This week’s Up-stander at first glance may seem obvious to many people, as millions of Canadians will instantly understand why Kevin Vickers clearly deserves this and a whole lot more recognition for what he did on Wednesday two weeks ago in our nation’s capital. I have more reasons to be grateful for what Kevin did, because of his impact on my daughter Robin, who works with him in the House of Commons.
Recently, I was the keynote speaker at the Canada’s Safest Employer Awards celebration in Toronto, less than a week following the events on parliament Hill. The subject of this week’s Up-standers piece, Kevin Vickers, is embodied within the text of the speech I delivered to award winners and attendees that night.
“It is my privilege to be with you tonight. We are here to honour great achievements created by inspiring people who have made Canada a better place to live, learn, work and play. It is their core values, your core values that bring us together, at this time, in this place.
You – have embraced workplace cultures that are built on civility and respect, and on the physical and psychological protection of the people you work with.
You – already understand that a life lost or damaged, or a life saved or healed, isn’t about rules and regulations.
It is about people – people committed to breathe life and soul into the values that such rules are based upon.
I like the way Dr. Kevin Kelloway of Saint Mary’s university puts it. Kevin says a healthy workplace is one that promotes dignity: both the dignity you and I earn through our work and the innate human dignity within every human being. And he says, dignity comes from respect for ourselves, our respect for others and the perception that others respect us. Workplaces that function in the absence of dignity and respect are far more dangerous places for our families and friends or anyone else to work in. A healthy workplace, a safer workplace, Kevin says, is one that embraces, promotes and nurtures dignity, and with it, respect.
I want to tell you two, very personal stories with two very different endings that explain why I personally know this to be so true. The first story is about an unsafe, unhealthy workplace where, in the absence of dignity, respect, civility and physical and psychological protection, everything went wrong. Almost 20 years ago to the day, 19 year-old Sean was on the third day of a new job. He poured thick fluid from a large drum into smaller cans, preparing them for shipment to automobile dealers to undercoat new vehicles. What Sean did not know was that this liquid was not only toxic, but also highly flammable. There was no warning, no training, no ventilation and no attention paid to multiple ignition sources. 20 minutes into his workday, a spark of static electricity ignited the fumes gathered around Sean’s body. A flash fire travelled back into the drum. It exploded, covering Sean’s body in flames. 24 hours later, Sean died from third degree burns to 95% of his body. He lost his life in a place without dignity and no respect for the health of the human beings who worked there. I know all of this to be true, because this young man, Sean Marshall Kells, was, and is, my son.
The second story follows almost exactly twenty years later, in a place I thought was about as safe as any my daughter could ever work in. I speak of the Parliament of Canada. My son Sean died in a workplace tragedy. My daughter Robin was saved in one. We were all forced to remember once again last week that unexpected, bad things can still happen anywhere, any time.
Before I talk about my daughter’s experiences there and of how grateful I am for those who were with her and helped her in the aftermath, I first must say how deeply saddened I know we all are by the loss of two Canadian soldiers last week, both on duty and both working. Nathan Cirillo’s workplace that day was the National Cenotaph. This is not the time, for me at least, to question what might have altered the events that day that led to the loss of his life. I can only say I am confident there must and will be a complete assessment of the risks and protections required to ensure the safety of those who stand duty for our country in such circumstances from now on. But I can tell you more about the values I believe saved my daughter’s life inside the Parliament building. Hundreds of people put themselves in harms way to protect others, but there is more to this story than that.
As the gunman made his way to the House from the Cenotaph, my daughter Robin was working in her office that near the Hall of Honour, close by to the area where the shooting took place. Robin heard a loud bang – I am not sure – it might even have been the first shot at the security entrance. She thought a fixture might have fallen in the hallway and opened the door to look at what was going on. In the next instant, gunfire exploded around her. Bullets were flying in the hallways and her only option was to slam her door shut, go to a bathroom and lock that door.
Later, during and after the lock down, she and other staff at the House of Commons began setting up support systems for other employees to return to work and to prepare the way for Parliament to open for business the next day. Meanwhile, crisis counsellors were flying in to help people, including Robin, cope with the trauma as soon as they could leave their posts. Throughout the ordeal, Robin called me to tell me first when she was safe and later just to talk. It was on the last call between us on Friday that I finally learned the full extent of kindness and caring extended by everyone in that workplace, and especially Kevin Vickers.
I wrote him a personal note on Saturday, not only to thank him for answering the call of duty but also for the other things he did. I can only imagine how trying that day and the days that followed must have been for Kevin Vickers. Yet he reached out over and over again as a kind, caring human being to connect with and comfort the daughter I love so dearly. I ended that letter by telling him if I ever met him personally, to be warned. I was going to hug him.
As a father I have see through the worst of it and the best of it through my children’s workplaces at opposite ends of the spectrum. I understand first hand the difference in between places where dignity and respect are paramount and others where their absence can lead to tragedy. I don’t think I understand this. This is real. I’ve lived this, as has our family. As for the business side of the equation of dignity, civility and respect, I will share this with you. From years of experience in business and communications, in people engagement and the study of workplace culture change and business growth, I can tell you with absolute certainty that any organization that:
(1) focuses on respect and dignity (2) creates and embeds clear core values at every level and (3) engages its people to live and breathe them will be a respectful workplace, a safer, healthier, more productive and more accountable workplace, with people who not only take care of business but watch out for each other every single day.
And so it is that I believe in this quote, from the Human Equation by Jeffrey Pfeffer.
“All work place practices and changes should be evaluated by a simple criterion: Do they convey and create trust, or do they signify distrust and destroy trust and respect among people”
It is my honour to be here tonight, among Canadians dedicated to conveying and creating trust, who make our country’s workplaces safer and healthier through their personal example. Thank you.”
An excerpt from a speech delivered on October 28, 2014 by Paul Kells at Canada’s Safest Employer Awards celebration in Toronto, Ontario