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Corporate world needs more Canada

Be cynical if you wish, but recent moves by RBC, Loblaw and SNC-Lavalin are worth applauding

By Todd Humber

I’m not a massive fan of U2, but I did get a kick out of Bono saying “the world needs more Canada” back in 2003.

I can tend to be a bit of a flag waver when it comes to all things red and white, but some course corrections recently by some of the biggest names in corporate Canada show that, indeed, the world could use a bit more of us. Especially the corporate world.

By cynical if you wish. RBC, Loblaw and SNC-Lavalin have been in the news for all the wrong reasons in recent months.

RBC outsourced work to a firm using temporary foreign workers.

The factory collapse in Bangladesh killed more than 1,100 workers who made clothing for Joe Fresh, part of the Loblaw family.

SNC-Lavalin has been plagued by bribe and corruption scandals, and some of its top executives have been arrested.

In the wake of these events, each of the companies involved made a significant course correction. True, the cynic could easily say they also did so because of massive media exposure and legal pressure. (And let’s take a moment and tip our hats to the media. As a journalist, that may sound like I’m being self-serving — but what a critical role a free and independent press plays in the world.)

Let’s look briefly at what happened, and the reaction by these firms.

Joe Fresh steps up

The collapse of the factory in Bangladesh is a difficult tragedy to fathom by Canadian occupational health and safety standards. In a country where we say one death is too many, what’s to make of 1,129 workers killed?

Joe Fresh, Loblaw’s popular clothing chain, was one of the companies that had goods manufactured at the factory. When photos emerged of clothing bearing the Joe Fresh label in the rubble, the company was thrust into the spotlight and received plenty of negative press — including barbs from this corner.

But Loblaw chair Galen Weston didn’t shy from the spotlight. He stepped into it and owned his company’s role in the tragedy. But he was a lonely figure, especially in the early days.

“I’m very troubled,” he told the CBC. “I’m troubled by the deafening silence from other apparel retailers on this. Thirty companies were having goods manufactured, but only two have come forward to speak publicly.”

Other retailers have since come forward, but it was Weston who led the charge up the hill. Loblaw is far from blameless, but his leadership and actions were appropriate and much needed in the days after the tragedy.

RBC changes course

Back in April, a report surfaced on a move by RBC to outsource jobs to a supplier that was employing workers brought in to Canada under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP).

The story made a huge splash in the media, and got people across the country talking about the Royal Bank in a very negative light, with talks of a boycott gaining ground. It thrust the bank’s head of HR, Zabeen Hirji, into the spotlight and led to a remarkable apology from Gordon Nixon, the bank’s CEO, published in full-page ads in newspapers across the country.

The bank easily could have stopped there. The public tends to have a short memory, after all  — but RBC took it a step further, introducing a supplier code of conduct.

Among other things, the code states that suppliers must:

• adhere to human rights, labour and employment standards legislation

• treat their employees fairly and with respect, including respect for diversity

• not hire foreign workers from outside of Canada, when performing services on behalf of RBC, where a worker eligible to work in Canada is available to perform their service.

SNC-Lavalin wants whistleblowers

Whistleblowing, at many organizations, is a dirty word — but it shouldn’t be. I’ve argued before that it should be embraced and encouraged because it can save companies untold embarrassment and bottom-line pain.

Hard to imagine a firm that needs whistleblowers more than SNC-Lavalin. No organization wants images of RCMP officers raiding its offices in the papers and on the evening news or to see arrests of top executives.

But, as with RBC and Loblaw, the problem isn’t being swept under the rug. Earlier this week, it announced a company-wide amnesty program to encourage employees to report potential corruption and anti-competition matters.

Andreas Pohlmann, the company’s chief compliance officer, said amnesty programs are known to be highly effective.

“While the vast majority of SNC-Lavalin’s employees will have nothing to report, this offer of amnesty will allow us to uncover and quickly deal with any remaining issues,” he said. “Our goal is to turn the page on a challenging chapter in the company’s history, so we can focus all of our attention on creating value for our stakeholders.”

The true north

We all know Canada isn’t perfect. Far from it. But it’s telling that when scandals hit, leaders at RBC, Loblaw and, to a lesser extent SNC-Lavalin, stepped up in a way that few leaders at foreign firms have done.

This kind of leadership and character was severely lacking during the massive credit crisis south of the border in 2009. The moves by these Canadian corporate titans are probably frowned upon on Wall Street, and perhaps to a certain extent on Bay Street.

These firms will get no credit in the eyes of many. They made their own beds, after all. But plenty of organizations have made their beds with questionable behaviour — it seems to be a uniquely Canadian concept to actually lay in them.

Todd Humber is the managing editor of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. He can be reached at todd.humber@thomsonreuters.com or visit www.hrreporter.com for more information. 

© Copyright Canadian HR Reporter, Thomson Reuters Canada Limited. All rights reserved.

Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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