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Media Centre :: Levitt's Corner ::

Employers can resist poor work habits

By: Howard Levitt Financial Post: Wednesday, July 02, 2008. All Rights Reserved.

The entitlement state is alive and well on the other side of the Atlantic. Writing from abroad, I can report that subsidization of indolence, restricted hours of work and punitive taxation, pervades the economies of western and central Europe. And Canada isn't far behind, thanks to a deteriorating work ethic and the debate here, which focus on work-life balance, sensitivity and emotional quotient.

I recall some years ago that Jimmy Pattison, a Canadian corporate legend, was said to have fired the bottom 10% of his sales staff every year to motivate the rest. Whether or not it's true is immaterial. Presumably, it had the effect of attracting and rewarding confident and productive workers. Today, it would be unheard of.

Over March break, I struck up a conversation with a young lawyer on a ferry in Nicaragua. She was about to take a job in the Wall Street office of a Canadian firm. I took the liberty of dispensing advice that, I assured her, she would likely not hear elsewhere. Her firm might speak of work-life balance but, if she wanted to advance, she should work day and night in her early years of practice. If she openly sought work-life balance, I told her, her employer would nod politely and write her off. Clients, I said, care about two things -- results and accessibility. They will tolerate a junior lawyer only if she is accessible and proficient, qualities only achieved by putting in time.

In all fields, employers seek employees who will give them an edge over their competitors. Why else would they hire them? Regretfully, employment and labour law in Canada increasingly impose obstacles to efficiency and productivity. That being said, employers have means to combat poor work habits:

  • Union seniority Seniority, not wages, is the principal reason employers resist unions. If a promotion is awarded on length of service rather than performance, why should anyone strive to be productive? Unionized companies need not agree to sweeping seniority in their collective agreements. I have negotiated many agreements where seniority only applys if, in the employer's assessment, the employees are equally matched in ability, qualifications and productivity.
  • Sick time Not every claim, particularly for minor ailments, should be automatically accepted. Patterns of absenteeism, particularly on Fridays before long weekends, should be scrutinized. Short-term benefits should not be paid unless suspected malingering employees are seen by the employer's doctor. In addition, employers should reject the customary one-line doctor's notes. Demand confirmation an employee is fully disabled from doing their own job or any other. If an employee is accommodated in a job with a lower pay rate, employers need only pay that rate.
  • At home work Although the law does not yet require this, it is foreseeable the activist B. C. or Quebec human rights tribunals will mandate such accommodation. Before an employer permits someone to work from home, criteria for productivity and assessment of performance should be set.
  • Parental and family choices If an employee wishes to spend more time with their children, family, or spouse, it is their choice. But they need not be paid the same as employees who choose not to and produce more. An employer may adjust compensation to reflect reduced productivity for employees who spend more time outside the workplace, for example, attending to children or family. Standards of productivity, however, must be applied equally to all staff whose time or productivity diminishes for whatever reason.

The difficulty with the latter three is distinguishing legitimate need from subterfuge. While they must be legally accommodated, employees should not be allowed to mask incompetence and the deliberate shirking of responsibilities, under these prohibited grounds. Given their human rights aspects, one must proceed with care in drawing such distinctions.