Love of people leads to strong HR program at hospital (National HR Awards)

Winner: HumanaCare HR Professional of the Year
By Lesley Young
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/29/2018
HR Professional
Shamena Maharaj of Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto is the HumanaCare HR Professional of the Year. Courtesy: Shamena Maharaj

There’s a common theme in almost every one of the HR initiatives Shamena Maharaj undertakes at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto — taking care of people to help them be the best they can be. 

“That’s my passion and my credo. Focusing on what matters the most to people so they can live their lives with great purpose,” says the director of human resources and organizational development and leadership. “Catalyzing growth in others makes a better world, and I like to elevate the contributions of others so that we flourish.”

After 13 years of HR experience in banking, oil and gas and education, Maharaj says it was time for a change — she wanted to work in a sector where she saw herself thriving for the rest of her career, and joined Sunnybrook in 2011. 

“Health care was a perfect fit because it is a service industry and helping people is really my passion.” 

Since joining the hospital, Maharaj has reinvigorated many of Sunnybrook’s key HR programs — with help from a team of 22 HR staff — to create a workplace that meets her three most important criteria: a joyful, compassionate, inclusive and diverse environment where everyone feels they belong, and resilient, high-performing teams flourish. 

For this — and a dedication to a tremendous load of volunteer work — Maharaj was given the Humanacare HR Professional of the Year award.

“I couldn’t have done it without the tremendous support I receive from the CEO and the VP, HR, as well as my staff,” says Maharaj.

One of her biggest initiatives has been the renewal of the Sunnybrook Leadership Institute (SLI). 

“This robust program has enabled the hospital to ensure we have strong leadership at all levels ready for the many challenges health care brings every day,” says Andy Smith, president and CEO of the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.

Maharaj expanded the SLI to be accessible to every member of the Sunnybrook team, rather than just existing leaders. 

“It’s important that everyone can learn as it’s a key way to grow,” she says, adding that SLI’s robust learning — over 100 leadership courses available for over 10,000 staff, leaders and physicians — is tied to Sunnybrook’s six core competencies and two leadership competencies. 

“From 2014 to 2018, there have been over 5,000 participants in these courses.”

Believing that feedback is vital, Maharaj and her team improved the performance management program to empower leaders to complete performance appraisals for their employees. 

“Some staff had not had a performance appraisal in over 10 years,” she says. 

They streamlined the appraisal tool for managers, who have a large span of control (up to 60 employees) and juggle large workloads. Reference guides, training sessions and coaching were also made available to help leaders complete the performance appraisals.

“We also changed the exception for completion, giving targets of three years,” says Maharaj.

Moving from minimal use, Sunnybrook now boasts a 75 per cent appraisal completion rate.

Recognizing that managing stress and burnout are key in a health-care organization, and vital to supporting a joyful work life, Maharaj is currently developing programs under a new wellness strategy to cultivate personal resilience and an appreciation for work-life tradeoffs.

“It’s so important for us to have resilience because we are working with patients every day.” 

An inclusive work environment is also supportive of a culture of resilience, which is why Maharaj relaunched Sunnybrook’s respect program, now known as “Respect and Inclusion,” which promotes respectful behaviours, work interactions, work environments and civility in the workplace.

And to celebrate the contributions of HR and raise awareness of the programs available, Maharaj developed Sunnybrook’s Human Resources Professional Day, an annual, well-attended event that features booths and a keynote speaker. 

The most personal of Maharaj’s initiatives was the BeMore Mentoring Circle she launched in 2017 with a pilot group of HR professionals. 

“I had terrific mentors, and I believe mentoring is an ingredient for success,” she says.

Every month, Maharaj mentors a group of 12 people on a particular theme, such as prevention skills for working under pressure, and they present back on the topic, all providing supportive feedback. She says she designed the group to develop and enhance leadership technical skills and to build a cohesive, supportive learning environment. The mentees are encouraged to come to the session with their “authentic selves,” aspirations, ideas, and issues about work and life to share and learn from each other. 

“The mentees have really embraced the program,” she says, adding that it will be implemented after the pilot is completed in 2018.

Outside of the workplace, Maharaj has contributed to an employment manual on strategic practices for hiring, integrating and retaining internationally educated nurses (IENs) — a partnership with McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., and the government of Ontario. She was also involved in the creation of the Workplace Integration Network’s (WIN)’s online courses, HIRE Internationally Educated Healthcare Professionals (IEHPs), in partnership with the University of Toronto. 

As a cross-appointed faculty member at the University of Toronto, Maharaj also teaches best practices on HR topics.  Last but not least, her volunteer activities include work with Wellspring’s annual fundraiser Light Up committee, and being team champion in the annual RBC Race for the Kids in support of the Family Navigation Project at Sunnybrook. 

“I love volunteering and giving back to the community. If I’m focusing on what matters to people, I’m helping everyone live a greater purpose, which isn’t just the role of HR but the role of being human.”

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