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Job Quality not out in the cold
at Syncrude Canada

As a primary industry in northern Alberta, Syncrude Canada faces unique challenges and opportunities in bettering the working conditions of employees. CPRN researcher Adam Seddon took some time out to talk with Ted Seaman, Syncrude Canada’s General Manager of Human Resources, about what makes a good job. This is what Mr. Seaman had to say.

AS: How would you define a high quality job?

TS: I would start off by looking for a job that I feel safe at, where I'm treated with respect, where the work is challenging and there are opportunities for me to implement my ideas and where those ideas are accepted by my peers and leaders, where I have opportunity to advance, not only technically, or within my discipline, but also from the point of view of responsibility. There's a competitive and flexible rewards system where there is some ability to choose the nature of the compensation and benefits that I might get and customize them so that I might meet my needs at any particular point in time. I would like to have a pretty good balance between what I have to do at work and my home responsibilities. I'd like to work for a company that respects the notion that a productive worker is really one that is plugged into whatever discipline they may be trained in through conferencing or staying connected with people outside the company as well as inside the company.

AS: Why should employers care about the quality of work that they offer?

TS: Well, I think we're all in a pretty competitive environment, particularly now. In our case, being in northern Alberta in an industry that's expanding very rapidly, we're finding that we're having to cast the net pretty widely to find the talent we need. To the extent that we can advertise ourselves or be seen as an employer that offers a quality place to work we can be more successful in attracting the people that we need.

AS: How does job quality affect individual workers?

TS: I'd approach that question by asking 'what would an employee who has a high quality job look like?' I think that such an employee would be less likely to leave the employer that they are currently working with, especially if they have worked in several different places and they've got a way to compare one place to another. If someone is being treated well and is at the same time being challenged, they would be less likely to leave. They're more likely to be productive as well. It's fairly easy to draw a connection between someone who's pleased with where they're working and someone who's willing to put in the extra effort to be a productive employee.

If the individual has a high quality job, they would likely act as a positive emissary for their company and their job and therefore help on the recruitment side of things. They'd also probably end up being more positive in their dealings with customers and stakeholders. In our case, we don't have direct customers, but we certainly have owners and stakeholders in the environmental area and in the social area. If they're continually seeing employees who are positive and upbeat and energetic about what they are doing, then the impression they will have of the company will be positive.

AS: What are some of the biggest challenges that Syncrude, or organizations generally, face in terms of trying to create better work environments or better jobs?

TS: Well that's an interesting question. Regardless of what we try to do, there is still an element of repetitiveness in many of the jobs that we have. To the extent that we can, we design those jobs so that there is some breaking of the repetitiveness and some ability for those people to have other challenges mixed in. It's a difficult work design challenge.

Another thing that we certainly come to grips with every year is the weather up here. A lot of what we do is outside and we have to deal with the operation regardless of whether it's 40 degrees below or whether it's 35 degrees above zero. Everything is running 7 days a week, 24 hours a day here, whatever the weather. People that are operating have to deal with that. The geographic location, being 500 km from the nearest major centre, despite having an advanced community here, is still quite isolated from the rest of Canada.

Dealing with harassment and discrimination is also a challenge, regardless of what we say about an enlightened workforce. We're still working very hard moving everybody to the point where they are at least respectful of everybody else. It's a continual battle. It's a little bit like safety - we're getting better at it as time goes on, but it's a long haul particularly as the diversity of our workforce increases.

We have challenged ourselves to achieve zero lost time injuries. That means reducing the severity of any injuries we do have to the point where none misses any time at work. The business that we're in is a high hazard business, so part of the business is managing that risk. A lot of emphasis is put on safety and ensuring that before we dive into something we've got a good appreciation for the risks that are inherent in the work and make sure that we don't expose ourselves. It's a high pressure, high temperature high horsepower and high voltage business, and those things are unfriendly if you get on the wrong side of them. Those are some of the biggest things when it comes to business challenges.

AS: What are some of the most effective actions that Syncrude has taken, or that you've seen other organizations take, with respect to improving the quality of jobs or of work environments?

TS: Well I think a lot of companies right now have taken the topic of diversity to heart. Focusing on diversity leads you into a lot of avenues that have real opportunity for improving the workplace. An organization that feels that it's an economic advantage to be diverse must deal with employee treatment issues. It must develop programs that lead employees to deal with each other with higher levels of respect and tolerance and many of those concepts that are difficult to encompass in an organization.

I think a lot of organizations are looking at things like flexible schedules to offer employees the ability to balance work life and home life. Certainly, when you see people trying to deal with child-care and home care for children and parents, while at the same time trying to deal with being a productive employee, it really helps to have flexibility in the area of scheduling. As I mentioned earlier, flexible reward systems are a distinct advantage where people, as they move through life and have different priorities or are in different situations, can choose from a buffet of benefits and compensation processes that allow them to customize their support systems for the point at which they are in their life.

Coaching and mentoring programs are also things we've been doing a lot of in the last while. One of the issues that we're facing, like a lot of other organizations in the world, I would think, is that we've got a large baby boomer component in our orgnanization. Probably 75 percent of our organization is not going to be here in 10 years. So, you've got to ask yourself if these workers are going to be replaced by younger people, people in the so-called nexus generation or generation X, how do we bring those people along, at least technically and culturally within the organization.

AS: What sort of things are you doing in that respect?

TS: Well when somebody walks in the door, we're formally linking them up with a senior person as a mentor or a coach, or even several people, depending on what they may be working on at any given point in time. We're consciously making those alignments when new people come into the organization and making sure they get a real strong dose of the culture that we are looking for.

AS: What role do you see for governments in promoting better jobs or better work environments?

TS: That's an interesting one. I have to believe that there are some opportunities in the area of tax structures that might facilitate more flexible and custom-made employee rewards. In some areas of pension and health care we are pretty constrained by regulatory legal and tax processes that in some cases get in the way of flexibility. I think that it would help if we were to look at some regulatory and tax things that would provide companies with the opportunities to provide more of a flexible buffet for employees so that they don't end up being penalized on the tax or regulatory side for participating in them.

AS: What can individual employees do?

TS: We'd certainly like to see all our employees speak up when things aren't right, and we do have processes within the company for people to bring their concerns forward so that they can get addressed. The commitment that we'd like to see on the employee side is that they simply not sit on things. If you bring it forward it can get worked on, but if you sit on it nothing's likely to happen and everybody ultimately gets frustrated.

AS: Some employees are reluctant to raise issues with management, fearing reprisal or reprimands. How might employers get around that kind of catch 22?

TS: Some are afraid. Really, its about communication and building trust. To the extent that leaders and managers can be 'out there,' talking to groups of front-line employees and engaging themselves in their day-to-day issues and concerns, those leadership people will become trusted. More and more of the people in the front line of the operation will feel comfortable and safe in raising issues. As long as there is no evidence of people suffering for bringing forward issues, then there will continue to be a constant flow of those kinds of ideas.

Unfortunately, my experience is that if there is even one identifiable, I'll say 'penalty,' attached to someone bringing forward an issue in all good conscience, it can take about 5 years to get out of that hole. Trust is a very delicate thing to build in an organization. We tend to call it an 'emotional bank account.' Unfortunately, only one withdrawal seems to equate to about 100 deposits. In other words, it takes a long time to build that bank account, it takes a long time to build trust.

AS: How would better quality jobs benefit the economy and society more generally?

TS: Better quality jobs probably leads to a more productive and innovative workforce, which in turn leads to better profits which ultimately results in higher gross national product for the country. This, in turn, would lead to a higher standard of living and in turn lead to a higher skilled workforce, which cycles back to better quality jobs. It's a building and circular thing; once you get it going and motoring along, and if all the components are well greased, then it will maintain itself.

Those who enjoy a quality of work are likely to have a high quality of life outside of their job. Insofar as that takes place, then you've got quality time outside of your job to spend on things that build you personally, such as arts, community-oriented activities, or voluntary activities, things that can build a healthy outlook and healthy population.

AS: Is there any question I should have asked but did not?

TS: Perhaps I'd add that the biggest lever we have right now in moving forward, at least from my perspective, is the whole notion of all organizations making as one of their key goals to arrive at what I call a 'great place to work.' If all organizations had that as a key goal, and went about achieving it in various ways, it's quite likely that we'd all be making some headway.

AS: Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts with us.


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