Who’s hot, who’s not

Harvey Brooks cares. At least, that's what he tells his employees and, just as importantly, that's what many of them seem to believe.

Harvey Brooks cares. At least, that’s what he tells his employees and, just as importantly, that’s what many of them seem to believe.

When he was hired as the deputy minister of Economic Development in July of last year, he faced the unenviable task of shoring up sagging morale in his department, which in 2007 and 2008 scored below all other departments in the territory’s annual employee engagement surveys.

New results from the 2009 survey, conducted by Ipsos-Reid, puts Economic Development up eight points, with a score of 62, which places the department slightly above the middle of the pack.

It’s one of the biggest bounds made by any of the departments, second only to Tourism, which leapt ahead by nine points.

Finance, which placed far above other departments last year, took a big, seven-point hit. But even with the plunge, the department still placed second only to the Yukon Workers’ Compensation Health and Safety Board.

Highways and Public Works also fell seven points, tumbling from the middle rungs to second-last place, at 53 per cent.

Justice remains at the bottom of the pile, although it experienced a modest improvement of four points, to 52 per cent.

Across government, the engagement score remained steady at 60 per cent. “It shows stability,” said Craig Shippey with the Public Service Commission.

But a different measuring stick, used to compare the contentment of territorial government workers to those in other jurisdictions in Canada, found the territory had slipped one point to a score of 58, which is eight points below average.

The number of survey respondents grew this year by eight per cent, or 427 employees, up to 51 per cent. Officials are cheering this result as a positive gain, although the rise in respondents didn’t help the scores of all departments.

Take Finance. Its response rate grew to 83 per cent, up from 54. Yet the department also took a seven-point tumble in its engagement score.

It appears the bean-counters who had previously remained quiet were the pessimists of the bunch.

“Maybe they thought about it over the year and found they disagreed,” said Bill Curtis, the department’s director of administration.

“We captured a few people who are having some issues. And that’s fine, too. Now we have an idea of where we need to go.”

It’s also partly the trouble of having a small department of about 58 people. One person with grievances can have a big impact on the department’s score, said Curtis.

But small can also be good. All of Finance’s departments are under one roof, which makes it easier for bosses to catch up with employees as they bump into one another in the coffee room and halls.

No such luck at Economic Development, which has its workers spread across five buildings. This remains one big challenge the department will need to continue to work around, said Brooks.

But there are plenty of small fixes. He credits his department’s rising morale to regular performance appraisals, meetings and memos to ensure staff feel like they’re kept in the loop.

Of course, not all government jobs are equal. Those who spend their days doling money out to community groups in Economic Development probably have less job stress than the guards handling inmates in Whitehorse Correctional Centre.

“Staff at Justice have some of the toughest jobs in society,” said Deborah McNevin, director of strategic planning.

That said, McNevin acknowledges that, in Justice, “there’s still quite a lot of work to do” in shoring up morale. While the department saw a four-point rise in its score, it’s still at the bottom of the barrel.

Deputy minister Dennis Cooley made a point of meeting all staff last year, she said. Senior management now posts the minutes of their meetings for workers to see. And more than 120 staff turned out for a series of “cafe sessions” to talk about improving the workplace.

The department has also bumped up training offered to its workers about such things as workplace violence prevention and “building a respectful work environment,” said McNevin.

Across government, a perception remains that nepotism is alive and well within the bureaucracy. Yet this is a communication problem, rather than a product of flawed human-resources practices, said Patricia Daws, the public service commissioner.

The territory conducted an audit of its hiring practices last year and found in none of the 40 cases reviewed any inappropriate hiring practices, said Daws.

Comments submitted with completed surveys – which were stripped of any department names – expressed a range of opinions. Some marvelled over having found their dream job. Others complained that reforms sparked by the surveys were little more than “window dressing.”

“There’s no finishing line in these types of things,” said Brooks. “If staff don’t believe we’re committed to it, it could fall off again.”

Contact John Thompson at

johnt@yukon-news.com.