Written by Fresh Communications in collaboration with WSPS
The world has seemed a lot darker since COVID-19 took us all in its grip, but if there is a silver lining to be found in this crisis, it could be argued that the pandemic has helped to shine a spotlight on the importance of psychological safety, respect and civility in the workplace.
Former NHL player and co-founder of Respect Group, Sheldon Kennedy, says he doesn't know why it's taken so long, but he is happy to see that discussions about bullying, harassment and discrimination are starting to come out of the shadows.
Kennedy, along with Bill Howatt, Chief of Research Workforce Productivity at The Conference Board of Canada, Agnes McLachlan, Wellness and Abilities Management Specialist at the City of Barrie, and Tony McGrath, CEO of The Grand Theatre in Calgary, were all participants in the CEO Health + Safety Leadership Network & Health & Safety Leadership Centre's latest roundtable discussion in May which took place virtually.
McLachlan moderated the discussion which focused on the importance of leaders creating workplace environments that foster civility and respect, and protect employees from bullying, abuse, harassment and discrimination (BAHD).
All agreed that there have been a number of factors contributing to an attitudinal shift with respect to this issue, beyond the current crisis, including occupational health and safety and human rights legislation, tort law, manager liability, and to a significant extent, the expectations of new generations entering the workforce.
Tony McGrath knows all too well how damaging it can be when respect in the workplace is taken for granted. When he became CEO of The Grand, he walked into an organization that he says had all of the characteristics of being unwell. "Mental Health has been near and dear to me for many decades. I have been an open leader since I was a young man. I wasn't expecting to find what I found in the arts."
McGrath says when he arrived, bullying was deeply rooted in the organization and while most would expect it would be obvious and easily remedied, he says the opposite is true. "Usually it is very apparent, but this has been death by a thousand cuts, and it keeps shifting all the time. It is insidious. Abusers become victims and victims become abusers. There was no place in the existing policies to take action and it was very challenging for the leadership team and the board."
Kennedy, and partner Wayne McNeil, founded Respect Group specifically to help workplaces like The Grand put the right measures in place to prevent BAHD. On top of delivering training and certification, Respect Group helps organizations understand the importance of thinking about this as a systemic issue that goes way beyond just putting the right policies and procedures in place. "When people tell their stories and there is no response because they become stuck in policies and procedures, it is almost as bad as the incident itself," says Kennedy.
He believes organizations have been slow to address this issue because it is shrouded in fear. However, he points out that fear and stigma should not prevent leaders from taking action. "People want to label and investigate but forget about the individual impact. This has the biggest impact on culture. These issues still carry fear."
In 1998, Kennedy rollerbladed across Canada to raise awareness of sexual abuse. He says he heard, on average, 25 stories a day from people who came out to support him. "The impact was consistent no matter how the person was abused."
Bill Howatt agrees and says that, in the eyes of the victim, trauma is trauma, and people can experience horrific abuse through words. He feels that many workplaces don't take the time to discuss the meaning of psychological safety. However, he believes the conversation is moving in the right direction. "When we first started talking about bullying and harassment, it was primarily about policy control. Now we are beginning to realize the impact this can have on psychological wellbeing."
He stresses that leaders need to focus more on the behaviours that foster respect. "Just because someone understands a policy, doesn't mean that they have the micro skills that are needed to facilitate conversations or advocate for themselves. In workplaces where they are having real conversations about this, they are having a greater impact."
If left to fester, BAHD seeps into the bones of the organization eroding performance, productivity, teamwork, morale, engagement, absenteeism, employee engagement, and of course, customer satisfaction.
McGrath and his board have experienced the impact of BAHD first-hand, and they aren't standing by waiting for it to fix itself. They have taken strong steps to repair years of damage. "Everyone is RESPECT Certified, we've also completed Headversity, a resilience program that provides tools to understand mental health and assess it, and we have clearly defined what is acceptable. We have reset the organization," he says.
As with any transformation, leaders play a key role in eradicating BAHD. Kennedy acknowledges that making respect in the workplace mandatory when it isn't legislated is bold, but he emphasizes that leaders must be courageous. "We've come a long way, but we have a long way to go. There is no finish line. We will continually learn and improve. If leaders simply check boxes, they will put people at risk. They must drive culture change."