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CN Rail pension saga may be wake-up call for wider industry

Pension was withheld from employee’s same-sex widow for 9 years


CN Rail has now officially recognized Ken Haire as the legal recipient of his partner’s pension — in addition to issuing an apology and update to their policies. (Pascal Huot/Adobe Stock)

Failure to ensure internal policies reflect the current needs of your employees can have wide-ranging affects, as evidenced by the recently concluded struggle between CN Rail and Newfoundlander Ken Haire.

On May 4, Haire won a nine-year long legal battle against CN Rail — the former employer of his late common-law partner Gerry Schwarz.

The dispute came from CN Rail’s refusal to provide Haire with his partner’s pension, as they did not recognize same-sex relationships as a part of their pension plans at the time of Schwarz’s retirement.

CN Rail has now officially recognized Haire as the legal recipient of his partner’s pension — in addition to issuing an apology and update to their policies following what they claim to be “a regrettable lag.”

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Reviewing internal policy

The incident may serve as a wake-up call for organizations that have been slacking on optimizing and updating their internal policies, but employers should also be mindful of not reducing this process to a mere formality.

If approached correctly, “workplace policies can be an incredibly powerful tool for employers,” according to Brittany Taylor, partner at Rudner Law, an employment and HR-focused firm in Toronto.

“Like any tool, policies are only useful if properly utilized.”

This proper utilization begins with policies that are relevant and up to date with your workforce’s needs, but the deeper optimization of them lies in consistent applications of them.

“When policies are outdated and no longer reflect the needs and practices of the workplace, it is more likely that they will be forgotten about, or inconsistently followed or applied — both by the employer and by employees,” says Taylor.

“A policy that is not consistently followed is not worth the paper it is written on to an employer and loses all strategic value it may once have had.”

Creating relevant policies with both clear impact and application begins by conducting regular revisions, whether annually or in the wake of any major company changes, she said.

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Company values checklist

Employers should develop a checklist of company values that they wish to reflect in their internal policies to ensure that these regular updates and amendments create lean and high-impact company guidelines, according to Dean Schroeder, senior practice leader at Gallagher, a human resources consultancy in Calgary.

“Those in HR often know the frustration of juggling binders packed with documents — it’s in every HR office,” he says. “Creating a checklist that can be reviewed annually will ease the burden of writing and managing your policies and procedures.”

According to Schroeder, specific questions for these checklists to consider when reviewing existing procedures include:

  • whether a policy empowers and protects employees
  • whether a policy inclusively supports organizational values
  • to what degree does it help create a successful, respectful, equitable and cohesive team?

Employee feedback beneficial

Reflecting both the needs and goals of your company’s culture is integral in creating policies that are relevant and actionable, but a challenge can be determining what those needs and goals are in the first place.

“Your employees are your best resource” to guide this process, according to Kiljon Shukullari, HR advisory team lead at Peninsula Canada in Toronto.

Team events are not just ways of fostering camaraderie and engagement in the workplace, but also serve as opportunities for employers to see what their employees’ interests are; what they find difficult to deal with and handle; and where they find gaps in policies, he said.

Employers are then able to use that feedback to be more responsible and respectful.

“Not updating your policies will keep you irrelevant,” says Shukullari.

“Great talent will always look for how a company looks online, what kind of reviews they have,” he says. “That’s where you want to be careful, because you might really miss out on any opportunity to attract great talent.”

Jack Burton is a freelance writer in Toronto.