Erica Pinsky



Power, Respect and the Bottom Line

"This easy to read book paints a clear and vivid picture of what the many facets of respect looks like in a thriving organization.  Through numerous ‘respectful practices’ we are not just told, but shown how to move toward a culture where respect is a living core value and success and profitability are the outcomes.  It is the “roadmap” to respect and path to profit."

Mike Desjardins
One of Business in Vancouver’s Top 40 Under 40


I have been consulting now for almost nine years. The nature of my practice is a reactive one. Clients call me when there is a problem. Maybe a complaint has been filed and they need me to deal with it, or maybe the complaint was already dealt with and the settlement demanded that they provide some training. In some cases, they call me to resolve issues that have been festering for years. “Come, oh magic alchemist”, they beckon, “Come and wave your magic wand and resolve this problem for us.”


I do what I can. However, in many cases, I feel like I am sticking a band aid on a gangrenous wound. I have worked with employers in a myriad of different industries on a whole host of different complaints: issues of discrimination, harassment, bullying, and inter-personal conflict. I write Respectful Workplace Policies and provide training on a variety of related issues. I am very good at what I do. However, in many instances I do not have the power to fix what is ailing these companies. It is fundamentally all about the same thing – it is an issue of a dysfunctional workplace culture.


Behaviour does not occur in a vacuum. Behaviour, like bacteria, needs the right conditions and the right environment to develop, to shape and grow. In every workplace, that environment is the organizational culture. A respectful workplace culture will encourage, support and promote respectful behaviour. On the other hand, a disrespectful workplace culture will encourage, support and promote disrespectful behaviour.


Back in 1982 a deliberate choice was made to promote a respectful culture and to embrace mutual respect as a core value for us as Canadians with the adoption of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms is the foundation of law in Canada. It is a visionary legal document that enshrines the values of tolerance, fairness, justice and mutual respect. The Charter is intended to define and promote the type of culture we want to have in Canada.


Human rights laws in Canada flow from Section 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Section 15 is concerned with the issue of discrimination, which is defined as fundamentally disrespectful behaviour. Human rights law applies to the sphere of employment. This creates a requirement for employers to be concerned with the issue of behaviour in the workplace and whether it is respectful or disrespectful.


Workplace culture, respectful behaviour and organizational power are intricately interwoven. I am not the only one to recognize this relationship. In 1987, the Supreme Court came down with the Robichaud decision and effectively changed the landscape of working life in Canada. That was the decision that created a statutory obligation for businesses to create respectful workplaces for their employees.


Here is a Hot Tip for you. Statutory obligation means an obligation that you can’t get out of. It’s not ‘a nice to have if you feel like it’ type of commitment. It means you are required to meet this obligation, and you are on the hook if an employee decides that you are not. One of the main reasons for statutory obligation is the power inequality that exists in most workplaces. The employer has power and the employee does not. Human Rights law is designed to help to equalize that power equation.


This means that a disrespectful workplace culture must be transformed into a respectful one. It all sounds good …in theory. The employee, who has no power, complains. The law supports and empowers the employee and has the power to make the employer fix the problem and create a respectful workplace culture.


In practice, however, it doesn’t always work out that way. The power of the courts can be easily thwarted if those in positions of power in an organization decide to preserve their existing culture and resist any cultural change.


A good example of this is the case of Michael McKinnon. Michael started working as a correctional officer in Toronto’s Metro East Detention Centre in 1977. Michael is aboriginal, but his ethnicity is not obvious. He looks like a white man. After he started working in the Toronto area jail, he found himself working in an environment that was overtly racist. There were lots of inappropriate comments made about aboriginals. Michael told his employer that he was aboriginal and that he found the comments offensive.


That did nothing to stop the comments. In fact, exactly the opposite occurred. Michael now found himself on the receiving end of a constant barrage of racist behaviour. He was asked if he was having a pow wow. His co-workers donned feather Indian headdresses and initiated war cries when he entered the room. He was referred to as the f__ing Indian, Wagon Burner, Geronimo, Tomahawk, Crazy horse and other such names. His wife, a white woman also working in the detention centre, was referred to as Squaw McKinnon. He was publicly humiliated in front of inmates and had his more favorable assignments taken away from him.


Michael put up with the behaviour for a number of years before he filed a complaint. In 1998, the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal found that the he had been discriminated against. His employer was ordered to stop the discrimination and to create a respectful environment for Michael. However, instead of getting better, things got worse. Both Michael and his wife suffered retaliation as a result of his first complaint. He filed a second complaint in 1999 and another one in 2002. The courts were clear that both Michael and his wife were working in a poisoned work environment. The employer was ordered to stop the discrimination and create a respectful working environment for Michael. Each time a specific list of remedies was ordered by the Tribunal. Each time the employer chose not to implement them.


After the third complaint, both Michael and his wife were placed on paid leave while the Ministry was ordered to address the poisoned, disrespectful work culture. Rather than admit any liability, or even acknowledge the type of workplace culture which the complaints had clearly substantiated, the Ministry of Correctional Services (Michael’s employer), chose to ignore the orders and filed appeals to get the decisions reversed. The Ministry made the choice to keep both Michael and his wife out of the workplace and pay them full wages for eight years, rather than acknowledge that the workplace culture in the correctional system was inherently disrespectful.


On January 30, 2007, eighteen years after his original complaint, another decision came down supporting Michael’s claim of discrimination. The Ministry was harshly criticized for “shameful” conduct. The tribunal found that the Ministry had buried Michael’s complaints, or investigated them incompetently, and that it had financially and morally supported employees guilty of harassing and bullying him. Rather than acknowledging the racist, toxic and dangerous atmosphere that existed at the prison, the Ministry embarked upon a purposeful course of action intended to convey the message that “McKinnon” was the problem.


Why did those in positions of power at the Ministry of Corrections make the choices that they did? Were they all a bunch of ignorant racists? Did they really hate either Michael, his wife, or aboriginals that much? I don’t think so. I don’t even think that race was the crucial issue here.


To understand what was going on at the Metro East Detention Centre we need to think about the type of culture that would exist in a prison. We need to think about the core values that would be the foundation of such a culture. We need to think about power and how it would be used there. Finally, we need to think about the fear that would be raised when the values of such a culture would be so fundamentally challenged.


A prison, like many other organizations, is based on a militaristic command and control model. It is based on the win/lose paradigm, the “us” versus “them” philosophy which has been followed by men in war, corporate life, and sports for generations. It is about power: who has it, and who doesn’t. In this culture, bullying becomes an accepted practice at all levels. It is condoned and rewarded, as is conformity. It is about strength, competition and winning. You are expected to be tough, and to give as good as you get. You are either “with us” or “against us”. You are either one of “us”, or you are not. And when you’re not … then anything, and any tactic, is fair game.


I have seen this type of cultural belief system numerous times in my consulting practice, working with fire-fighters and other organizations that were historically male dominated. In these organizations, people don’t complain about name-calling, harassment and jokes. “It’s what we do and how it is here. If you can’t take that then you shouldn’t be working here. Sure we tell off colour jokes, and call each other nicknames. We all do it, you’ve gotta have a thick hide if you are going to work here.” The underlying message is clear; this is our culture and this is what we do here. These are our shared values and beliefs. You accept these beliefs or you don’t work here.


Michael’s complaint called into question the entire value system on which the workplace culture was based. If the Ministry was to admit that they had been harassing him, the floodgates would open and the flood waters would come pouring through, washing away everything that was the underpinning of the culture of the Toronto East Detention Centre. The outcome was simply too threatening to contemplate.


Michael McKinnon looked like a white man. They thought he was one of them. And if he wasn’t one of them, it wasn’t a big deal, as long as he was prepared to play by the rules. When Michael made it clear that he wasn’t, he in effect declared war. And war was what he got. It became “us” versus “them”, winner take all, beat him down, and take no prisoners. Rather than look at the behaviour that Michael was complaining about, which was the real problem, the Ministry chose to discount the behaviour and focus on Michael himself as the problem. It became a “blame the victim” approach which I have encountered numerous times in my consulting practice.


I don’t for a second believe that the Ministry of Correctional services sat down and made a decision to adopt this fundamentally disrespectful and toxic workplace culture and it’s underlying values. It was a culture that grew on its own. Had Michael McKinnon not blown the whistle, it would have continued to flourish regardless of the fact that we have a Charter of Rights and Human Rights laws.


It is important in life to see things as they are. We need to be realistic. While the case of Michael McKinnon is an extreme example, we must recognize the fundamental legacy of that command and control culture in all North American businesses. In some cases, as in the case of the Metro East Correctional Centre, it is the dominant and pervasive culture. In other cases, it exists as a sub-culture as a result of bullying behaviour by individuals who abuse positional or personal power.


The law in Canada demands that employers create a Respectful Workplace. In other words, this means a workplace that is free from discrimination and harassment. In Quebec, the law has recently gone even further to legislate a workplace which is also free from psychological harassment - what I refer to as workplace bullying.


In most cases, the employer’s response to all of this legislative change has been more re-active than pro-active. Companies generally become concerned with compliance when complaints arise. And when a complaint does come up, it is often viewed as an isolated incident with a particular individual, rather than as what it is - the tip of the iceberg. The iceberg, bobbing unseen beneath the surface, is the workplace culture which created the right conditions for the complaint to develop and grow.


Until recently, this reactive posture may have been enough. When there are more people than jobs, the employer’s power is enhanced. People stay despite an unhealthy work environment. However, when there are more jobs than people, the balance of power starts to shift. People have a choice as to where they want to work. And they know it. No longer do employees feel the need to remain in a job and put up with a work environment which makes them feel excluded or disrespected.


In the reality of today’s tight job market, a market which is predicted to get much tighter, the balance of power is going to continue to shift. It is only logical that, given a choice, people will choose to work where they feel comfortable, appreciated and included. Most people will not choose to join or stay in a work environment where they feel disrespected or excluded, and/or where they are involved in or witnessing ongoing conflicts and abusive behaviour. Money alone is not enough. Study after study has proven that money is not the main factor that keeps employees in a job. People stay because of workplace culture and workplace relationships.


Organizations that want to survive and prosper in the new millennium need to recognize the dramatic effect that their workplace culture is having on their bottom line. Employers who want to be profitable in business are going to have to make some deliberate and strategic choices about their workplace culture. From my perspective there is only one choice to make – take a good hard look at what is going on in your workplace, be prepared to deal with what you find and create an inclusive, respectful and profitable workplace culture.