Take the starfish approach

Small initiatives lead to true systemic change (Analysis)
By Robert Canuel
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 10/25/2011

Over the past 35 years of my professional life, much has been said and written about the relationship between employers and First Nations people. However, for all the studies, discussions, reports and opinions, not much has changed, which is why I jumped at the opportunity to author a Pulse Survey when the Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA) offered it to members with the senior human resources professional (SHRP) designation.

As a group, First Nations people are at or near the bottom in every socio-economic category: income, education, life expectancy, you name it.

There was a wide range of responses from survey respondents on how to improve the plight of First Nations people, ranging from “do nothing” to “leave it in the hands of the politicians.” There was also a strong indication that, given an opportunity, many HR professionals would like to establish mentorships, internships or outreach programs.

HR professionals have an opportunity to make a difference. Canadian organizations are critical stakeholders in this issue and, as such, have a role to play — but it has to be about more than just regulatory compliance. There is nothing wrong with enlightened organizational self-interest, especially when it comes to helping others, which reminds me of the starfish story.

In the story, a man is walking on a beach and he sees a young man pick up and throw a starfish back into the water. He asks the young man why he did that and the young man said he wanted to make a difference. “Well, there are way too many starfish on the beach to make a difference,” said the other man. The young man replied, “Well, I made a difference to that starfish.”

The answer for each of us is not found in grand visions — even though they are important when charting out long-term plans and legislative change — but in the humanity we each bring to our vocation.

As individual HR professionals, the small starfish-type initiatives we each take on will lead to true systemic change. What those initiatives are depends on our desire to get involved. One of my starfish initiatives was to write this article.

Cultural sensitivity is one of the most important values we practise as HR professionals and as Canadians. Working with new Canadians, I always come away with the feeling there is no magical solution or easy answer when dealing with new and different cultures.

However, the more I let myself be exposed to different communities, the better I become as a person and a professional. Every group has its own definition of community. Understanding those differences helps me develop policies and procedures that facilitate the integration of new Canadians without losing their sense of community. So my question is: Can we apply the same sensitivity to our First Nations Canadians as we do with new Canadians? As HR professionals, I hope we start this journey with a small “starfish” step that will, over time, support true systemic change.

Robert Canuel was previously vice-president of HR at Hallmark Canada. Now retired, he does senior HR and general management consulting. He can be reached at racanuel@gmail.com.

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