KNOW NO LIMITS – Q&A with Anne Harvey, Vancouver Coastal Health

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By Phoebe Yong

Magnolia MarComm was fortunate to have the opportunity to speak to Anne Harvey of the Vancouver Coastal Health this past week. Anne is the Vice President of Employee Engagement at the VCH and has forged a successful professional career managing a broad portfolio of Human Resources functions at VCH. This Q&A highlights her thoughts on her chosen career path, women in the workplace, and above all, encourages women of all ages to Know No Limits.
Please see an excerpt of the interview below: 

Q: “What is your position at Vancouver Coastal Health?”
A: “My title is Vice President of Employee Engagement which is the Human Resources department for Vancouver Coastal Health. I’ve had the position for nine years with a very broad portfolio that includes everything from Labour Relations, Clinical Education, Health and Safety, Recruitment and Retention, Lean Process Improvement, and Management Education. It’s a very, very broad Human Resources portfolio.”

Q: “How did you get this job and how did it evolve?”
A: “I was asked to apply for the position by the previous CEO of Vancouver Coastal Health.”

Q: “Were you working at VCH beforehand?”
A: “No, I was working for the BC Nurses Union.”

Q: “In what capacity? May I ask?”
A: “I was the Chief Operating Officer and Chief Negotiator. I headed up a very productive set of contract negotiations between the health authorities and the BC Nurses Union in 2004. The CEO of Vancouver Coastal was looking for a more innovative approach to Human Resources than had been traditional in health care in the past.”

Q: “What do you mean by wanting a different approach as opposed to traditional?”
A: “First of all, I think they were looking for somebody with innovative ideas. There were some long standing problems like high sick leave and injury rates that needed a new solution, there was also a huge skill shortage gap for nurses and no one had been able to solve these problems. Secondly, VCH was looking for a more collaborative approach to working with unions. In the 2004 negotiations with the health authorities and the province, we had a number of innovative ideas that were agreed upon and implemented. Obviously, the only way we could reach an agreement on some new approaches was through collaboration between the health authorities, the Health Employers Association and the union.”

Q: “So it’s a collaborative effort with lots of key parts?”
A: “Yes. In that round of bargaining, we actually used a mutual interest bargaining model, which emphasizes more alternate dispute resolution rather than positional bargaining.”

Q: “Now, how many work within the VCH?”
A: “VCH has approximately, 20,000 employees, 5,000 volunteers, and there are 2,500 physicians who are not employees but are affiliated with VCH and have privileges in our hospitals and programs.”

Q: “What would you say is the best part about your job?”
A: “The opportunity to try out new ideas. I have been really, really fortunate ever since I came to Vancouver Coastal Health that when we come up with a new idea and a new way of approaching things, we’ve never been told no.”

Q: “Can you give me an example of a new idea that you introduced and that was accepted?”
A: “Our most recent idea addresses the fact that we have a problem with bullying in health care. It’s a problem internationally in health care. Particularly in the emergency and operating room environment where there is a lot of stress. We had a very good policy on the face of it but people weren’t reporting when they had complaints. We would only hear about them three of four years after they were experiencing the problem. So, we came up with a new program where we put in a 1-800 number for people to report bullying complaints to our Employee and Family Assistance program. Then, they could either get some counselling through the Employee and Family Assistance program or the program would refer their complaint on to a Human Resources advisor, who would investigate the complaint and help them resolve it. This had never been done before, so it meant that we had to be very transparent and recognize we had a problem with bullying. Not every organization would want to be transparent about that but we took it to our executive team and they said, ‘Yes, go ahead. We don’t know how successful it will be. We aren’t sure it’s a big a problem as you think it is but try it’ and we did. So we launched that new program on February 26th, which is No Bully Day. ”

Q: “Of this year?”
A: “Yes and since then we’ve had over 200 complaints reported. So that’s tremendous and we are now not only getting those reports in but sending out how those reports are being resolved in the VCH newsletter. So we’re being very transparent about the results saying these many are being resolved with apologies and one has been resolved by suspension. The senior executive was discussing it this morning and saying, ‘Wow you were right! This is really good because if we have that many complaints we do have a serious issue, more than we thought and we’re really glad that you raised it and that your team is working on it.’ That’s the joy of my position. That we have a culture at Vancouver Coastal of innovation and if you have a good idea, you get to try it out.”

Q: “Right and something like this shows that whatever people’s complaints are, are not going to ‘deaf ears’, you guys are actually doing something about it.”
A: “Exactly. The problem with bullying is it causes a great deal of anxiety for people. People with that level of anxiety end up on sick leave or even on long-term disability because they develop serious anxiety and depression. So it’s a really important issue.”

Q: “Along that same question, what is the most challenging part about your job?”
A: “The most challenging part is that health care is the most complex industry or sector and it’s very difficult to predict how a new program or decision will affect the organization in terms of patience and employees. You can make a decision over ‘here’ that has an unintended consequence over ‘there.’ Then of course because the health care budget is such a large portion of the provincial government’s budget, funding is really a challenge.”

Q: “Do you mean managing the budget or getting the budget? What do you mean by that?”
A: “It’s getting funding for initiative. It’s difficult and challenging so we really have to link how any new human resource program or our existing human resource programs affect the bottom line. So we have to work really hard to translate our work into dollars and patient care hours.”

Q: “Moving away from this position, what would you say was officially your first job?”
A: “I pumped gas as a teenager, I worked as a waitress, chamber maid – all jobs when I was in high school you know?”

Q: “So what about officially as a career?”
A: “I was a Lab Assistant at Imperial Chemical Industry.”

Q: “A lab assistant, interesting. So in the science field, did you like it? How long did it last?”
A: “Maybe a year. I didn’t like it really, it wasn’t my passion.”

Q: “And what about education wise, where did you go to school?”
A: “I went to school in Britain. I finished a Sociology degree with a major in Modern Industrial Society. Then much, much later I took a Master’s in organizational design from the Fielding Institute in Santa Barbara. That was online as part of distance education for the most part.”

Q: “In terms of your career path, did you know that you would end up in HR when you started taking these classes? Obviously you love what you do.”
A: “You know, I didn’t plan a career. Actually, I will be retiring in the next two or three years and I don’t know what I’m going to do when I retire either. But what I’ve always done is looked for what I find fascinating, that’s why I took Sociology. After that I took Journalism.”

Q: “What area of Journalism?”
A: “News reporting because I found it fascinating. Probably journalism was the only decision I actually tried to do. Everything else, I just stayed open to opportunities. As I saw an opportunity, I would switch and go into something new.”

Q: “Were you driven by your gut or money? Do you mind me asking?”
A: “Well no. I had children very early. I had my first child when I was 20. I had always wanted to travel and I was living in Britain and by the time I was 23 I had two children. So, I realized that I wasn’t going to be doing that much travelling just from an economic point of view. So I decided that I would live my work life as an adventure. So I looked for things I found fascinating. Jobs would close down and I would see something else or I’d be working in a job and somebody offered me another opportunity. Most of the time, when I switched I’d earn the same or more money but a couple of times I earned less.”

Q: “Oh interesting. So it wasn’t money that guided you then it was always about that adventure.”
A: “It was really the enjoyment of the work.”

Q: “So if you were talking to young women today, especially from an HR perspective who doesn’t know what to do with their career, what tools would you recommend for them to find that right career path?”
A: “I don’t know because I puzzle with this one myself. First of all, definitely watch your interests. You have to love your work. You may not know the job you want, but look for the area that has the content that fascinates you. For example, I didn’t work with Sociology ever but I was fascinated by Sociology and it was extremely helpful when I moved into Journalism, Labour Relations, and now in Human Resources. So don’t get hung up on the exact job. Look for the content area that fascinates you.”

Q: “Be guided by those interests right? As you were growing up, who were some of your role models for women? Whether it’s somebody personally or famous, was there anybody that you looked up too?”
A: “My mother was very career oriented, so she instilled those values. Both my parents worked extremely hard. The best thing you could say about someone in our family is that they were hard workers. I was growing up just after the Second World War and my father began a business. In fact, he began three businesses, one after the other until he finally made it but he was extremely successful in his chosen field. So, I did see both my parents do much better than you would have predicted based on their education level or social class, which of course is very big in Britain.”

Q: “Yes of course but I hear you about hard work, nothing replaces that doesn’t it?”
A: “No, nothing replaces that.”

Q: “Generation Y because is the audience I may be speaking to throughout this campaign, ones that are coming out of university. Do you have any advice for them or comments about this generation in terms of how they may succeed?”
A: “Well what I notice about Generation Y is that they have strong community values, which is great! I think it’s really important that they hang on to those values and look for work that allows them to express their values. I think that’s absolutely key; to be aware of their expectations and how their expectations might be different from people working around them and be aware that there are different expectations at work as well as at home. I think we all tend to think, what we expect is what everybody expects and I don’t find that as true. So we should be aware of what our own expectations are and being open to understanding that other people have different expectations, I think is really important. ”

Q: “My last question is about the campaign theme that we’re doing, which is Know No Limits. What would you like to say to women today about knowing no limits?”
A: “What I notice, which I am just amazed about and I think is wonderful is that when my generation had children, we tried to hide the fact because it was so new to have working mothers it was easier not to talk about it because it generated less opposition. What I’m really proud of about young women today is that they are raising these issues about the challenges of being parents and employees. Also, young men are too and I think it’s wonderful that there is more discussion about that and people are bringing those issues forward rather than trying to keep them quite.”

Q: “Are you saying I that in terms of knowing no limits that just because you are going to be a working mom, that shouldn’t hinder you or hold you back?”
A: “No it shouldn’t hold you back at all and you should be able to talk about the challenges of being a working parent. I think you need to actually talk about it because there are more and more, particularly in the public sector, value placed around working fathers because of their employment contracts. I think it’s important people talk about those challenges openly and find way to reconcile their differences. I know that we’ve moved some of our meeting times for team meetings, not because the women in the team have childcare times but two of the men in our team have child care times. And so, I’m really glad that we can now debate that and say how do we accommodate this? How do we change the working hours? How do we change the meeting times?”

Q: “Interesting, it’s really about accommodation isn’t it?”
A: “It is. I think what the next ten years is going to be about is: there will be skill shortages in all sectors. Specifically, those in Canada and the US are showing that women’s participation in the workforce is dropping slightly. So young women are going to be extremely valued and sought after as employees because we are going to go into shortages. I think young women have a really good opportunity in the next ten years to advance their careers and maintain the working parent balance because they will be in demand.”

Q: “Yes that’s promising for them isn’t it?”
A: “Very.”

Q: “And then the last question is that is there a lesson you wish you knew then that you know now?”
A: “I don’t tend to think about regrets. I have a great career in that it’s extremely varied, extremely interesting and I’ve enjoyed it all.”

Q: “You’re very lucky too for that. Thanks for your time.”

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