Queen’s IRC sat down with Anne Grant, the facilitator for our new Workplace Restoration program, to find out more about the topic and the program. In the interview, Anne shares her experience in workplace restorations, including the surprises she’s had along the way. She gives some insight into what makes workplaces toxic and how this program will help organizations that are experiencing disruptions like prolonged conflicts, increased harassment or grievance claims, leadership issues, strikes, investigations or significant organizational changes.
What kind of problems do organizations have that would require a workplace restoration?
A workplace restoration might be needed after a polarizing event like a big investigation. It might be a merger or a strike. It might be difficulties with management. It might be a group of rogue employees causing problems. Often after a strike or lockout, a few rogues, union or management, can keep the conflict alive.
One of the things that I’ve really seen over the last ten to fifteen years is a need to address the conduct in the workplace. In general, it’s because people are getting into bad habits and engaging in behaviours that are not acceptable in this day and age, as we’re seeing in the media right now. People get sloppy, they engage in a lot of things that they shouldn’t, and people put up with it for a long time.
I heard of a workplace that was becoming increasingly dysfunctional and toxic, and so they decided to cancel the Christmas party. I thought, you can’t do that. You can’t just wait until November and say, “By the way, we’re not having a Christmas party.” At another place, they used to let the staff go a little earlier on the last Friday before Christmas. The new manager said, “No, that’s ridiculous. You have to stay until 4:30.” These were the kinds of things that were the last straw, completely breaking down the morale in these workplaces.
How do you restore a workplace after a polarizing event?
It’s about looking for commonality, and that’s what I tend to focus on. What is your ideal working relationship? What is your ideal work environment? What are the components of an ideal workplace for you? And then, how do we implement that? Nine times out of 10 everybody has, pretty much, the same idea of the type of workplace they want.
Let me give you an example of a school board. They had a huge strike that went on for months. I was asked to come in and do a restoration between the union and management – it was a multi-stage process. It started with the school board and the executive of the teachers’ union, and then it went to a larger forum with all of the grievance officers, the managers, the principals and so on of the school board.
What was really interesting with the school board was something that I did not see coming at all. It was a Catholic school board. I met with the union, and they told me all sorts of horrible things about management. Then I met with management, and they told me all sorts of horrible things about the union. The next day I was supposed to meet with them jointly to talk about what my assessment was and what the plan was to go forward. Before the joint session the head union guy said to me, “Are you going to do the prayer, do you want me to do it, or would you prefer the superintendent to do it?” My jaw was on the ground going, “What?” These adversaries open and close with a prayer, and I thought … okay, let’s back up here. If you guys can open and close with a prayer, we can find a way forward together in a pleasant way. We had to find and recognize that commonality before we could move forward.
What makes a workplace toxic?
In my view, a toxic or poisoned workplace is one where the dysfunction of the people within the work group negatively affects interpersonal interaction and productivity. One of the things that Peter Edwards talks about in his book is how there are different types of people in a workplace. There are the positive leaders – they come in and they’re keen, and they want to do extra stuff. Sometimes you want to slap them because they’re so perky! Then you have the rogues, the negative leaders, who are perpetually negative and stirring the pot. In the average workplace, there are 5% on either side, book ending, positive and negative. You have the 70% in the middle, who are neutral and essentially just come to work and do their job. Then some that fill in the gaps.
In a toxic workplace, what happens is more and more of the neutrals start to go over to the dark side, because there’s no enforcement of the rules. They engage in excessive chitchat, including malicious gossip, sometimes because they aren’t getting information in a proper manner and they don’t know what’s going on. There’s a huge amount of uncertainty so they start cutting corners. They stop doing any extra. They stop caring.
Our positive leaders and positive followers don’t usually go over to the dark side, but they become apathetic. They start to leave. Sometimes there can be a mass exodus. Suddenly everybody retires; they can’t get new people to come in because the reputation of the department or organization is terrible.
In a healthcare organization I worked with, the leadership was perceived to be playing favourites, but a big part of what was going on there was that it was a very highly regulated industry. They implemented a very vigorous risk management protocol so that if there was an error, there were reams of paperwork that had to be completed. A lot of individuals saw that as punitive, but in fact, people weren’t being punished or disciplined. The problem was that the organization wasn’t being clear and wasn’t communicating the reasons behind the protocols. This lack of communication enabled a larger than normal group of negative leaders or rogues. When the managers didn’t handle the rogues, they ended up with a very unhappy group of employees overall.
What is the most surprising part of the workplace restoration process for you?
People are often shocked when I do my assessments, because I start by asking people what they like about their workplace. Most of the time I get a vast majority of responses, if not 100%, that have really positive things to say about the workplace and really positive things to say about their colleagues.
I remember working with a group a few years ago in a fairly intense work environment, a 24/7 operation. Word on the street was the manager was crap. The manager was not doing their job. The manager was terrible. In that particular case, I was jointly retained by union and management. One of the things that I’ve learned along the way is that you really need to check in with the actual troops on the ground. I interviewed 50 staff, and 48 of them had no issues with the manager. However, two staff absolutely hated the manager’s guts. These two were absolutely vitriolic about the manager. These employees were very skilled and respected members of the team, but for whatever reason, they did not get along with their manager.
As part of the restoration process, I met with two groups of 25 employees to reveal the findings of the interviews. I told the group, “You’re going to note in my slides that there are no management issues, and that is because 96% of you stated you had no issues with the management of this team.” Suddenly, the whole room is looking around going, “Wow. That’s interesting.” The group recognized there were a couple of loud mouths, who are very powerful and persuasive leaders, stirring things up, but they didn’t know how to handle them. There were other issues in this organization, but there was a complete disconnect about what the actual source of the problem was. A huge part of restoring that workplace was acknowledging and jointly working on solutions for the real problems, as well as shutting down the malicious gossip about the manager.
What do you think the most important step in a workplace restoration is?
If I was going to choose the most important part, I think it’s developing and communicating clearly the terms of reference for the process right up front, because you’re going to keep falling back on that when you do the plan, when you do the implementation, and when you do the evaluation. People have to know what you are going to do because typically they have lost the ability to trust.
Why is Queen’s IRC introducing a Workplace Restoration training program?
Queen’s IRC offers a course called Mastering Fact-Finding and Investigation, and we heard the feedback that people need to know what to do after the investigation is over, to help repair the damage done by a strike or merger or investigation. Additionally, IRC participants were asking detailed questions about how to restore and rebuild workplace relationships where there has been a history of bullying or sub-standard behaviour. So in addition to adding a module to the Mastering Fact-Finding and Investigation program on this topic, Queen’s IRC decided to introduce a 3-day Workplace Restoration course to delve more deeply into this process.
There’s lots of courses out there that just give you the assessment part. That’s a component, but it’s not the whole thing. This course will teach people the whole process – from the assessment, to making and implementing a plan, to the evaluation. (Read more about the 4 Steps to Fix a Toxic Workplace.)
What will people learn in the Queen’s IRC Workplace Restoration program?
They will feel prepared to recognize and define some symptoms of a toxic workplace. They will be equipped to conduct an assessment to understand more clearly what the real problems are in the workplace. They will have tools and techniques to plan and implement the restoration plan, and they will also have some guidance as to how to go about evaluating it after the fact.
I’m a total believer in the Queen’s IRC approach, which is: teach it, do it, teach it, do it, teach it, do it. Participants will create terms of reference in a simulation based on current workplace problems. They’ll conduct some interviews. Then they’ll get a series of surveys, and, in groups, they all assess a workplace based on the information they got from me in the simulation. Program participants will create a plan, write a report and compile recommendations to address the issues in the simulation. Finally, they will learn how to go back and evaluate the process to ensure on-going mutual respect in the workplace.
Who should attend the Workplace Restoration program? How will it be useful to different people?
The ideal audience for this program includes anyone who has a leadership role in the workplace – that could be formal leadership roles, HR professionals, union executives, stewards, and so on, but it also could be technical leaders, clinical leaders or organizational development professionals.
Workplace restoration is about partnering with your union and collaboration between managers and employees to create the workplace that everyone really needs.
Different groups are going to have different levels of issues. This program is going to give them the awareness of the things they should be looking for so they’re finding the symptoms up front. How do we recognize this ripple before it becomes a tidal wave? I think part of it is people don’t know where to start.
A section of this course is going to be talking about what kind of questions to ask and how to do an assessment, but a big part of it is, what do we do with the information? How do we reengage the staff? How do we bring them back to a joint vision of what the workplace should be?
They will learn how to do an assessment, including some ideas around different kinds of terms of reference for these processes, whether they retain somebody, or whether they do it in house. They will learn how to tailor it to their context, to their workplace, and how to customize this approach to their specific issue. They will learn not only how to gather the information, but how to analyze it. It may be that they already have a lot of this information. So what are we going to do with it?
In closing, what do you like about the workplace restoration process?
I really, really like doing this work. This work is very satisfying, because what I have found is the vast majority of people want to do the right thing. I think that our job, as Labour Relations professionals, is to make it easy for them to do the right thing. Studies have shown that people want to come to work. They want it to be a bit friendly. They want it to be a bit relaxed. They want to do a good job. This applies to senior staff and millennials and everyone in between. They want to feel like they’re really contributing something. I think that’s what this process is tapping into.
About Anne Grant
Anne Grant has practised as a full time mediator and conflict resolution professional since 1994. Anne’s dispute resolution practice includes extensive mediation of labour and civil disputes. She specializes in the assessment and restoration of poisoned work environments as well as conducting a range of workplace investigations. Currently she is the lead facilitator for the Queen’s IRC Labour Relations Foundations, Mastering Fact-Finding and Investigation, and Workplace Restoration programs, and Past President of the ADR Institute of Ontario. Anne has far-reaching experience handling toxic workplaces in the public and private sector. She provides strategies to address dysfunction at the individual, team and departmental level. Her experience includes extensive mediation of civil and labour disputes, as well as facilitation, poisoned work environment interventions and human rights investigations.
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