Turning lights out on morale (Editorial)

|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/22/2003

Ontarians learned how to cope without electricity during August’s blackout. Unfortunately, some people also discovered something unpleasant about their employers.

Following the blackout HR listservs were abuzz with questions about paying — and not paying — staff for time lost because of the outage. And the subject was a hot topic with callers to Carswell’s Payroll Hotline.

Premier Ernie Eves asked people to stay home from work on the Friday after lights went out, and in any case, few workplaces were in a position to operate.

Ontario legislation views the power outage as an “Act of God” and does not require employers to pay staff for a stoppage in work. Some employees reported for shifts Thursday and Friday, only to be sent home. Because the blackout is an Act of God (apparently God works in an Ohio utility company) the requirement to give three hours call-in pay when work is not available does not even apply.

The week after the blackout generating capacity was below normal levels and the premier pleaded for energy conservation to avoid further outages. Most people and businesses did their best to keep consumption down. Politicians showered Ontarians — already fatigued with SARS, West Nile and disruptive computer viruses — with thanks for toughing it out. And while civic-mindedness got Ontario past this latest crisis, pulling together in tough times is an idea that seems lost on some bosses.

Deducting a day’s salary from employee paycheques during a declared state of emergency isn’t a move that garners much goodwill in the workplace. But while many were chipping in to do their civic duties by living without air conditioning and avoiding using appliances, some employers were worrying about a few hours pay.

The upshot being that the unlucky people working for these firms can add financial hardship to their blackout woes.

Stingy companies can say they saved on labour costs, but what dollar value does one place on damaged employee relations? Spoiled food can be replaced, but it’s not easy to repair staff morale.

Productivity is enhanced when the workplace operates like a community that cares for its members. Nickel-and-diming staff during a crisis gives the message, “It’s everyone for themselves when the chips are down.” It’s a case of turning the lights out on employee commitment.

On the positive side, money saved through denying pay can be used to recruit staff to replace those who are looking for employers worth their loyalty.

JUNE 16’s Editor’s Notes examined the case of

New York Times

reporter Jayson Blair. Blair was found to have made up interviews and plagiarized others, putting a spotlight on the paper’s editors and processes. Because Blair is black, many critics suggested the Times’ editors ignored signs he was problematic because the young writer was an outward symbol that diversity was alive and well in the newsroom.

Canadian HR Reporter

offered the opinion that, “Building inclusive workplaces shouldn’t be derailed by a frenzy of media critics harping on the failings of one reporter.”

Two senior editors at the Times, including managing editor Gerald Boyd, resigned because of the Blair scandal. Boyd, who is also black, recently spoke about the case at the National Association of Black Journalists convention in Dallas. The Washington Post ran the following excerpts from his speech.

“Some have suggested that I looked the other way because Jayson is black. That is absolutely untrue.

“What no one knew was that we were managing a deeply troubled young man whose problems took us away from core journalistic values.

“If the legacy of the Jayson Blair scandal is that people will be slowing down, cutting back or taking a tougher look at diversity in the newsroom, then it will be a tragedy beyond the pale.”

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