Tuesday, 1 March 2011

..and a New Pair of Shoes

A few years ago the meetings industry picked up "CSR" as the calling card for sustainability. It was a positive step - moving the concept of sustainability into the industry vernacular. Helping people create a safe space to act in a way that helped others, reduced footprints and enabled business success through positive PR and financial benefits.

But I have to confess: I wonder if our industry is sorely neglecting the social cornerstone of sustainability?

My last post talked a bit about Shift Report. Conscientious Innovation's report lists several key sustainability issues that are most important to us, the top five being:
  • Feeling connected to friends, family and community
  • Sense of well being
  • Balanced life
  • Being paid a living wage
  • Employer treatment of employees
Are we responding to the shift in attitudes that sees these personal values emerging as most important among so many others? Could we do better?

Let's take the last two on this list: being paid a living wage and treatment of employees. I'm not going to kid myself - these are not questions that many of us are going to see asked in an event RFP any time soon. But it's not a secret our sector is challenged to meet the wage and benefit packages of other sectors. Many hospitality support staff within our sector find it tough to even meet basic needs. You might hear about the statistics that substantiate this, but have you put a face to the human impact?

A time ago, I was inspecting the back dock of a large convention centre to make sure our event waste was getting to where it needed to be. To comply with our contract the venue had stationed one of their janitorial staff at their loading bay to make sure that every bag of waste from our event was filed under compost, recycling or trash. To prepare for the event this man had gone through training to become familiar with how event materials needed to be disposed of and knew more about waste management in his community than the typical recycling warrior. A pretty specialized skill given how complicated our waste stream is. He prepared signs for his co-workers, set up marshaling areas to control the flow of materials; he even trained other staff in a colour-coded bag system we had set up to help sort streams. He was brilliant, and had a smile a mile wide every time we came to see him. It was a pretty dirty job, in a cold, dark area of the building, but there he was, pulling a huge weight for our team; climbing in and out of dumpsters, reaching into trash bags and operating compactors. He was proud, excited and 200% customer service-oriented.

Chatting with him back there one day we were both shuffling our feet to stay warm and I looked down to notice he had threadbare sneakers on, his dirty socks showing through in multiple places. On my way back from the dock I paused at his managers desk to talk to her and their mutual supervisor came by. She him asked if she could get approval to expense a pair of shoes. Asked why, she explained our champion didn't have a pair of work boots and she was worried he'd injure himself moving around the dock. The next day our recycling champion had a new pair of shoes.

Today, I vaguely remember our event at that center. I do know we had an exceptional diversion rate, thanks to the efforts of our champion and his team. In spite of that success I have a nagging feeling of sadness that is my strongest memory of the experience, along with a deep appreciation of the work of those two angels at the back dock. They are who I remember most, and I hope we can move to a place where such committed people are fairly rewarded.


Barbara Palmer said...

Thanks for telling this powerful story, Shawna. It occurs to me that one, and perhaps the central, reason the worker was provided proper shoes is because of the risk of injury and a workers' compensation claim.

I would love to know which meeting industry suppliers voluntarily set and meet living wage standards, and for what reasons.

Shawna McKinley said...

Thanks for the comment Barbara and I think you are definitely right, avoiding a claim could be a key driver. I'm very curious about your question, too so would welcome anyone who has encountered this to please chime in. The only thing I've encountered somewhat related to this was a company who accepted compensation requests that acknowledged the prevailing cost of living in the various communities where their employees live/work. So if City A had a higher cost of living than City B that could be factored into compensation. In this case the company was a planning service provider and employees were able to work remotely. Would love to see if there are others out there addressing this and how they are doing it.

Tahira Endean said...

What a great story and thank you for sharing it. We have a very unique challenge, particularly when we plan international events (for me in a past life) in destinations that have vastly different standards of living, and waste management. While we are lucky to live with the standard of living we enjoy, we also all work hard to maintain it and while it is easy to "close our eyes" to the threadbare shoes around us, each time we can help someone like this, maybe especially if the reason is safety, is one small step in a positive direction. We just have to keep taking them when we can and showing others how to take them with us.

Shawna McKinley said...

So true about international meetings Tahira. I've observed a few situations outside of my backyard where I've wanted to act but there are also those little voices in my head that wonder if it may come off the wrong way, or be culturally inappropriate. The last thing I want to do is insult someone by suggesting they are worse off or might need help. Safety though, as you and Barbara have pointed out, is one of those universal reasons to act.