Canadian companies need to embrace — and learn from — difficult conversations

Canadian companies need to embrace — and learn from — difficult conversations

How to have workplace discussions that heal and help — not divide

Article content

When a few NHL players recently refused to participate in team-sanctioned Pride activities, they shone a bright light on an issue corporate leaders know all too well — discussions around important but controversial topics have the potential to either bring people together or push them apart.

Advertisement 2

Story continues below

Article content

Today, companies are expected to have conversations dealing with a myriad of relatively new and potentially fraught topics to ensure that employees of all backgrounds are heard, included, and accommodated. Such topics include climate change, mental health and mental illness, and support for traditionally marginalized groups including women, people of colour, Indigenous peoples, those who identify as LGBTQ+, and those with a disability.

See also  Activist investor Elliott poised to get fourth Suncor board seat as company continues to underperform

Article content

However, these discussions can be difficult and lead in unintended directions. They can be enlightening, heartbreaking, or contentious. They can surface biases and challenge core beliefs. They can feel threatening to managers, executives and employees. And they can, quite literally, lead to tears.

Advertisement 3

Story continues below

Article content

So why open these cans of worms? Because we are well beyond the point where organizations can ignore important societal topics that are critical to organizational culture and employee health. When we bring conversations out from behind closed doors, we learn, appreciate, and understand differences, and drive cultural change throughout an organization.

However, in a world where every word is freighted with meaning and risks offending someone, not to mention being memorialized on social media, these conversations can be challenging. In awkward and uncomfortable moments, we often find ourselves in denial or defensive mode, or we back away and shut down. To keep conversations going and ensure their outcomes are meaningful, respectful, and effective, we need to do the following:

Article content

Advertisement 4

Story continues below

Article content

Prepare leadership

Leaders must be committed to having and learning from these conversations so they can advocate for employees most impacted by these issues. However, leaders today are exhausted, reducing their capacity for creativity, empathy and problem-solving. When we ask leaders to engage in these conversations, we need to arm them with knowledge and context and the permission to use words like “I don’t have that answer” and “I’m not sure.” Leaders may not be accustomed to using these phrases in other aspects of their role, but they will eventually become natural for leaders who are empathetic, open to these conversations, and ready to learn.

See also  China’s Domestic Demand Is Still Pretty Weak: Qiao

Avoid judgment

Assume that participants — your colleagues — are caring, capable, and want to learn. This assumption allows participants to acknowledge that ignorance may not be intentional or malicious. Humility, on both sides of the conversation, also helps us understand that we don’t have all the ‘facts,’ and encourages our colleagues to share their perspectives freely.

Advertisement 5

Story continues below

Article content

Cancel ‘cancel culture’. Forgiveness is mandatory. Without forgiveness, there is no opportunity to improve. Participants must agree to an open, accepting, and non-threatening discussion. Don’t penalize people for using a wrong or insensitive word if it comes from an authentic desire to learn and meaningfully engage in the conversation.

Bring in external moderators. Moderators with credibility, expertise, and experience can facilitate conversations, read the room to keep discussions flowing and on track, find common ground when conversations become divisive, and tell stories. In our experience, stories lead to other stories, a richer conversation, deeper empathy and understanding, and personal growth.

Advertisement 6

Story continues below

Article content

Finally, follow up

These are long-term, multipronged discussions. They don’t end when attendees shut down their webinar screens or leave the room. Show up — through more one-to-one conversations, team-based interactions, or other touch points — and follow up with actions that demonstrate a commitment to change. This is how we build trust and collaboratively find solutions.

While the prescription for effective conversations around DEI-related topics seems long, the pay-off is a healthier corporate culture built for longer term success. We have seen executives across industries such as telecom, finance, shipping, and insurance make a deep commitment to health and equity and put the insights provided above into action. They took on touchy conversations and tackled sensitive topics such as the impact of women’s health, racism on health and the experiences of people who identify as LGBTQ+. They held townhalls moderated by clinical experts, with open and frank Q&A sessions, and opportunities for leaders and employees to share their stories.

Advertisement 7

Article content

Purolator, which employs a large, diverse front-line workforce, paired their health and DEI teams to conduct ‘listening tours’ across sites, taking the time to hear about the challenges these employees face. They also sent postcards with links to surveys to each employees’ home, welcoming families to be part of the conversation. Today, the company is using the insights received to continuously evolve their current health and DEI efforts to ensure their employees, regardless of role or background, benefit and engage in their programs.

  1. The Shopify Inc. headquarters in Ottawa.

    Shopify risks reputational damage in dispute over handling of layoffs

  2. In almost every case, an employment contract will be worse for you than the absence of one, writes Howard Levitt.

    What you should consider in deciding whether to accept a new job

  3. Commuters cross a street in Toronto's financial district in 2019.

    Paying workers to commute may be fix that gets them back to the office

Advertisement 8

Story continues below

Article content

In our experience, DEI conversations can be a powerful tool to improve culture and performance. Up to now, many organizations have leaned on the rule of the majority to build out their health and wellness supports and guide their HR decision-making. However, that approach consistently leaves those in the minority behind, whether they are women or members of racialized populations or the LGBTQ+ communities. To truly ensure equity and diversity and enable everyone to make their strongest contribution to the organization, Canadian companies need to embrace — and learn from — difficult conversations.

Dr. Seema Parmar holds a PhD from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and is a leader with Cleveland Clinic Canada’s Advisory Services, a team of physicians, wellness experts and strategy consultants who help organizations improve employee health and manage organizational risk.

Article content

Comments

Postmedia is committed to maintaining a lively but civil forum for discussion and encourage all readers to share their views on our articles. Comments may take up to an hour for moderation before appearing on the site. We ask you to keep your comments relevant and respectful. We have enabled email notifications—you will now receive an email if you receive a reply to your comment, there is an update to a comment thread you follow or if a user you follow comments. Visit our Community Guidelines for more information and details on how to adjust your email settings.

Join the Conversation

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *