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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Ghomeshi Comes to Queen's Park: Harassment, HR and Leading By Example

Premier Kathleen Wynne is a woman of unquestionable integrity.  She's a strong leader in every sense of the word - she's mission-focused, but understands the importance of morale.  She's empathic, a strong communicator and a natural facilitator.
Ask anyone who works (or has worked) with her - Premier Wynne creates strong workplace cultures that empower employees to do well and find fulfilment in their work.  The why behind this is easy - Wynne realizes people aren't office infrastructure; they're the architects for her and her party's success.
Such is not the case for all employers, at Queen's Park or otherwise.  All too often, staff are viewed as tools, not individuals.  Workplace culture is not seen as a consideration, any more than you might care about how much dust collects on your computer; you can always get another one.
This heavy-handed, boss-centred approach to HR has proven to have a negative impact on bottom lines, on productivity, on innovation; demoralized staff aren't scared into doing better work, they're instead focused on not messing up or redirecting blame. 
Which, of course, is a self-fulfilling prophecy; when tough bosses practice the mantra "we are smart, they are dumb" - they in reference to staff - talent isn't nurtured, it's suppressed.  Those who rise to the top may be good at what they do, but it's the ability to curry favour with the boss that determines career growth.
But is a business - especially when it's government - supposed to be structured in a way that places ultimate power in the hands of bosses who, often as not, don't know and don't care about professional HR practices or basic leadership skills?  Do we want workplace cultures where it's the ability to curry favour with bosses that determines success, especially in light of the emerging conversation around bosses that abuse their positions of power in relation to their staff?
What are the consequences of poor leadership and a lack of training for employees and employers on morale, productivity, innovation and that other emerging biggie, mental wellness?
So it's interesting to hear Premier Wynne discuss harassment and HR concerns within her party.
The Liberal Caucus Service Bureau (Leg-funded internal support organization for the Ontario Liberal Party) has a Policy for a Harassment/Violence-Free Workplace that is to be made available to all employers and staff and posted in prominent locations in each workspace.  This document is intended to serve as a framework to prevent the sorts of entitled boss behaviour that can happen in situations where accountabilities aren't clear, training isn't provided and power imbalance is prominent.
Some highlights from this policy:
Members of the Ontario Liberal Caucus (“Member(s)”) are committed to providing a work environment which is conducive to both positive morale and productivity - a work environment free of harassment and violence to both women and men.  Behaviour, comments, or display of materials that could reasonably be perceived to be offensive, humiliating or demeaning are not acceptable in the workplace. 
-- one would assume the whip that is, for historical reasons, displayed on the wall of the Whip's office is an exception to this "display of materials" rule.  In fact, the very notion of a Whip is contrary to the intention of this policy and empowered workforces in general, but the outdated conventions of our centuries-old model Westminster Parliamentary system is a whole other topic.
Members, as employers, have an important role to play in promoting awareness and setting standards.  Harassment, in any form, undermines an employee’s work performance and the goals of the office.  All concerns of harassment will be taken seriously and handled in a professional, impartial and confidential manner in accordance with the provisions set out in this Policy. 
-- In other words, it's the responsibility of Members to lead by example when it comes to a harassment-free and empowering work culture.  The corporate structure at Queen's Park is a somewhat unique one, where MPP staff are the employees of Members, paid by the Legislature, but are equally answerable to their political party, who has no legal authority over said staff, but again, politics isn't a "normal" working environment.
It might seem counter-intuitive to have those with the most power and freedom to exercise it be responsible for self-regulation and empowering of staff to question their authority, but there's an answer to that, too.
Under the Liberal policy, it's not the party's HR person (paid through the Legislature) that is responsible for addressing harassment issues, but the party Whip, who is another elected official and therefore a peer to Members..  As such, it's to the Whip (or designate), a party-determined role, who is responsible for ensuring MPPs and staff are familiar with the contents of the policy and administering it when issues of harassment arise:
1) Responsibilities of the Whip 
The Whip is responsible for informing the Members and employees of the Policy and its contents.  Where employees bring forward concerns of harassment against Members, the Whip will take immediate and appropriate action as follows: 

a) respond promptly to all enquiries regarding harassment concerns involving Members; 
b) advise the Member that a concern of harassment has been brought forward against him or her; 
c) provide assistance, clarification and guidance with respect to situations involving harassment; 
d) work with all parties involved to try to resolve the situation fairly, and in a manner that preserves the dignity of the parties concerned; 
e) resolve situations of harassment through dispute resolution methods, in a non-adversarial, rehabilitative manner, and take the necessary steps to achieve a resolution.  If the Whip determines that an investigation is necessary, the investigation will be handled promptly in an impartial and confidential manner with due respect for the rights of the parties concerned
One would assume there is an internal training session for all Members and new staff that makes the contents and intent of this policy clear so that there is no confusion about responsibilities and processes that lead to resolution.
Key to this process, as we are learning through #ghomeshi, are the great obstacles employees can face in bringing forward allegations of harassment.  In politics, Members are all-powerful; they are the elected voice of the people, after all.  If they answer to anyone, it's the Premier and designated party officials who, naturally, are tasked with winning elections, not fostering strong workplace cultures.  It's just the nature of the beast.
It can be career suicide to bring forward allegations against an abusive boss, whether the abuse is sexual harassment, aggressive behaviour, passive-aggressive behaviour, etc.  Much as we have seen through #ghomeshi, under circumstances like this staff will often "suck it up", complain about bad bosses with other staff and suffer silently with the consequences of poor leadership. 
Or, they will raise concerns and be marginalized or discover that they have "burned bridges" by trying to defend themselves, and end up unemployed and shut out. 
This sort of toxic environment can lead to accrued depression and anxiety, kill workplace morale and ultimately result in poor functionality, which leads to unhappy constituents, poor decisions made, etc.  There's a reason why occupational mental health is becoming a thing these days.
To avoid unjust consequences to what would essentially be whistleblowers, the Liberals have included a NO REPRISAL clause in their policy:
a) Employees who bring forward harassment concerns shall not be subjected to any form of reprisal. 
b) For the purposes fop this policy, retaliation against an individual i) for making a complaint under this policy (whether on behalf of oneself or another individual); or ii) for having participated or co-operated in any investigation under this policy; or iii) for having been associated with a person who has made a complaint under this policy or participated in these procedures, will be treated as harassment
So, there would be no tolerance for cultures of fear within the liberal family at Queen's Park.  No person of authority would ever say something like "He's never going to change, you're a malleable person, let's talk about how you can make this a less toxic work environment for you" to staff who bring forward concerns about abusive employers.
Staff would never be re-victimized for bringing forward concerns; that would go directly against the beliefs of the party and the content of their policy.  Moving forward together, after all, doesn't involve dumping those who raise valid concerns by the wayside, or publicly shaming them, etc.
As harassment without definitions is largely in the eye of the beholder, it helps to provide some clarification on what, exactly, constitutes harassment in this context.  Again, the Liberal's harassment policy provides a framework to help Members and staff alike, when they're trained on the contents of the policy, to know what to look for:
To assist in ensuring that our workplace is harassment-free, the following are examples of harassment.  Please note that this is not a complete list and that each situation will have to be considered individually. 

- Jokes causing embarrassment or offence, told or carried out after the joker has been advised that they are embarrassing or offensive or that they are by nature clearly embarrassing or offensive
Example: Telling sexually explicit jokes or suggestive stories may be offensive to some and not to others.  They can have the effect of making someone feel uncomfortable and interfere with their ability to participate in work-related group activities. 
- The display of offensive material
Example: Posters placed on the office bulletin board depicting members of a particular racial minority group in a derogatory manner.  Even though an employee belonging to that racial minority group complains, the Manager says there is nothing he/she can do 
- Verbal and physical abuse or threats
Example: a supervisor constantly asks a subordinate out and is continually rebuffed.  The supervisor subsequently begins to criticize the subordinate’s work in front of co-workers and eventually threatens to fire the employee. 
- Degrading or derogatory remarks
Example: A developmentally disabled employee is called names such as “dummy” by co-workers.  
Not an exhaustive list, but a helpful starting point and again this policy, which is to be provided to all MPPs and staff and posted in prominent locations, gives some guidance on what constitutes harassment and where to go for furtuer clarification in less-clear circumstances.
I would assume that party HR is fully aware of this process and actively re-directs concerns raised to the party Whip/Whip's designate, who will be fully trained on how to mediate with empathy and an eye towards resolution for all parties.
Hopefully, they will borrow from the approach recently taken by federal Liberal leader Justin Trudeau:
Kathleen Wynne is the best kind of leader - one who recognizes that the people she leads are the architects of her vision, not infrastructure for her success.  She is a skilled facilitator who genuinely cares about people and their well-being.  She understands the importance of morale, empowering workplace culture and respecting the dignity of the people on the front lines.
A big part of why people don't trust politicians and feel their policy decisions aren't in the public's interest is because of our perception of internal political culture as corrupt, self-serving, feudal in nature.  Abuse of the public purse, abuse of position and abuse of human resources go hand-in-hand.
As #ghomeshi is forcing us to discuss such uncomfortable matters publicly, we're admitting publicly that this isn't something unique to politics - in all sectors, labour is done in a top-down, hierarchical way that empowers the aggressive, cunning and sales-oriented folk who also tend to be the ones most likely to abuse power in aggressive, cunning and team-harassing ways.
I think it would be great for the Liberals to provide a bit of inside-the-sausage Open Government of labour for the public on how they conduct their internal HR practices, especially as it comes to harassment/sensitivity training for MPPs and staff. 
It would set the right tone in a proactive fashion, provide some best-practices for others to learn from and make it clear that unlike some other employers out there, they have nothing to hide.
'Cause if there's one thing Premier Wynne excels at, it's leading by example.  We desperately need more of that kind of example right now.

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