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Lack of respect carries high toll for employers, workers – and society

Racism, worker anxiety and probationary periods highlight importance of treating people right
Racism, worker unrest, probationary periods
Fort Garry Hotel in Winnipeg. CREDIT: Google Street View

By Todd Humber

There’s a theme to the stories we're working on for the cover of the March 20 issue of Canadian HR Reporter, and it all boils down to one word: Respect.

As employers, we need to give it in spades to our staff. As businesses, we need to ensure our customers receive it and return the favour — not just to the employees serving them, but to all the other customers in the building as well. Not to tar everyone with the same brush, but we seem to be heading down a road where respect for individuals is getting murky or downright disappearing.

Ugly is the only word that can describe what happened at the Fort Garry Hotel in Winnipeg, when lawyer Priti Shah was allegedly told to “go back to your country” by another customer.

While news editor Marcel Vander Wier couldn’t confirm the exact details of what happened for his article — and there are always two sides — it does raise the issue of how employees, both front-line and management, need to react when customer conflict erupts.

This isn’t a pithy conversation. In February, three people were shot at a restaurant in Kansas by a man who allegedly yelled “Get of my country.”

Customers were watching a basketball game when a man started yelling racial slurs at Srinivas Kuchibhotla and Alok Madasani, both 32-year-old engineers originally from India who worked for Garmin, the technology firm best known for GPS devices.

Customers and staff stepped in and asked the perpetrator, 51-year-old Adam Purinton, to leave. He did — but then allegedly returned and opened fire, killing Kuchibhotla, injuring Madasani along with Ian Grillot, a 24-year-old Good Samaritan who tried to intervene.

Purinton then drove to an Appleby’s restaurant 130 kilometres away where he told the bartender he had shot and killed some “Iranians.”

Think this is only a Trump-era American problem? One needs look no further than Quebec City and the mass shooting at a mosque that killed six and wounded 19 others.

Alan Dutton, nation director of the Canadian Anti-racism Education and Research Society in Vancouver, told Canadian HR Reporter that recent rhetoric had emboldened hate-mongers. The society’s website has seen a spike in complaints about racism to the point where they can’t handle the number, he said.

This is all spilling over into your workplaces — among your employees, and among your customers. HR needs to take charge and ensure formal conflict management policies are in place. Don’t beat yourself up over not having one yet — many firms don’t. They’re not a cure all, but can go a long way in preventing an incident from escalating into unfortunate or violent situations.

Worker anxiety over unsecure work

The second bullet point from the March 20th issue is Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s call for real action on the changing economy and the toll it is taking on workers.

He chided an era that sees companies making record profits while at the same time refusing to create full-time jobs, relying instead on a contingent workforce to push balance sheets even higher into the black.

Mallika Banerjee, an academic at Montreal’s McGill University, argues that employee uncertainty has given rise to the populist movements we saw sweep across Great Britain (see Brexit) and the United States (see Donald Trump.) If you’re not sure where your next paycheque is coming from, if you can’t land secure employment, it’s not out of the realm to think protectionist sentiments could come to the forefront: “If I can’t get a job, if my kids can’t find work, why are we letting anyone else in?”

We know employers aren’t generally altruistic, nor should we expect them to be — corporations exist to make a profit. What we have to show, and we have the numbers and metrics to do it, is that the best long term strategy is to hire, retain and train the best workers. In short, respect your workforce and you’ll be rewarded in spades. It’s HR 101 to people in the know, but there’s still a lot of education to be done.

Probationary periods

The third cover story looks at probationary periods for new hires in the light of a recent court ruling in British Columbia. A worker on a six-month probation, let go after two months, was awarded three months’ pay.

The average HR professional – or person on the street for that matter – would find that to be a bit of a head scratcher. Isn’t the entire point of a probationary period so that employers can evaluate the worker and turn them loose if it doesn’t work out?

Apparently, courts don’t see it that way. And their logic is pretty sound. If you’re taking a worker’s right to notice of termination away, you’re introducing an obligation to ensure the company acted in good faith in evaluating her suitability for the job. And if the contract doesn’t specify a notice period if dismissal happens during probation – and most don’t – then it’s up to the judge to sort it out.

So it begs the question: Why do employers bother? And the answer is simple: They shouldn’t.

Instead, use an enforceable employment contract with defined notice periods that adhere to employment standards legislation. It’s cleaner. Plus, you’ve done your due diligence in the hiring process and this new worker has made a commitment to the organization — why spoil all that with a potentially unenforceable clause?

There are few sacred cows in this world, and the probationary period isn’t one of them. Fire it, for cause, without notice.

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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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