The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the pace of change for many workplaces in North America and around the world. From the ways we shop, to the ways we get together, to the ways we work, much will likely continue to change as the pandemic continues to run its course. If there's one thing the past 20 months should have taught us, it's not to take the status quo for granted.
As an employment lawyer, I regularly help organizations manage the legal risks that can accompany workplace change. In Canada, a key risk employers face is an employee or group of employees claiming they've been "constructively dismissed"—meaning that the employer's unilateral change has unintentionally amounted to a wrongful termination.
Assessing the risk that a change may result in a successful constructive dismissal claim can be highly situational. In the words of the Supreme Court of Canada in Potter v. New Brunswick Legal Aid Services Commission, 2015 SCC 10: "determining whether an employee has been constructively dismissed is a 'highly fact-driven exercise' in which the court must determine whether the changes are reasonable and whether they are within the scope of the employee's job description or employment contract."
Several risk management strategies and approaches are available to employers when making changes, but there is no one-size-fits-all strategy. The right strategy for each employer depends on various factors, including the nature of the change, employee expectations, and the workplace's team culture and approach to communications.
In a nutshell, effectively managing the risks of workplace change depends largely on understanding your workforce. If that sounds easier said than done, then read on.
Facing bias depends on self-awareness
Psychology research on unconscious bias has demonstrated abundant ways that people can be misled to adopt mistaken views and to misunderstand others. For a primer on this subject, read my earlier posts, "Unconscious bias in the workplace" and "Bias at the door."
When it comes to preparing for change at the workplace, a good starting point is checking unconscious biases that not only may lead to miscommunications and misunderstanding but also potentially give rise to legal risks down the road. Three key categories of unconscious bias for employers to be mindful of are:
- Self-fulfilling prophecies. You can unintentionally influence how others behave through subtle signals of your own expectations. For example, a manager who expects a pending announcement to upset some employees might use a defensive communications style, including giving evasive answers to employees' questions. This approach may result in employees feeling that they've been treated unfairly, leading directly to them becoming upset. The same employees may have reacted differently had the message been based on a different set of expectations from their manager.
- Illusions of transparency. Have you ever made a slip of the tongue and convinced yourself that everyone in the room had noticed, only to later learn that nobody had given it a second thought? That's one common experience of the illusion of transparency, which is the tendency to believe that one's inner thought process is far more obvious to others than it is. If not carefully attended to, this tendency can lead to significant disparities between how much information leaders believe they've communicated and how much employees have actually received. Taking this bias into account where announcements of changes at the workplace are concerned, it's important for leaders to ensure that the necessary time and attention are devoted to ensuring that employees receive and understand the message.
- Anchoring. This is a tendency to make judgments through comparisons to the most readily available information. For example, if the status quo around change at a workplace is that it rarely occurs or is rarely discussed, then even relatively minor changes can be perceived as significant by employees whose expectations have been anchored in that status quo. Effectively managing change means remaining mindful of where workforce expectations are anchored, and how a proposed change will look in comparison.
Employers who recognize the impact of these unconscious biases will be better equipped to develop practical strategies to effectively communicate change to their workforce. While each workplace is different, generally recommended approaches to developing such practical strategies include:
- Just ask. In other words, minimize room for mistaken assumptions about how employees will respond to change by regularly surveying employees about their experiences, expectations, and suggestions.
- Invest in a shared vision. Keep the illusion of transparency in check through active efforts to ensure that management's vision and changes to that vision are communicated clearly, frequently, and with as much advance notice as possible. Two-way communication based on employee surveys and feedback can promote a shared vision between management and the rest of the workforce.
- Build a culture of change. Employees who expect change will be better prepared to support change. By building from a shared vision to a workplace culture where change is a constant, organizations can ensure that workforce effectiveness is not held back or dragged down by anchoring in an unchanging status quo.
For more information or to book a seminar or workshop, please don't hesitate to get in touch.
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