There’s a fairly predictable formula workplaces cycle through in times of crisis: Initial response, investigation, reporting and recommendations.
It’s the pattern CBC followed in the aftermath of the Jian Ghomeshi sexual harassment allegations, and it’s one countless other organizations have followed.
But after the recommendations have been written and resolutions made, that’s arguably when the real work begins — rebuilding culture.
Rebuilding workplace culture and trust after a crisis has been largely a neglected topic, said Laura Williams, founder and principal at Williams HR Law in Toronto. But it’s also a critical one when the workplace has been through some kind of trauma, such as a harassment investigation.
“People have given you feedback and, to the extent that the feedback warrants action, you can even further derail the culture and the sense that this is a workplace that employees feel engaged in because you’ve got an incident, you’ve got some appearance of the incident being addressed through a workplace investigation, now you’ve got information — what are you going to do about it?”
After a situation, employees need to see action and follow-through, said David Couper, founder and CEO of David Couper Consulting in Los Angeles.
“There’s a disconnect between the values that the company is saying are important and what they’ve actually done,” he said. “They’ve got to do something pretty significant to show that they understand that’s wrong, and then take steps to (address it).”
Fallout and restoration
Any workplace will face a number of common challenges after such an incident, said Williams.
“There’s the impact or trauma, if you will, on any workplace environment that’s just a function of the event happening itself… and this manifests in terms of the trust that is lost. So there’s mistrust — the employer credibility can be impacted insofar as employees feel that the employer hasn’t done everything that it ought to have done in the circumstances to protect employees.”
That can have a significant impact on culture because employees may feel fearful, she said.
“(Employers) have to be intentional now in regards to ‘What do we need to do so that we regain credibility as the employer, and so that we don’t have a significant loss of trust within the employment relationship?’”
Beginning to rebuild that trust can have a different starting point depending on what the work culture was like to begin with, said Williams.
“Usually, in most cases, there has to be some transparency from leadership with respect to what is going to be done or what has been done, and what ongoing steps will be taken (to resolve the issue),” she said. “The number one key thing that has to be in place is communication, and specific communication with respect to acknowledging the impact, and also a plan going forward.”
It would be effective if senior management made an effort to hold town hall meetings with people, said Couper, in talking about what’s happening, what they value and what the values are for the organization — and getting feedback from that.
“And then training their managers to have similar conversations with smaller groups of people, and then really taking a temperature check of the whole organization,” he said.
“If it’s happened in one area, it’s possible it’s happened in other areas. So you want to really see where else is a problem.”
Depending on the culture, an employer might leave certain aspects of the restoration exercise to the employees so they can generate ideas, said Williams.
“It could be employee working groups, striking committees that are going to actually come up with some solutions, or at least maybe identify what the impact has been. And certainly there might be some team-building exercises that, depending on the environment, might be appropriate.”
Employers should also consider bringing in a neutral third party with expertise on the issue, said Williams.
“Efforts to bring in a third party that specializes in these areas goes a long way as well because it shows the employee base that the employer cares about how they feel at work.”
For its part, the CBC has a number of recommendations from the report by investigator Janice Rubin on which to base its restoration efforts, said Lise Lareau, vice-president of the Canadian Media Guild (CMG) in Toronto, which represents workers at CBC.
Several of the recommendations were initially suggested by the union, particularly those around training, she said.
“We’ve taken some steps since the incident — not since the report but since the incident itself — about how to make sure people on the floor are better trained to spot this stuff and to act accordingly. So we really wholeheartedly agree that better training is required on both the union and management side to deal with this issue.”
The biggest hurdle for CMG, and most unions, is around communication and awareness when issues are going on, said Lareau.
“There’s (a key task) that unions always want to do: To make sure that communications are such that we know what is going on everywhere. And clearly what broke down in 2010 and in the years following is that so many of the missed opportunities that were identified in the Rubin report, they were missed opportunities for us too. For us not to know of, say, the Red Sky meeting… it tells me as a union leader, ‘Wow, if we didn’t know that people had a Red Sky meeting about this problem, and no one thought to call the union, there’s a massive disconnect,” she said.
“The union has to create a better network of informal and formal communications right through its workforce, and all unions have to do that.”
Besides overall communication, what needs to be addressed is how to make the complaint system informal and accessible enough that people aren’t afraid of it, she said — which is why the guild just passed a new policy on this.
“People generally know that there are processes within the collective agreement and the CBC policies to raise issues, but they’re afraid. And they’re afraid because in the CBC’s case, probably more so than in other workplaces… so many people are wanting to work there so badly. It is a place where people aspire to work, and where so many people are in some kind of non-permanent work environment, so they’re on contract or casual,” she said.
“At the CBC, depending on the year and the place, as many as 25 to 30 per cent of people at any one time can be in that kind of arrangement. So this is a big problem where you have a collection of people who are largely non-permanent and feel very vulnerable as a result. That added to the whole crisis.”
Going through a workplace crisis can be a very emotional and taxing experience, and it can be tempting, once the recommendations roll in, to make quick fixes and then move on, said Williams.
There is often the temptation to simply make a change in leadership, but whether doing so is a good idea really depends on the context — it’s not a cure-all solution, she said.
“(And) there has to be some type of anticipation of this person coming, what this new leader would bring, what the expectations are, and a really thorough introduction and onboarding process so that you don’t further impact any mistrust that exists in the environment based on some event that’s been traumatizing.”
There’s also the temptation to shift the focus away from an incident that has already received significant negative attention, said Williams.
“That is a temptation because, first of all, the impact of the event, the process of trying to rectify the event or address it so that it’s resolved to some degree, that’s very consuming for an organization. And depending on how high-profile the incident is, it can be all-consuming for a period of time. So, oftentimes, employers may not think past, for example, the investigation.”
But it’s critical that employers recognize that although the investigation is complete, there is still work to do.
“The reality is that we’re still dealing with an employee base that’s impacted,” she said.
Overworked, understaffed human resources at CBC?
An added challenge at CBC is the Jian Ghomesi allegations came in the midst of extraordinary cuts to the workforce, said Lise Lareau,vice-president of the Canadian Media Guild in Toronto.
“We’re in a phase of extraordinary cuts — 3,000 over the last several years, 1,400 in the last year. And those cuts are also hitting at HR,” she said.
“Through the HR department, there’s a churn like you would not believe. The churn in the HR department at CBC is enormous. So it’s really hard in an era of massive layoffs to even have conversations with the right people.”
So how does HR even begin to repair trust and relationships in an era of massive cuts and departments run by skeleton staff?
“People who would be normally engulfed in solving this problem, in coming up with better policies and better processes, are executing cuts,” said Lareau.
“HR people on the CBC side are sitting down in rooms, figuring out how to eliminate 240 jobs over the next few months. And that’s after hundreds of jobs over the last year.”
HR is completely swamped, so there’s a whole other layer of difficulty in trying to rebuild and address this issue, she said.
“Their workloads have expanded so exponentially in this climate,” said Lareau.
“Having to execute cut after cut after cut is just so demoralizing — (it’s) not what people get into HR to do.”
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