2015: The year that was in HR

What were the biggest stories of the year?
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 01/22/2016

A new twist on executive compensation

Putting a new spin on the issue of executive compensation, Dan Price, founder and CEO of Seattle-based Gravity Payments, slashed his own salary from just under US$1 million per year to US$70,000 — while raising the minimum salary for his 120 employees to the same amount (from an average of US$48,000). But later news stories suggested the move led to way too many job applicants, along with disgruntled employee departures — and the possibility Price was significantly overpaid in the first place.

Way off Target

In January, U.S.-based retail chain Target made the surprising announcement it was closing its Canadian outlets, putting 17,600 employees out of work. The exit included a minimum of 16 weeks’ compensation for workers, apparently backed by a $70-million promise in the form of an employee trust.

Ontario proposes sexual harassment legislation
Ontario was set to amend the Occupational Health and Safety Act to include: a definition of workplace sexual harassment, enhanced requirements regarding work placement harassment programs, and specific employer duties to protect workers from harassment — including appropriate investigations. Otherwise, an employer could be ordered to conduct an investigation, at its expense, by an impartial, experienced third party.

‘Revealing’ dress code in spotlight
Negative publicity around an unpopular dress code for women working at the Bier Markt led the restaurant chain to withdraw its policy, but raised the question: If it’s clearly a discriminatory practice, should others in the hospitality and service industry follow suit?

Off-duty conduct in spotlight again
A Hydro One employee found himself in trouble in the spring when he was captured on live TV defending derogatory comments made by another man towards a female news reporter. Shawn Simoes (above) was subsequently fired from his $106,000-a-year job — and then ordered back to work by an arbitrator in the fall. But taking back a fired employee can make for an awkward situation for everyone involved, said the experts.

Interns unused, unpaid
The federal government faced uncomfortable questions about its use of unpaid interns and the small number who went on to gain permanent employment afterwards. While various departments had used a reported 961 unpaid interns since 2008, only 22 were hired on after, according to one MP.

Is on-call on the way out?
Fairer scheduling practices, advance notice of shifts and guaranteed minimums for work hours were among the recommendations from advocates in the United States when it came to changes in the retail and hospitality sectors — and the issue could gain traction in Canada.

‘Bruising workplace’ stirs up debate
Outlining the “bruising workplace” of online retailer Amazon, a story in the New York Times detailed the unrelenting pace, late hours and secrecy of its work environment. While some praised the no-nonsense approach, others were quick to condemn such practices, saying a supportive culture made more sense.

Alberta looks to boost hiring
With the dramatic decline in oil prices, job prospects in the Western province fell to desperate lows, with mass layoffs regularly announced by affected employers. In January, the Canadian Association of Oilwell Drilling Contractors predicted employment in the oil patch could be down by 23,000 direct and indirect jobs. So Alberta’s government launched a Job Creation Incentive Program to boost hiring by giving employers grants up to $5,000 for each new job, with employers eligible for up to $500,000 in total support. But critics questioned the effectiveness and necessity of such a program.

HR metrics lacking trust
Nearly two-thirds (64 per cent) of senior financial executives do not regularly use HR analytics to better understand the costs associated with their workforce, according to a survey by the Canadian Financial Executives Research Foundation. Why? Trust could be an issue — just one-third said they fully trust the data while another third “somewhat” trust the numbers.

Dismissing without cause clarified
A Federal Court of Appeal decision eight months in the making overturned almost 40 years of arbitral law. In Wilson v. Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., the court held that federally regulated employers may dismiss employees without cause. Previously, the general consensus was that employees governed by the Canada Labour Code could only be terminated for just cause.

1 voice, 1 designation, 1 standard
The Canadian Council of Human Resources Associations (CCHRA) announced it had changed its structure significantly, with a redesigned philosophy, a new set of core principles and new bylaws — along with rumours Quebec was boosting its involvement.

Interview process drags out even more
The average interview time — from the moment a person applies to when he finds out he got a job — has increased globally in length by 3.3 to 3.7 days since 2010, according to Glassdoor. But there’s good news: Of the six countries surveyed, Canada had the quickest timelines, averaging 22.1 days in 2014, compared to 22.9 in the United States, 31.9 in France and 28.6 in the United Kingdom.

Privacy breaches in health care
Former Toronto mayor Rob Ford (right), suffering from stomach cancer, saw his health records breached twice by several staff at health-care centres treating him, as have other patients across the country. While the reasons why may not always be clearcut, more needs to be done to avoid further violations, say the experts.

No room for haggling
Ellen Pao (left), former interim CEO of Reddit — and a former plaintiff in a high-profile Silicon Valley gender discrimination lawsuit — announced salary negotiations would be banned for new employees, in an effort to create greater pay equity.

‘Take care of me’
Four in five Canadian workers expect their employer to help support their physical and psychological health, according to a study by Sun Life Financial. Millennials in particular feel employers have a key role to play, found the study of 2,404 Canadians.

Constructive dismissal clarified
The issue of constructive dismissal was further clarified in the Supreme Court of Canada decision Potter v. New Brunswick Legal Aid Services Commission. The court decided David Potter had been constructively dismissed from his job as an executive director after he was put on indefinite — but paid — suspension after nearing the end of a sick leave. Potter had been told he “ought not” to return to work but was given no reason.

No cure-all for sick notes
The plague that is doctor’s notes came to the forefront when the Federal Court of Appeal, in Western Grain By-Products Storage Ltd. v. Donaldson, ruled the employer was entitled to a more detailed sick note than the original two-liner that stated the employee was “now capable of returning to his job.” The worker, absent for 25 weeks, was required to present a better doctor’s note “as to his fitness level in relation to his duties and the work environment” before he could return to work.

Rise of the robots
By 2025, the adoption of advanced robots will boost business productivity by up to 30 per cent in many industries, according to Boston Consulting Group. The automation will also lower labour costs by 18 per cent or more in countries that are early adopters, including the United States, Japan, China and Germany.

Corporate espionage on the railroads
Canada’s two major railways were engaged in a feud over alleged corporate espionage when CN said one of its former employees shared secret customer information with CP. While restrictive covenants can add protection for employers, they’re not foolproof, say legal experts.

Ghomeshi report highlights bad behaviour
A report looking at former CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi and allegations of sexual harassment was filled with examples of a workplace challenged by bad behaviour, lack of trust, inept leadership, egoism and faulty processes. The situation should not be written off as unique, said one lawyer, because many workplaces have problem employees who are also star employees.

Manitoba eases PTSD process
Calling it a first for Canada, Manitoba announced it planned to amend workers’ compensation coverage around post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The legislation would be based on presumption, so claims would be incident-based instead of occupation-based, for all workers, not just first responders. This would simplify the adjudication process by eliminating the need to draw a causal connection between certain facts, according to the Workers Compensation Board of Manitoba.

Misjudging fit common
Nearly six in 10 (58 per cent) HR managers have misjudged a candidate’s fit with their company’s work environment, while nearly two-thirds (64 per cent) have lost employees because they were not suited to the work environment, according to an OfficeTeam survey.

Employment standard changes
Alterations to Ontario’s Employment Standards Act (ESA) meant major changes for employers when it comes to areas such as ESA claims and wage recovery, working with temporary staffing agencies and record-keeping. 

Longer hours = less productivity
Long working hours — in excess of 50 hours per week — may seem designed for productivity gains but, in practice, they produce just the opposite effect, according to a study out of Stanford University, which found workers who put in 55 to 70 hour per week are producing almost nothing during those additional hours.

$1-million lawsuit brews
Recalling the well-known 2012 case of Boucher v. Wal-Mart Canada Corp. — in which an employee was initially awarded $1 million in punitive damages, later dropped to $100,000 — Starbucks faced a similar hurdle. A former barista filed a statement of claim against her supervisor and the coffee chain looking for general and special damages for $1 million, and punitive and exemplary damages for an unspecific amount. The United States chain also faced controversy when it launched a social campaign meant to “stimulate conversation, compassion and action around race in America.” The initiative saw the chain’s baristas writing the words “Race Together” on customers’ cups in an attempt to spark discussion, but it suffered from public backlash and questions around a lack of diversity in Starbucks’ senior leadership.

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