THE BLOG

Canada's Foreign Worker Program Has a Trust Problem

04/16/2014 12:26 EDT | Updated 06/16/2014 05:59 EDT

One of my go-to morning newspapers reported some pretty outlook-changing information; those labor shortages Canada's government constantly points to are, in fact, a myth.

Employers are not "hooked" on temporary foreign workers because they provide critical skills on an emergency basis (as the program was intended) but because they work hard (and presumably for cheap).

The story also quotes Canadian Federation of Independent Business president Dan Kelly who said homegrown workers often don't have the same work ethic as temporary foreign workers. He doesn't come out and say it, but Canadians are falling behind, hence the imports.

So who's to blame? It's time for management to look in the mirror. For the last 50 years organizations have invested in just about anything except their employees, who are increasingly treated as replaceable widgets. The federal government is also complicit. Why should employers bother to train, motivate and engage their workers when they can simply replace them with foreign "temporary" workers? A program designed for emergency scenarios has grown into a Frankenstein monster that has created its own emergency.

There is no skill shortage in North America. There is an energy shortage in the workforce. No one trusts their boss. Trust in organizations is at an all-time low. Stories about Canadian companies firing their workers and replacing them with low-cost foreigners simply reinforce that sentiment. Employees who don't trust you do not work hard and have low energy. The numbers don't lie: Gallup is consistently tracking ever-lower levels of employee engagement among the North American workforce.

In our annual review of our DMS results we found that less that 10 per cent of employees believe in and trust their executive team. This is based on 300 participants from public, private and government agencies in 2013 and should give every manager pause. Just like soon to be fired losing NHL coaches -- your team is no longer listening to you or playing to its potential.

What surprised us and other scholars who reviewed the work is the discovery that the longer an employee has been with a company, the less he trusts the company's executives. Longevity does not engender loyalty -- quite the opposite. The longer employees are exposed to management, the less they trust and believe in them.

I suppose we should not be surprised. When you don't invest in people, why would they trust you? They know you think they are dispensable no matter what your mission, values and emails say. When push comes to shove over the last 15 years we have seen what will happen: CEOs get the bonuses, workers get the door. This is what kills energy and creates cynicism in the workforce.

The truth is in the numbers. Spending on learning and development has fallen in Canada, according to a 2011 reported by the Conference Board of Canada. We are also behind the U.S. in employee training, spending an average of 64 cents to each dollar spent in the U.S. on learning and development. (Upskilling the Workforce: Canadian Chamber of Commerce, 2013).

Blog continues below slideshow...

Largest Canadian Employers Using Temporary Foreign Workers (2013)

We have been through this before, read the history of business in 1930s when Elton Mayo was conducting his famous Hawthrone study to understand how to get people to work harder (productivity). The secret is to show that you value their contribution. Peter Drucker demonstrated if your employees don't trust you they don't innovate for you.

And there is the key of our disengagement -- Low value, low productivity, low trust, low innovation. Low value, low trust, low workforce energy.

In other words, if you don't start investing and growing your employees, you will have a workforce working only for a paycheck just like the Hawthrone company and many other firms in the 1930s. Yet when employers finally listened to scholars like Mayo, Drucker, Frederick Taylor and many others North America experienced its most productive and innovative period ever.

At the DMS, we believe in the value of investing in and energizing your employees. We call it the Sunshine Effect. It can be calculated by measuring the engagement, trust and value of your employees, all determining your corporate Human Capital Productivity number. This number then is indexed against other organizations to diagnose where your employees need to increase their abilities. We then prescribe and provide a treatment for these areas of improvement and then measure again to understand the success, refine the treatment and then test again.

The sticky factor of this approach to leadership and change management is that 92 per cent of the relationships in our program continue nine months after the program ends and 94 per cent of employees believe that they are valued employees because of their experience in the DMS.

That means they work harder and have a better experience at work. As a recent Gallup study indicated only 13 per cent of employees are engaged at work so the needle has a long way to go until it is out of the critical zone.

Our research aligns with this exactly. We found that when given the tools mid-level and senior leaders help junior employees connect with and thrive in the culture because they have been there, done that. We see trust increase for both mentor and mentee, primarily because they realize the value of their work as it relates to themselves and others, and they feel the company invested in them. Most interesting is that we see the level of cynicism drop by 8 per cent for mentors and 10 per cent for mentees.

How can you start to end the emergency among your employee base in 2014?

• Increase your employees' sense of value -- increase productivity

• Increase your employees trust -- increase innovation

• Increase value and trust -- increase your employees' energy in the workforce.

It isn't a skills shortage, it's a trust shortage. Employers have changed the rules and employees no longer want to play the game. Bringing in foreign workers who accept the new rules may work for a while, but it is the last gasp of a broken model.