An Eye to the Future


The recession is top-of-mind, and has already cost hundreds of thousands of jobs across Canada, and no where more than in Ontario. This creates a challenge for those promoting healthy workplaces, because more immediate issues – jobs, cut-backs, cash flow, confidence – are taking precedence. The notion of “character” is typically focused on individuals, but it applies to organizations too. In trying times, it is not only what companies do to cope, but how. The current economic issues will fade, but the way people are treated matters, and the early 1980s taught us the effects of corporate character – “the brand” – can linger for generations.



Jim Bishop, an American journalist and writer, said back in 1961: “It is difficult to live in the present, ridiculous to live in the future, and impossible to live in the past.” This pretty much sums up human resources management in these turbulent times. Business leaders are caught in a time warp tension. They must deal with the immediacy of cash flow, costs, work orders, and staffing, while ensuring they don’t cut too quickly or deeply, and therefore sabotage their longer term future.

The recession is barely “official”, but over 350,000 jobs have been lost across Canada since employment peaked in October 2008. Like a national game of dominos played by unseen and uncaring hands, many businesses have fallen or are facing serious pressure.

One-quarter of Ontario’s manufacturing jobs have been lost in the last four years, 100,000 in Toronto alone. Between last October and March, Ontario’s unemployment rate jumped two full points to 8.7%. This is above the national average of 8.0% and almost the same as Nova Scotia and New Brunswick at 8.8% each. Though much lower at 5.4%, unemployment in Alberta is at its highest point in six years. In British Columbia, the number of unemployed has increased 68% in the last year.

This presents a major test to the premise of this publication. Is health really a strategic concern of business? Does the pervasive fear of economic decline trump the company owner’s and manager’s need to look after their people? Are the words “healthy workplace” meaningful only in good times? From my chair, the answers are yes, no and no, but there’s more.

Many organizations, at least in the private sector, are wrestling with issues fundamental to their survival. But maybe it’s how these issues are tackled that matters.

“Character matters” is the motto of a nearby school board. It speaks to how we want our kids to face life, how they handle success, and how they cope with adversity. It suggests a view that pushes beyond one person, and an ethic that can see beyond the immediate. As Webster says, character ‘distinguishes the individual’.

Companies struggle for their entire corporate lives to distinguish themselves. We call it branding, or competitive advantage, or differentiation. Faced with a standard set of problems, some companies focus on simply getting the job done. Others, not so caught in the moment, consider not only the problem, but the way to handle it and the longer term ripples caused by any one of its potential solutions. Faced with the need to cut costs, one company might announce mass layoffs, while another implements a policy to share jobs. The managers of the first organization may choose to tightly control information, perhaps out of concern for misunderstanding or having it used against them by others. Company #2 may decide it’s time again for their leader to meet with employees to learn their concerns, and share the burden of corporate challenges and threats.

These examples are very different, and the best approach will vary by company. But the point is that although the goals are common – survival, cost-cutting, efficiency, productivity – the difference in approaches demonstrates corporate character. Even if the news is dire, how it is handled creates a lasting effect on “the brand”. Those who read businesshealth know leadership and culture are the key ingredients to making a truly healthy workplace – way beyond “wellness” programs – and these are essential to the brand and character of an organization.

A lasting legacy of the last serious recession in the early 1980s was that businesses burned all bridges with their people, in fact, with at least two generations of workers. Layoffs and restructuring were cold and careless processes, and loyalty died. People have long memories, and now even bigger networks, courtesy of the web. People now look after themselves because they fear their companies will not. What have we learned since then, and what legacy will this recession leave?

If we agree that “character matters” for individuals and organizations, I hope we can find a way to remember the lessons of recent history, and think harder about how we implement decisions that affect livelihoods and reputations. The older we get, the faster time flies. Two years from now, a few heartbeats away, the economic dust will have settled and growth undoubtedly resumed. I hope there will be more talk of corporate character then, more healthy workplaces, and pride in how we pulled ourselves through, together.


Categories: Editorial