, and when you want to have an innovative outcome. Also for when you need strategic alignment across the organization and for anything ambiguous, when you unsure of the outcome.

But organizations often neglect to take the time to allow their teams to recognize what strengths each team member brings to the project. Even taking a half day to build some recognition of different problem-solving styles and how they can each contribute to the creative tension in the room can be extremely valuable.

The second step would be to align the team members to a common purpose around what they are trying to do. Unless you’re in a very creative culture where that dynamic is understood, oftentimes people feel they have to be polite or they have to play nice. Eventually that breaks down and you learn that there is very little respect across the individuals in the team. Without respect, you cannot have a creative outcome or an effective team.

What do we say to the manager who comes in, whether from a different department or from outside, who inherits a group that is just not clicking?

The first thing you need to do is find out the root cause of the dysfunction. It may not be a team-building issue at all but rather a performance-related problem or a resource issue. You should also check whether or not there have been any breaches of trust. I always ask first: Is everyone pulling his or her weight? Secondly, it is tough to build trust or respect if someone has betrayed someone else. If so, this must be addressed and specific expectations clarified before moving forward. Sometimes one or both of the people involved may have to leave the organization to restore a positive culture.

Most of the issues I see fall into two categories. One is a problem of perception. In cases where one team member perceives another one negatively, it usually comes down to a lack of understanding of the other person’s strengths. In that case, you need to go back to teambuilding exercises to help build trust and respect.

The second major issue is alignment around a clear set of norms for working together. In effective team building, you help teams to set these up, but the key is whether or not the team members stick to the norms. Once the team has time to live together for a while, issues begin to arise and expectations get out of alignment. Team members need to confront the lack of alignment to remain effective. A good example is arriving on time to meetings. Some people take this much more seriously than others yet all team members may have agreed to a norm of “No late arrivals”. Sometimes you have to set new norms or confront an issue to re-establish alignment.

Have you seen many cases where organizations fail to “walk the talk” in terms of encouraging strong team work?

A lot of organizations say teams matter but they continue to reward individual behavior. Very few have a good performance management system that backs up teams. This is very important to ensuring team success. People do what they are rewarded for. It’s only natural. When employees an individual puts a lot of effort into helping a team succeed, they or she should be rewarded and celebrated. Also, when a team comes to you as the manager and tells you that one person isn’t contributing and that they’ve tried everything to turn that person around, what is the organization prepared to do? In both cases, we need to be able to send the right messages.

Have you seen organizations use compensation to back up commitment to teams?

Yes, but you have to be careful. What you don’t want to do is have one team in competition with another. Sometimes people will think an easy answer is to have a team bonus system. These can be dangerous because you can have one team winning at the expense of another. The best are organization-wide systems where there is a component of team reward in which each member of the team has an incentive to work collaboratively with each other as well as with other teams.

The other thing to remember is that it does not have to be linked back to compensation. It does have to be linked to accountability. There can be a peer review where team members have input in each other’s evaluation. This way team members receive clear feedback on areas they are doing well and areas needing improvement. If someone is a free rider and taking advantage of the team, An individual lcan be that person can be involved in setting out clear expectations and then coached over a period of time to do better. given a set of expectations to do better and a period of time to make things better. Only if he or she does not change are there negative consequences.

Money is not the number one motivator here. The best way to create engagement and great performance is for people to know they need to do a great job because they will be receiving feedback from peers and that they have to live up to their expectations. Someone who you respect cares and is paying attention. Accountability is also important. If you do well, it is rewarded through celebrations and recognition – possibly pay but not necessarily. And if you do not meet expectations, you know there will be consequences.

The Health and Safety Revolution

Legal and societal trends are transforming our organizations, says Vic Pakalnis, Amethyst Fellow at Queen’s University School of Policy Studies. In this Q&A, Vic, a senior leader with 30 years’ experience in the Ontario Public Service, says HR professionals have a key role in facing these challenges..

What are the top trends around safe and healthy workplaces?

There’s a huge sea change underway, akin to the revolution around driving under the influence of alcohol. Our culture has changed radically; people do not drink and drive anymore. In Occupational Health and Safety, it is no longer acceptable to injure workers. Accidents are not accidents. Every injury, every fatality, is preventable.

That is revolutionary thinking: in the past, lost-time injuries, fatalities even, were considered ‘the price of doing business.’ This is no longer the case: it’s considered outrageous, preventable, and organizations and supervisors are being held to account.

How is accountability for employee health and safety changing?

If you look at the legal framework, governments are tightening the requirements for people in direct responsibility roles. For example, the federal government passed Bill C-45, amendments to the Criminal Code. The first prosecution under that occurred earlier this year in Quebec, and it’s going to spread. Employers have to take preventative measures or they will be held accountable if a fatality or incident happens in the workplace.

In Ontario, the Ministry of Labour hired 200 new inspectors, who have been in the field since last year. The Ministry is targeting high-risk workplaces. The accident rates in the province right now are 1.8 per hundred workers. If a firm has an accident rate that is above that, they’re above the provincial average, and have to bring it down. There are certain sectors, such as mining, that are considerably lower than the provincial average. Underground mining is at .07 per hundred workers.

So what’s considered ‘normal’ has completely changed?

It’s revolutionary – and people don’t realize what’s happened, how much expectations have changed. In mining 30 years ago when I started at the Ministry of Labour, the accident rates were about 8.3 per hundred workers. And now they’re at .07 per hundred workers.

Mining got its act together. It put technology to work, has mandatory training for all – not only workers, but supervisors too. If mining could get it together, and created a safety culture that demands that kind of performance, it puts everyone else under the gun to improve.

HR and IR professionals need to search out best practices and make sure that they’re applied to their sector and their organizations.

What other health and safety trends do leaders need to know about?

There’s another huge revolution around the new Healthy Workplaces movement.

Healthy Workplaces has three aspects. The first is conventional Occupational Health and Safety, covered by the Occupational Health and Safety Act and the Workers Safety Insurance Act.

Healthy Habits is aspect two. These things aren’t legislated but affect a workplace, and include smoking, obesity, fitness, drug use – that sort of thing. Partially they are a personal responsibility, but employers can encourage healthy behaviours to create a healthy workplace – one that will attract the best and brightest. It’s a retention issue as well, because in the current situation, people walk very quickly, they vote with their feet.

The third aspect is the safety culture. Some refer to it as the ‘psycho-social’ side of this. It’s about how you treat people who are not coping well, who are stressed. I heard a quote from a Minister of Labour some years ago that said 3,000 nurses are off on stress leave every day in Canada. Think of the waste in terms of productivity. Organizations have to create atmospheres and create expectations that people don’t work 24/7, burning themselves out, causing all sorts of unsustainable family-work issues.

We need to change workplace culture; we need to support people. Twenty-five percent of our workers have mental health issues. That’s diagnosed mental health issues. There are many others that are undiagnosed.

That’s an alarmingly high number.

Yes, and most employers don’t realize it, don’t accept it, and don’t do anything about it. If you don’t create a supportive environment, if you don’t accommodate people, you’ll lose productivity. You’ll lose some of the brightest and the best because they just won’t be able to cope – they’ll be off on long-term disability and be a drain. But if you do support them, if you do deal with reality and deal with the issue, they’ll be exceptional workers that just need some help once in a while.

So, the revolution is coming in terms of the legal side of things; and in terms of society – the cultural expectations. Young workers of today, for example, won’t put up with what used to be considered ‘normal’. They have better knowledge: it’s mandatory in Ontario to have Occupational Health and Safety in high schools. Expectations of the workplace have changed.

For HR and IR leaders, what challenges flow out of new laws and societal attitudes?

Healthy Workplaces and Occupational Health and Safety should be every HR/IR professional’s radar screen. The website of the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (, for example, is one great resource. Another is sponsored by the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board sponsored (

The big challenges are attraction and retention. If your accident rates are high, word gets out – in the United States they actually post this information on the web. If you’re not a good employer, if you don’t provide healthy workplace practices, you won’t attract and retain the brightest and the best. So it’s a competitive problem in the end.

The second thing is the business case. One injury costs on average $75,000. One injury! That includes compensation costs, retraining costs for people that take on the injured worker’s job – all of the various costs involved. That’s for injury and illness. But for lung cancer, it’s around $200,000.

You can’t sustain injuries and illnesses and stay in business. You have to manage them and create a preventative environment. And most provinces now have fines in the order of $500,000 for each charge against you, and a fatality might involve two or three charges.

Human resource professionals also need to recognize that if you don’t have a healthy workplace, you don’t have engaged employees. If you don’t have engaged employees, you don’t have quality services. If you don’t have quality services, you start losing customers. There are huge downsides to ignoring these new trends.

Healthy Workplaces involves cultural change in the workplace, which is never easy. What is the role of HR here?

HR is usually the conscience of a firm. The department can provide Operations people with the necessary tools to change culture. I think Operations has to internalize it – you can’t do that from the outside – but HR professionals can gather up information, package it, give it to the Operations people, make it real for their particular industry. This is important because a healthy workplace won’t look the same for different organizations.

HR can also help with policies related to accommodating people with disabilities; with mental health issues; with family issues; policies that recognize that we all have lives outside of the workplace. Those HR policies help create a healthy workplaces, and Occupational Health and Safety is part of that framework.

Society’s new expectation that no fatalities in the workplace are acceptable is going to mean there’ll be far more pressure on organizations – and their leaders – to support healthy and safe workplaces in the coming years.

In Conversation with Bernard Mayer

How can organizational leaders help to create healthy, conflict-friendly workplaces? Bernard Mayer, a Queen’s IRC Facilitator who is an international expert in conflict resolution and mediation, shares insights for managers in the following Q & A.

What is a ‘conflict-friendly’ environment?

The key here is to acknowledge that organizations, communities and relationships need conflict. It is naïve to think there will be no conflict where there are different needs and values. These are not superficial things, and as a result, we will have conflict.

Whether an organization is healthy isn’t related to whether there is conflict, but to how it is handled. A healthy organization welcomes genuine conflict, makes it easy for people to raise issues, has an environment that encourages this, and promotes a constructive response.

So people can safely, powerfully, consistently and directly raise issues. Conflict is also not prematurely referred to an impersonal bureaucratic process; nor is anyone made a scapegoat for the problem.

In other words, a conflict-friendly organization accepts the importance of the conflict process.

What are the most common ways organizations avoid conflict?

Organizations are enormously creative, as are individuals, at avoiding conflict. But there are four general ways that are the most common.

One way is simply denial and minimalization. That’s whenever someone raises a conflict and you say, ‘It’s just few malcontents,’ or ‘It’s not that big a deal.’

The second way organizations deal with conflict is they misdirect. They don’t deal with it directly and openly: they bureaucratize, refer it to a subcommittee or person far from the real issue, they scapegoat, or they immediately relate to it as a legal issue rather than a problem to be solved.

The third major way is using escalation as a means of conflict avoidance. Sometimes people are threatened with punitive consequences, or a boss gets really angry. The purpose is not to raise the issue so it can be constructively dealt with; it is to inhibit people from raising issues.

Fourth is premature problem-solving, or solving the wrong issues.

Think about sexual harassment a moment. It is a common problem in many workplaces, subject to great deal of denial. We individualize it. People are intimidated about raising the issue and are often victimized if they do.

Also what often happens is that people throw procedures into place that are supposed to deal with it. But they ignore the underlying culture of the workplace and the gender politics of the workplace that create an environment allowing it to go on.

Maybe what’s needed is a process of employee training, raising consciousness, changing the culture. But the fact is that far too often we rush to resolve the problem rather than staying with it a while, trying to really understand what people are concerned about.

How do we learn to handle conflict in way that benefits our organizations?

I’m not big on giving people prescriptions, but there are certain things we know make a difference.

The very first thing is to accept conflict as inevitable and healthy.

The second is to listen, to try to understand on a deeper level. It’s the most important thing we can do around conflict. Listen to what people saying, not judgmentally, but to try and understand. You don’t have to like what they are saying, but you can start by trying to understand.

Managers are often guilty of saying immediately how they are going to fix something without really spending time to understand and connect with the person. I suggest they try taking the attitude “My job is to understand; later I can come up with solutions.”

I also suggest three words that are almost always useful: “Tell me more.” Part of it is in the spirit you convey: of curiosity, of wanting to know, of wanting to understand, of not necessarily having answers all the time but taking it seriously.

A third skill is to learn to say what important to us, what we think and what we need, in a powerful way – but one that doesn’t shut others down, or seek to do that.

We also need to become good at coming up with forums for discussion and interaction around issues, and problem-solving where appropriate.

Another skill is knowing when to ask for help; where to go to ask for help; and developing organizational capacity to provide help.

For some reason we are perfectly willing to ask for help from legal, financial, public relations, even technical HR experts, but we are really reluctant to ask for help with the relational issues that are really key to what makes a successful workplace.

People often file grievances because they don’t know how to deal directly with a problem or issue and they aren’t provided coaching, training, or the forums to directly talk about it. Then you go file the grievance, and often the first step is to talk directly with someone, and you are provided no help in doing that – even though it could really make a difference.

Often the stuff that’s most difficult in dealing with human relationships is the simplest. For example, how do you listen to someone who you are furious with?

How do you manage it?

I’ve been teaching this stuff for 30 years, and frankly, I don’t always do it very well.

The very first part is you take care of yourself. Take a moment to get clear, have someone hear you and get some sort of affirmation, understanding, before you try to deal with things directly, if you possibly can.

If you can’t, it is one of these walk-on situations, you breathe, do whatever it takes to centre yourself.

The second thing is to become clear why you are angry and upset, then work on stating that as clearly and forcefully as you can. But say it in the way that you’d want other people to if they had those thoughts, feelings and concerns about you.

It is the opposite of being nicey-nice, which is one way of avoiding conflict. It is about being powerful in raising issues clearly and respectfully at the same time.

I believe when we are at our best we all can do this. The biggest problem is we’re afraid that we can’t, so we avoid things in a way that ultimately makes them worse.

It is hard. You can’t just wave a wand and make it happen the way you would like, but you can at least realize it is something you can become better at.

What happens when organizations avoid conflict?

I see this lot. Rather than confront a problem, especially when a powerful employee is involved, people restructure things in all sorts of ways. In one hospital there was a doctor who was a skilled specialist, upon whom they depended. I was asked to come in and provide conflict resolution training to the staff.

Why? This doctor was behaving inappropriately. He was abusive to nurses, colleagues, and probably to patients as well. Instead of saying ‘Help us figure out how to deal with this doctor,’ they said ‘Give conflict training to all of us.’ I think this happens all the time.

Of course the doctor was going to take it too – and this one-day experience was supposed to change his personality. What happens in these circumstances is the behaviour continues, morale goes down, and key people leave. People avoid dealing with issues directly and the problem gets larger.

In what kind of situations is escalation often used to avoid conflict?

A good example is what has happens with efforts to deal with medical employees with alcohol or substance abuse problems. The first approach often is to deny the problem until something happens – and that something is often very bad. Then the next approach is to get very punitive and demanding, and to set up elaborate monitoring procedures. That doesn’t work very well either. It sets a standard and a norm at least, which is a good thing. But it doesn’t directly address the roots of the conflict.

What happens in a conflict-friendly organization?

People deal with conflict openly, directly and forthrightly. They say, ‘We have a problem here; let’s just talk about it.’

One example was a large organization that had been through some very ferocious strikes. What had happened was not good for anybody, and prior to the next collective bargaining round, I was approached by both union and management to work with them.

I’ve done this a number of times. Without all the games people play in collective bargaining, I helped them find ways of saying in a safe, direct, unfettered way what they really thought about what had happened. We talked about how relationships were going, and cleared the air.

We also discussed how they were going to deal with the next round of bargaining, and what would happen when the necessary dynamics of bargaining made everyone feel pissed off at one another again. How were they going to deal with this? It made an enormous difference.

How does unresolved conflict drain an organization’s resources?

Avoiding conflict, not dealing with issues, and not creating an environment where conflict can be raised costs organizations billions of dollars a year.

The biggest pitfall is to avoid dealing with issues. A second big problem involves solving the wrong problem. It happens all the time. The worst is when people go through a whole strategic planning and restructuring and process to avoid dealing with a problem employee.

Many businesses go down the tubes. Why do most mergers and acquisitions fail? Not because the business plan was bad necessarily, but because people didn’t take into account all the different conflicts that inevitably arise when you take two different cultures and organizational styles and put them together.

The price of not creating a conflict-friendly environment is high.

Leveraging Your Learning Power

We spoke to an educational dream-team about best practices in facilitating learning – and harnessing new knowledge to help overcome an organization’s most pressing challenges. Sharing their views are Allyson Thomson of the Ontario Ministry of Finance; her executive sponsor Assistant Deputy Minister Marion Crane; and Queen’s IRC Facilitator Brenda Barker Scott.

Allyson Thompson, Senior Divisional Project Manager, Transition Project Office, Ontario Ministry of Finance in Oshawa.(Queen’s IRC Certificate in Organization Development; candidate for Queen’s IRC Master Certificate in Organizational Effectiveness.)

I’ve never run into barriers to applying new knowledge when I return to work. One reason is the Ministry involves staff in developing their learning plans with managers – so when I meet with my manager we identify learning opportunities that are of benefit to me and to the organization as part of that process.

Another is that I am so well-supported. I’m in a temporary role as Senior Divisional Project Manager of the Transition Project Office, working with a team of project managers and analysts to coordinate a major restructuring initiative within the Tax Revenue Division. Recently, my Assistant Deputy Minister, several key directors from the division, me, and Brenda Barker all met to talk about what kind of learning was of most use to me, to the division, and to the organization. This demonstrates the value the leaders of this division place on learning.

As part of my OD training at Queen’s IRC my practicum is to develop a cultural transformation strategy. This is necessary for my learning, and for the division. The ADM looked at it as a strategic investment, and provided time, support and money.

So it is not like sending someone on a one-off course and hoping they pick something up. The divisional leadership team did a really thoughtful and strategic review of organizational requirements, divisional requirements, and my personal development, and brought key stakeholders together to discuss it. That really clears the way for learning – and its application on the job.

Executive Sponsor Marion Crane, Assistant Deputy Minister, Tax Revenue Department, Ontario Ministry of Finance, Oshawa

The number one thing is to make the time to connect with the individual before and after a program. Allyson’s project impacts a whole division, and involves a huge cultural change. She emailed me to tell me about the Queen’s learning opportunity, and asked, ‘Can we setup a time to discuss this?’

I’m always glad when people follow up. It allows me to do something I am supportive of, which is to ensure the person has the opportunity to apply what they’ve learned. When Allyson followed up with me about this opportunity, I scheduled a meeting with her, along with key directors in the division, to discuss how the learning could be applied – to the benefit of Allyson, and also the Tax Revenue Division.

To ensure knowledge gets transferred, the organization has to value learning in the first place. This should be a no-brainer, but it isn’t the reality in all organizations.

Also, there’s a difference between management support – such as paying for a course – and active support, where you show that you know what the person is trying to do and demonstrate your intention to assist them.

When the person follows up it provides an opportunity to be actively supportive. Leaders want to be more supportive, but there is just so much time in a day. I think the onus has to be on the employee to make senior management aware of what he or she needs.

When Allyson’s project is finished, we will likely have her interviewed for the Divisional newsletter to share her learning with the 2,800 people in our division.

We have pockets of excellence in which there is an expectation that someone who goes for courses will present findings to learning team members. I encourage this, as you can’t send everyone on the educational program.”

Queen’s IRC Facilitator Brenda Barker Scott

The formula for best-practices learner support is three-fold. Number one, you need committed and enlightened leadership – leadership that sees education as an investment and leadership that enables learners to apply their new knowledge back at the workplace.

Then you need a learner who is ready, able and motivated to do the work.

The third element is a relevant business challenge for applying the learning. It’s got to be a challenge worthy of attention and not a make-work project.

When you have these three elements in place, committed leadership, a motivated learner and a real business challenge, then you have the conditions for real results.

We saw this with the example of the Ontario Ministry of Finance. It was time for Allyson to do her Consulting Skills practicum as part of her Queen’s Organization Effectiveness Master Certificate.

Marion called the senior leadership team together to get their ideas and agreement on the real business opportunity that Allyson might tackle with her practicum. And Allyson was a highly motivated learner – she sought out the program in the first place and approached Marion about it.

As well, Allyson had IRC’s support during her practicum, as we guide people through the process that we teach. So there’s always a coach a tour end to bounce ideas off of, both about content, and process.

Quite simply, it’s about tasking learners with real-life, high-leverage business challenges and then supporting and enabling them along the way. This is why people who come to our Master level programs will now be required to meet with their executive sponsor, identify an organizational challenge, and create an agreement before the program about how learning will be applied. Ideally, learners will meet with their sponsor upon their return to discuss the plan for applying knowledge.

As adults, we learn by doing. The more that we can apply new concepts and skills to meaningful work, the deeper our learning will be. For example, you can read books about tennis, or take lessons, but until you play the game you can’t reflect on what worked, what didn’t work and how you will adjust for the next time. Which is another benefit for learners who have a faculty member or in-house coach to work with: it gives them a person to help them reflect on what they learned and how they can apply it in future.

Building a Learning Organization

Françoise Morissette is an Queen’s IRC Facilitator, accredited coach, and Organizational Development consultant. In the following Q & A she discusses how executives who sponsor education for their employees can ensure that valuable knowledge actually gets applied in the workplace.

Do executive sponsors typically get good returns on their educational investments in employees?

A lot depends on the quality of the discussion between the participant and the manager who authorized the training. If the executive is clear about what he or she is trying to accomplish by sending the employee for professional development, and maintains a dialogue – debriefing the person upon his or her return to the workplace, and setting the scene for application and sharing of knowledge – chances are there’s going to be a good return on investment.

In contrast, if someone goes on a course and then no one ever talks about it, nothing much will happen. The quality of the dialogue between sponsor and employee is really the deciding factor.

What are the most common barriers employees face in applying and sharing new knowledge in their workplaces?

One is lack of a plan – no one has thought about the applications for the new knowledge, for example, and the person reverts back to the normal way of life without using what they’ve learned.

A second is a clash with the culture – someone comes back and has great ideas, but the environment is not receptive, or is even against these new ideas.

A third one is overwork. People are burdened; they come back, haven’t been in the office for a week, a crisis erupts, and that’s it – they never move forward with their learnings.

Of these three, the worst and most difficult to overcome is culture. It is almost impossible to deal with, unless the person becomes a missionary within the organization.

However, the other two are linked. The best defence against them is having a plan. That way there’s clarity around next steps for applying or sharing knowledge, and you will do better in dealing with the emergencies. Instead of being controlled by them, you’ll see them as a temporary nuisance along the path, but don’t send you away from your longer-term goal.

How can the sponsoring executive promote the transfer of knowledge from employee to workplace?

Sponsoring executives have three roles to play: to plan before the course; debrief after the course; and coach while the person applies and shares new information.

Can you talk in more detail about these roles, and the steps that need to be followed?

Good organizations have development strategies that pertain to different levels. They might ask first, ‘At the organizational level, what do our employees need to know?’

The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corp., for example, has a full set of leadership competencies it wants all its leaders to have, and as a result has created an organization-wide development strategy for these leaders. People journey through these developmental programs, which include training and other activities, the way you would go up a ladder. When organizations do this it really clarifies ‘What do we want our employees to know?’

Sometimes it is about the core business of the organization and what the competencies are, or other times it is about culture – ‘We want everyone to be change-friendly, so we’ll send everyone to a change program’ for example.

Organization is the first level, and then we have the department, and its specific needs. The purchasing department might want to provide customer service training, for example.

Then there is the individual, person A’s needs versus Person B’s. So perhaps the employee needs to improve at something, or has been thrown into a new role requiring new skills – an HR person moving into an OD role, for example.

In the ideal world, all three levels flow together in a spiral from organizational needs, in to departmental needs, and then individual needs.

Sponsoring managers and participants both need to be clear about what exactly is being pursued on each of these three levels. If you can link the time at Queen’s, for example, to the individuals’ needs, the department’s needs, and the organizational strategy, that’s one step toward getting a good return on the education investment.

So the first step is to link the education to the organizational, departmental and individual needs, and have clarity around this.

My advice is that executive sponsors and employees have discussions before the program to identify on the three levels, ‘What is it we are after?’

Then after the program, the second step is for the authorizing manager and participant to discuss what was learned, whether learning goals were met, how new knowledge can be applied to a particular situation or project, and how learning can be taken further – for example the participant might say ‘This was so good I suggest the whole HR department takes the course.’

The third step is moving into applications for learners, and also for colleagues and others to whom knowledge is to be transferred.

Here, ongoing coaching as the employee is applying the knowledge is needed. Agree on periodical check-ups and continue along that path until the project is complete. Then schedule another meeting to consider how well the learning was integrated, and future needs.

In addition, discussions on who else needs to share knowledge, and vehicles for doing so, are essential.

This need not be a complex process. A few simple steps before and after educational programs will ensure that learning really takes root.

How can sponsoring executives help employees apply new learning at work?

It is important that they draw a line from the training to a project the employee can work on in the organization. It is good to talk about this before the program, and again afterward. That’s because it is not always clear to the authorizing manager and employee what the applications ahead of time. Often, whatever they were thinking early on changes.

What can managers do to help employees share information?

Many organizations have Lunch and Learns, where people return from a course and are expected to share with colleagues. Or participants might write articles for the newsletter, Intranet or use other vehicles within the organization.

As well, some organizations have learning councils so people may share learning on an individual or strategic level. For example, I was recently involved in a project with a hospital, and they’d even struck up a partnership with a university. Often what happens with councils/forums is people start to realize that they need to align their approach to learning in the organization if they want to leverage it.

It is all about alignment, and that’s the overall role of the sponsoring executive: to make the link and ensure learning is aligned to organizational, departmental and individual needs – as well as specific applications in the workplace.

He’s Seen HR From All Sides

Paul Juniper has seen a lot of change in his 25 years in human resources leadership. We asked him why he likes HR, and where he sees the field – and Queen’s IRC – heading in the coming years.

Given your long experience in senior HR positions and as a very active association volunteer, you strike me as someone who is utterly comfortable in the HR practitioner world. What about this field appeals to you?

I’m a broad generalist, and I like the variety. I started out being a specialist in training – that’s how I got into HR. The company where I worked decided they wanted to merge the training function and what they then called ‘the personnel function.’ They were in different divisions, and they gave me the opportunity to put two areas together.

I like the breadth, the growth, and the changes I’ve seen in the past 25 years in HR have been exciting ones. I’ve never had any reason to leave the field. What’s most appealing to me is the strategic connection with the business – being able to help the business develop, or go in the direction it needs to go, by seeing the systemic connection with HR functions.

For example, if a company has low wages, that has certain implications for turnover. There will likely be high turnover, so you will need to train people and have a lot of orientation, meaning you are going to need more people in that area. So you may save on paying low wages, but you are going to have additional costs in other areas.

It is this ‘knee-bone is connected to the thigh-bone’ part that interests me: understanding how that’s connected, and articulating it to employees and to management.

HR folks are kept up at night by outsourcing, by feeling they are on the outside looking in, by fairly rapid changes to the profession. When all the dust settles, where do you see the people management practitioner sitting within the modern organization? What should be his or her mission?

I think it is right HR people are kept up by outsourcing – though many companies which did it in haste have regretted it at their leisure. If they did it to save money, often in the long run, they didn’t necessarily. The real issue for me with outsourcing is that it’s a low-value function and takes up time. So what’s the better value-add for the HR function? Do we want to spend our time doing admin and clerical information? Or do we want to spend our time adding to the value of the business?

Rapid changes are taking place in the profession, as described in studies from University of Michigan and the Society of Human Resources Management in the United States.*

There’s been lot of change in what’s expected of HR people. It used to be that we were asked to manage change; then we were asked to lead change; now we are being asked to design change. It is good for our profession that these things are happening. We used to be asked to do an employee satisfaction survey; now we are being asked if we can design a culture that fits with the direction the organization wants to go strategically. That’s quite a different set of skills and abilities that are needed to do what management is now asking us to do.

In terms of where people management practitioners should sit within the organization, I think there are opportunities for us to expand beyond our historic place. A lot of HR people are getting additional responsibilities as companies downsize and collapse functions and collapse levels. It is not uncommon for HR departments to manage payroll, where it might have been done by the finance department in the past. And I know of one HR VP who wanted to have control of internal communications because he felt it gave him the opportunity to influence the agenda of the corporation and the employees, and ensure HR got its position out.

It makes good sense to have the ability to influence the communications to employees. It is more than just doing an employee newsletter; it is about positioning the human assets of the organization in order to meet the needs of that organization, whether it is corporate, non-profit, or government.

What should be the mission of today’s HR practitioner?

This is subjective, my opinion only, because if you ask 10 different HR people you will get 10 different answers. There will be those who say we have to advocate for those who cannot advocate for themselves. Others will say it’s our role to make sure that the law is applied, that we have a judicial role; or that we have a fiduciary role around things like ethics, the board of directors’ role and responsibilities.

Then there will be those like me who would say that our role is to help the organization to fulfil its direction in an effective and efficient way; help the employees be all they can be while we are doing that; and hopefully, have some fun along the way. Ultimately, we spend more time at work than we do with our families. We should be able to respect and enjoy the people we work with, learn things from them.

What do you see as IRC’s role in preparing practitioners for future roles?

What’s unique about the IRC, and what I love about it, is the leading – edge work that’s done, the experiential approach to involving practitioners, the linking in with live research, and the connection between both the IR side and the organizational design and organizational effectiveness side.

That is unique, and no one else does it, especially not the way we do it. It gives HR practitioners the opportunity to try and experiment with new things in a safe environment, helps them form an immediate network of people doing the same thing. And as we go forward – watch for more on this later this year – we will develop an alumni group for people who have graduated from our programs, which will strengthen that networking link.

The IRC is a storied and well-established unit, celebrating its 70th anniversary in 2007. In your wildest dreams, how do you see the IRC looking in five years?

I think we will see additional programming in IR at the senior level. We definitely have a pool of people who have completed our programs who are asking us on a regular basis for more programming, so that will happen.

We want to be offering existing programs in more places, giving greater numbers of professionals the opportunity to experience Queen’s IRC programs. And we’re looking at providing more public offerings. A large part of our business has always been providing custom programs on-demand, so we’ll travel across the country when necessary and where necessary.

What the IRC can be is a catalyst in some of the smaller communities for learning communities to start up. So in smaller communities where there may not be a university providing this kind of learning, we can facilitate bringing programs to them.

So what do I think the IRC will look like in five years? We’ll be on the ground in more places, we’ll be more flexible, faster to respond perhaps, and we will have some interesting new programs already released. I think that our programs in Regina are a great example of what I mean.


Brockbank, Wayne and Dave Ulrich. 2003. Competencies for the new HR. Washington, DC: University of Michigan Business School, Society for Human Resource Management, and Global Consulting Alliance.

Society for Human Resource Management. 2004. The maturing profession of human resources worldwide. Summary report for Canada. Alexandria, VA: Society for Human Resource Management.

Follow These Leaders

As part of their research on leadership development, Queen’s IRC Facilitator Françoise Morissette (FM) and fellow consultant Amal Henein (AH) have interviewed 200 leaders from across Canada: executives, entrepreneurs, politicians, civil servants, fundraisers, activists, artists, journalists, athletes, coaches. While their book, Leadership Development, Maple Leaf Style, is slated for publication in 2006, they gave us an early view of some findings to date.

Your research focuses on what leaders do as opposed to who leaders are: you judge the outcome rather than a set of character traits.

AH: Getting results is of prime importance: that is the ultimate measure of leadership. If leaders don’t accomplish what they set out to do, people will not follow them for long. You can have leadership charisma galore, but if you don’t have followers you’re not a leader. Sometimes leaders get caught up in chasing a vision and when they look around, they need binoculars to see their followers because they have lost touch.

What are some of your findings?

FM: One of the most interesting finding is that only one-third of interviewees feel they were “born to lead” and have an innate interest or ability in leadership. By contrast, two-thirds claim that leadership was” thrust upon them”. Typically, they say, “I never wanted or set out to be a leader. I had to take on a leadership role because nobody else would do it,” or “I deeply believed in a cause,” or “I really wanted to help.”

This breakdown has profound implications on how we view leadership and its development. It certainly flies in the face of the old adage that “leaders are born, not made.” Instead of focusing on how to identify “born” leaders – which is easy enough to do – the question becomes: how do we create conditions so that more people will take on leadership roles? If the majority of people do not initially see themselves as leaders, then development is key: “Nurture” primes over “Nature”.

AH: Moreover, even the innate leaders stress the importance of development, which enables them to grow in skill and confidence and enhances their ability to adapt to a variety of situations. Both the “accidental” and the “born” leaders agree that leadership development is essentially an organic process. Although a certain amount of planning and goal setting exists, being alert to opportunities and seizing them is paramount because stretching out of one’s comfort zone promotes growth like nothing else.

At what point in their lives did your leaders actually see themselves that way? Did some leaders self-identify as young people?

FM: The innate leaders experience it a very young age. The accidental leaders are surprised when the call comes. They have to reach out and significantly alter their self-concept in order to lead.

AH: Both types agree, however, that influences encountered at a young age from role models are extremely significant. Also significant are the filters through which leadership is first learned: sports, arts, school, community, family. For instance, those who experience leadership through sports, share a similar mindset: teamwork, discipline, fair competition, working things out, striving for excellence. Those who encounter it through community work also share a similar mindset: values, ideals, service, compassion, a quest for justice.

Among the many leaders you interviewed, are there common themes regarding how leaders are developed? Specifically how important is formal leadership training versus informal mentorship or instinctive reaction to what life throws at you?

FM: Interviewees consistently reinforce what we call “the triangle of development”: people, environment, and experience. With regards to “people”, interviewees speak in glowing, affectionate, and grateful terms about their mentors. Most can recall with great precision a teacher in public school who helped them 30 years ago. Mentors continue to influence their protégés long after they have disappeared from their lives. We have concluded that proper mentoring is the greatest gift to developing leaders and a very potent enabler. We haven’t found anything that comes close to the strong and positive emotions generated by effective mentoring.

AH: Secondly, leaders stress the importance of challenging experiences for they are the crucible through which development occurs. Interviewees emphasize the benefits of a proactive approach and the need to seek out developmental opportunities. For instance, a CEO mentioned that he started raising cattle as a hobby because he didn’t know anything about it and it certainly would push his boundaries. Assessing risk is also central. Respondents’ wisdom is: as much risk as you can bear. The more startling and challenging, the better!

FM: Thirdly, interviewees speak highly of the value of “supportive” environments. These are places where leadership is valued, conscious efforts are made to build leaders, and opportunities abound. Several types of environments are conducive: Pioneering, such as entrepreneurial or fast growth where there is room to manoeuvre; artistic, where one can exercise creativity and create meaning, and at risk or challenging, where there is a lot of pressure. What doesn’t work are narrow, stifling environments where the human spirit is crushed.

Can you offer examples of Canadian organizations that do “leadership development” well? What makes them effective?

AH: Successful programs share common characteristics. They generally include application/practice components, the more relevant to day-to-day life the better. For instance, a West coast organization asks leadership program graduates to solve real business problems. Their solutions are then reviewed by executives and many are adopted. They include “awareness building” components such as psychometric assessments or 360-degree feedback tools. They constantly analyze the needs of their constituents to meet organization’s goals and fit corporate culture. And they cater to the needs of leaders at different levels (supervisors, managers, and executives).

FM: There are a few other characteristics of strong leadership development programmes. They are backed up by leadership development infrastructures such as forums where leaders can exchange, mentorship programs, apprenticeships, special projects. They involve senior leaders as program presenters or facilitators and as mentors to graduates. They explicitly teach organizational values and leadership perspective. They identify and support high potentials instead of trying to “fix” poor performers. And they measure leadership effectiveness.

You make a great effort to put a Canadian stamp on your research. Are there in fact certain leadership styles that can be considered Canadian and are there differences across the country?

AH: For the most part, interviewees think there is a distinct Canadian style. Many respondents contrast the Canadian and American leadership styles. They say Canadian leaders are less aggressive, more socially minded, and less driven by the bottom line.

FM: Other respondents describe the Canadian leadership style on its own merits. They use terms such as: steady, reliable, fair, professional, tolerant, service oriented, and focused on harmony. It’s an understated, collaborative style and it delivers the goods. It is prized on the international scene where a disproportionate number of Canadians lead world-wide organizations.

AH: Here’s an example. A Canadian leader abroad told senior executives that he would close their special dining room and that they would eat in the staff cafeteria. This simple gesture was a powerful symbol of the direction he envisioned for the new corporate culture.

FM: In our country, role models are not necessarily known outside of their field of endeavour or region. People are looking for national role models, particularly women and minorities of every kind. Many good things are happening in leadership development, but Canadians are not necessarily aware of them. As a nation, we can all benefit from each other’s experience in this field. Respondents feel that the inception of national institutions to foster research, sharing, and education would be extremely useful. We hope our research will inspire individuals, organizations, and all levels of government to take steps to enhance our Canadian leadership “bench strength.”

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