28 May 2011

Talking to the boss

Fran had no trouble getting along with the guys – she was one of those women born to work in open pit mining. She had been there 17 years and never really had a major event like some of the ladies reported. She loved working in the trades. People often said that it was because of her personality – she was funny, generous and kind. She would say that growing up with 5 brothers had prepared her for this work.

Get ‘er Done
The thing that also worked in her favour was that she liked to nip trouble in the bud before it got out of control. Even though the thought of having a difficult conversation made her anxious, she had seen too often what could happen when things are not dealt with. She knew that it was important to get ‘er done so the crew could get back to work.

Things were a little different this time. The new boss had only been here about 6 months and things had gone downhill since he came on board. He timed his sexist comments and jokes for when Fran was in earshot. If that weren’t bad enough – the guys had taken to repeating the jokes and offensive language. For example, she and Tim had worked alongside one another for years without a bad word between them. Lately he had taken to referring to women as splitarses – a particularly offensive term that she had never heard him use.

It was affecting her work – she had always loved coming to work, more often these days she had to force herself out the door in the morning. Her husband and children were starting to notice that work made her grumpy. It was time to deal with this because it was impacting her private life.

There was no other option – she had to speak to her boss. Supervisors often don’t realize that they are setting trends. If he gets away with it, then the guys will think it’s ok. One bad seed in a position of authority has the potential to destroy the culture. Bad behaviour at the top could mean hell at the bottom. Some of her male co-workers agreed that the standard had changed and even some of the guys were feeling the pain.

Power Imbalance
Fran knew that anxiety was common whenever there was a need to have a difficult conversation. What she was not prepared for was how the anxiety increased when there was a power imbalance - the stakes were so much higher. The playing field was no longer level.

She had a lot to think about. She did what she normally did – visualized herself going into the office, having the conversation while keeping the conversation on topic. It was important that she only speak about the impact that his behaviour was having in the workplace and she needed to use specific examples. She’s been documenting them for a while now.

It might be a little easier if the boss had a heart of gold but he was known for his biting remarks and use of sarcasm. Fran knew that there was a risk involved. There was no turning back – she was prepared to leave the company if need be.

Fran’s story is not an uncommon one. People have no control over how things will turn out. Many toxic environments are made worse because the boss contributes to or sets the standard for toxic behaviour. Having the conversation is essential – moving on might be the only viable solution but that should only take place after the conversation has taken place.

25 May 2011

Diversity - Diversity - Diversity

Diversity is a growing field because diversity presents challenges in the organization. Times have changed from back in the day when I was part of my first diversity initiative. At age 17, I left my small rural community in NL for a job as a mechanic. The Army was recruiting women to diversify its force. When I look back now, I shake my head - no sensitivity training, no mentoring and no Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Not all the women fared well - the only real option was assimilation and we were not all good at pretending to be something we weren't. Our biggest challenge was staying out of the crosshairs of the institutional bullies. We were not all lucky enough to do that.

The old way is gone and workplaces are having to change - it's about time too. Self acceptance is hard enough without entering a workplace where you're not accepted because of your difference. For diversity to work, the workplace has to change. This is especially the case where workers have never been exposed to a diverse workplace. I always say that they don't know what they don't know. Often they don't know that things they do each day could hurt another person. Change is tough but abuse is tougher.

Thirty years ago, I walked in on a situation where a woman was being verbally abused by a bully and there were bystanders watching. The guy tried to explain himself by saying "We were just having fun, she can't take a joke." The language that he was using toward this women is not even something that a liberal person like me would repeat. I was not a strong woman then, I am ashamed at the way I could not protect her but I never did forget that remark. "We were just having fun - she can't take a joke."

There was no joke, he was engaged in verbal abuse of a sexual nature with lewd remarks and catcalls. and the guys that were looking on joined in laughter and taunting - I've often thought about those guys and how they did what they did to fit in just like all of us did. One apple can really spoil the whole barrell. Times have changed or at least they should. Change takes place sometimes by shining a light on a situation and opening up the situation for candid dialogue. Women that have gone through this industry and learned a lesson or two can share their story to help another.

Working in trades is not the only place where people are vulnerable. Dalhousie University has a diversity initiative to recruit underrepresented minorities. I was admitted into the program by self disclosing that I was disabled. Black and Aboriginal people are also recruited based on these personal characteristics. I love diversity initiatives. There was a support program in place inside the institution to help the Black and Aboriginal students transition but no such program for disabled people. I was also underrepresented on a number of fronts - I was a first generation university student, single mom living on a disability pension. I stood out like a sore thumb alongside my classmates whose family backgrounds were often a little more distinguished.

I remember being asked by a fellow disabled man if I had self disclosed and of course I self disclosed as a disabled woman - I doubt that I would have gotten in on my pedigree alone. He said that he did not self-disclose to get in but he had shared that his dad was a Superior Court Judge and I asked if he had disclosed this on his application. Self identifying comes in all shapes and forms. There can be many benefits of privilege - the privilege of the underrepresented or the privilege of social standing.

Underrepresented minorities need to be protected against the dominant culture - they're at risk if left to their own devices. At the very least, a mentoring program is required but further supports are required especially if you're crossing social strata. I recently spoke with a group of women who are being recruited to go into the trades. They are vulnerable on a number of fronts - they are new to the workforce and entering a non-traditional workforce is an added burden. They need skills to survive in this culture.

It takes a tremendous amount of courage to enter a diversity initiative and to disclose your vulnerabilities. The least that can happen in the workplace/school is that they be given the respect and support that they need to succeed.

19 May 2011

A Day in the life of a Coach


Joanie calls me one day and she says, "Debbie, I need your help. I'm having problems with this guy at work and I don't know what I did to make him hate me. He used to really like me and yesterday we had a Safety Meeting and he didn't even pass the word on to me. I looked stupid when my boss asked me why I wasn't there. When I asked Jack why he never told me he mumbled that he wasn't my supervisor. I can't handle this drama - what do I do?"

Well, of course I can help you out sista - you've got a classic case of jealousy on your hands.

I love my job - coaching women through those days at work when everything seems to be going wrong. It's tough enough to have chosen a profession that is hard on the body but when it is hard on the mind, it gets tough to handle. After all we usually have to go home to a family who wants us to care for them - we don't have time for this childishness at work. Being a woman in trades can be challenging but there are little tools to add to your tool box.

You're wondering what I told her?

Well, for starters, we always acknowledge that we can't change other people - we can only change our reaction. If they ain't lovin' they're fearin' is what I like to say.

Then we take a walk in the other person's shoes for a minute. When Joanie came onsite, Jack was very nice to her. Jack was known for being helpful and he had a reputation for being the go-to guy. But Joanie was getting quite confident in her work lately and recently a couple of the guys had gone to her for advice on a particular technical problem they were having.

Jack observed all of this. Joanie was taking away his job - she was becoming the go-to gal. Jack was feeling the rub.

Are you having an 'ah ha' moment right about now? I wonder what Joanie will do with this information? Will knowing this change anything? What would you do?

Oh the life of a coach is very, very interesting - especially when people say "ah ha - hadn't thought of that."

In Sisterhood - Deb

18 May 2011

Day 1 - I'm so nervous

I knew you’d be a bit nervous about your first day so I thought I’d share a few nuggets of wisdom with you from back in the day. I know how much you hate it when I say that but promise you’ll read this to the end. You see, us older ladies have been there and you don’t need to reinvent the wheel everytime.

I can remember how exciting it was to pick out my clothes the night before that big day. I’d been given my gear during Orientation Training and my brother had helped me to scuff it all up a bit so that I wouldn’t stand out as a newbie. I chuckle at it now – it probably helps psychologically but there is no getting away from the fact that when you walk in, it will be like aliens have landed . So suck it up sista.

I was told to report to Arnie at Site 9 and some guy pointed him out for me. I thought Arnie was ancient looking – he looked 50. Back when I was 20, it seemed old but now that I’m 50, I’ve changed my mind about that.

I walked over to Arnie and held out my hand and said “Hi, I’m Debbie”. I used my assertive voice like they taught me in the interview workshop. He didn’t even look at me as he yelled out to another guy. “Ted. Get over here!!”

“Ted, this is Donna – she’s going to work with you today.” I could tell that Ted was not so pleased about this and he looked like he was hearing it for the first time. Great!! I found out later that the guys on the site didn’t even know that there was a woman coming into the worksite which made them resent us more. But that’s a topic for another day.

“Debbie, my name is Debbie.” I wasnted to yell. All of a sudden, Ted grabs me and yells out “What the F…..” as he whirls me behind him. I must have looked frightened because he softened up a little.

“Donna, there’s a lot of stuff going on here – keep your eyes and ears peeled at all times.” I looked around then and saw a couple of cranes swinging overhead, trucks everywhere moving supplies in and debris out. It was crazy. People were working together in little clusters minding their own business.

I’m brought back to reality when he says “Grab the end of this board, we’re moving them down into the hole.” I spent the rest of the day moving boards down into a hole, one by one. It didn’t make much sense to me at the time. I thought I’d be reading blueprints, doing layouts, bossing everyone around on the first day. I thought I'd have my own slaves. Carrying boards – are you kidding me????

But it all makes sense Susie – there’ a method to this madness. Back at the college we were taught how everything fit together but we never had the pressure of the real world and we didn’t parachute into the middle of a project. The real world is kind of crazy Susie – you have to hit the ground running. Just do what they tell you to do and it will all make sense after a while.

I can remember picking up one end of a couple of planks we were carrying and as we stepped off, I went to the left and he went to the right – I felt so foolish but Ted just chuckled and said “Donna, listen to what I’m saying.”

I remember thinking at the time that I hadn’t learned anything that first day. But I learned plenty and you will too – I learned that it’s important to be aware of what’s going on around you in an environment with a lot of hazards. I’m a much better listener now because of the mistakes I made that day. I was given a task that I thought was below me – imagine me carrying board around – that’s not what I trained for. But it is so important to learn how to operate in this environment so that I’m safe and my fellow worker is safe – starting with a less demanding task helped me to learn that. You’re getting used to the environment in those early days – there will be plenty of time for challenge later on.

At one point Ted said, “Let’s scab these boards together, Donna.” I had to ask even though I felt like a fool – “What’s a scab?” I thought it was something that I picked off my knee when I was a kid. But scabbing is industry lingo for nailing two pieces of board together. Obviously there are new terms to learn too.

When the day was over, Ted and I walked out together. “You did a good job today Debbie.” Did he really just call me Debbie – now that is progress?

“Tomorrow we’re working on the barge. I never asked what a barge was – I would learn when I saw it. I was starting to trust the process a little.

Susie, enjoy your first day. You’re new, they know you’re new. You have nothing to prove…...yet. lol

Call me when you get home.

17 May 2011

She's My Hero

Brenda Lynch is a lady from Upper Island Cove, NL who will start work again on Monday in Long Harbour. She is a remarkable lady and I mean that from the bottom of my heart not because she is my sister but because she is so awesome. Brenda and her husband have lived and worked in Nova Scotia for many years and they operated their own business doing Cement Finishing. It was here that she learned and perfected her craft. She is the only cement finisher Journeywoman in the Bricklayers Union in NL. She is also 49 years old and a mom to two fantastic kids.

Brenda is a tiny yet dynamic lady. Even though she works alongside men whose sheer size can be intimidating, she is not easily ruffled and can hold her own among the guys. She can work with the best of them and often has been guilty of offering creative solutions for problem solving on the job. Men who work alongside Brenda have been heard to say that they love having Brenda on their crew. She gets along well with the men, enjoys a laugh and a good story and is a tremendous team player.

I think I speak for all women when I say that we're proud to have Brenda in the ranks of TRADESWOMAN EXTRAORDINAIRE. We're sending out best wishes to her as she heads into this new venture in her life. Way to go sista....

Social Media - Generational Difference

What a great afternoon. The Sackville Business Association hosted a wonderful Social Media event at the Avodah Cafe in Lower Sackville today. We enjoyed delicious soup, sandwiches and desserts while we learned all about using modern technologies to develop relationships with people online.

Joel Kelly of MT&L, Sarah Carver of Radian6 and Lauren Oostveen of Nova Scotia Archives shared some fascinating information about the benefits of social media and some stories about what can go wrong when it is not managed well. It was informative and a little overwhelming at the same time.

It goes without saying that Social Media is the way of the future and it will impact business in a large way. I had a real ah ha moment during the presentation as I realized how important it is to ensure that if you're going to do the online thing, it makes good sense that you do it well. A half baked program can ruin your image. It is another example of the difference between the generations - the younger folk clearly excel at grasping and utilizing this media.

But, and this is the caveat - at the end of the day, it's not the panacea that everyone might think it is. Social Media, when done well, will get people in the door and face to face with a client. The face to face part is probably the "old fashioned" part and it is the area where the older folk are excelling. After all, for time immemorial, the older generation have been fostering, nurturing and growing face to face relationships.

The final outcome for me - I'll be making sure that I tweak my online presence in the coming months to get with the game. I see that it does have value and I'll be getting a younger person - like my nephew Shane - to really help me to get it right. It's another example of how the generations compliment one another with the skills that they have in a world that is quite diverse.