Sunny spot for the disadvantaged

Pelmorex, owner of The Weather Network, tops federal government’s diversity audit list

When Valerie Morrissette was starting grade school, there was one kid in particular whom the kids were always picking on.

“So I would make sure I walked home with him. Just to keep him from being picked on,” says Morrissette, now vice-president of HR at Pelmorex, the Mississauga, Ont.-based company behind The Weather Network and Meteo-media.

Soft-spoken and reserved in demeanour she may be. But when she speaks of the importance of employment equity in the workforce, one senses she’s a strong and determined defender of the disadvantaged.

The effort hasn’t gone unnoticed. This year, Pelmorex received flying colours at the annual employment equity audit, conducted by the labour standards and workplace equity office of Human Resources Development Canada. As a federally regulated company, the broadcaster is assessed and graded on such items as the representation of, and the promotional opportunities for, designated groups in the company.

The 2002 annual report noted that only one organization in Canada this year earned A’s in all categories — women, Aboriginals, people with disabilities and visible minorities. No organization earned this honour the year before.

“We just became passionate in it. We just really believe in this. And the more we do this, the more we believe it’s just the right thing to do,” said Morrissette. She credits the achievement to the HR manager, Michelle Grech, as well as Jerry Evers, the corporate HR manager.

Pelmorex employs 300 people, many of them young (the average age is 34). Half of the workforce is involved in programming and production, including meteorologists, on-air presenters, production staff, editors and graphics producers.

Back in 1996, when the federal Employment Equity Act was introduced, Morrissette enticed managers to sign on to employment equity principles by tying in a year-end bonus to the level of representation in each team or department.

Now, although the bonus is still used, the need for diversity is ingrained in the way managers think about their staff, said Morrissette.

“You’d hear people saying, ‘I want to hire a woman in this next round’ or ‘I want to hire a male.’ It’s now part of our culture.”

To help enlarge the pool of candidates from under-represented groups, Pelmorex’s HR team aggressively networks with groups in the community. They participate in career sessions at The Six Nations reserve at Ohsweken, Ont. and at other Aboriginal events. They sit down with staff at the access office for students with disabilities and Aboriginal student groups at universities and colleges to make sure students from these target groups think of Pelmorex when they’re looking for a job. And they set up scholarships and internships for Aboriginal students and students with disabilities.

“Everybody deserves a chance, and just because someone has a disability doesn’t mean that they can’t do the job. There are a lot of talented people out there, and you have to be open and give people a chance. Because they might end up a star,” said Grech.

The team’s belief in promoting opportunities for people translates into a general practice of developing and grooming employees. When two meteorologists and an administrative staff member expressed the wish to go on air, the company consented, sending them for a five-day training course at Toronto’s Ryerson University to learn on-air presentation skills.

“Sometimes when there are promotions, we don’t always require people to have the specific skills. We look at the willingness and attitude of the individual as well. If they have the potential to do the job, we will give them the training,” said Grech.

Ian Campbell, a broadcast IT technician who joined the company more than two years ago, said he received a lot of support and patience when he first joined the company and again when he was promoted into the broadcast IT technician post. Despite a visual impairment, he had worked in such high-risk jobs as factory worker and furniture mover. He had no television experience when he joined, but “my supervisor worked with me pretty diligently to bring me up to speed. I could always call him up and say, ‘Help!’ The department head also encouraged me a lot. He was very eager to help whenever I needed it.”

In his initial job, which involved computer work, equipment maintenance and cable patching, he found that a little patience was all the accommodation he needed. “I might have been a little slow at times. It sometimes gets difficult when you’re working with small wires, small objects, or small screws that are so far back that you can’t get your head in there.”

In his current job, the only accommodation he needs is a 19-inch monitor, which the company supplied.

“Honestly, they try to make this place like one big family. They’re more willing than other organizations to go through growing pains. And they’ll take chances, in terms of being willing to promote from within.

“I’ve never seen a company that has such a diverse environment. I’ve never seen such a technologically advanced company have this many women working. It’s outstanding really.”

Morrissette said the organization hasn’t had to spend substantial sums to accommodate people. “We’ve maybe had to buy larger monitors, but that’s it,” she shrugged. Where accommodation is required is in the process, she added. One young employee on the on-call team has limited mobility, she said. “So whenever we needed him, we made sure to give him a lot of notice. Because it would take him a long time to get going. But that’s a small example of accommodation.”

Recently, the organization took on an intern who has a clinical mental condition. When a social worker first approached Morrissette with this potential intern, she immediately spoke with the life-balance (EAP) officer, the manager and the team who would be working with the intern.

“It was just to know what to do and what not to do, like not to overload him with a lot of stress. So we put him in a quiet area of the office, out of the way of the traffic.”

And now, the person is working part-time, with a supervisor who complements him “perfectly.”

“Those two turned out to be the perfect team.”

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