November 2013

HR Outlook

Why aren’t you meeting the HR components of your IBAs?

By Melanie Sturk

Impact and benefit agreements (IBAs) and other partnership agreements play an important role in establishing the ground rules that detail how a mining employer and aboriginal community will work together over the duration of a mining project. The creation of an agreement is a significant undertaking involving lengthy consultations and often a steep learning curve on both sides. Despite the mutual benefits of a local workforce, many partnerships still struggle to meet the HR components of their agreements. Why?

To answer this question, MiHR conducted a research project examining the lessons learned from existing IBAs in Canada. The foundation for establishing a solid partnership agreement is the commitment to building and maintaining trust between the employer and the community through respectful communication. First contact should be made as early as possible – no later than after the company has selected the land during the early stages of prospecting and exploration – and preferably before entry on traditional territory. The importance of this approach was reinforced recently by the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision not to challenge a Yukon court’s ruling that the ‘free-entry’ claim staking process is counter to the Crown’s duty to consult with Aboriginal Peoples.

Communicating and building trust cannot be a shortcut, and employers will struggle if they do not take the necessary time to understand cultural protocols. A simple move like sending in a community liaison instead of a senior executive to meet community leaders can cause offense and tarnish the relationship from the outset. Early dialogue and spending time in the community is likely to result in a more effectively negotiated partnership agreement.

Haphazard decisions on training and hiring goals can also lead to disappointing results for everyone involved. Although the general intent of agreements is to create significant employment and training opportunities for as many community members as possible, goals must be realistic so that success metrics are fair. While an ambitious hiring goal is admirable, if a company is not aware of the education, housing or health challenges that may exist within the community, such a goal will be hard to achieve. To establish realistic HR objectives, the company can share information on careers in mining and the mining cycle with the community – either directly or through a third party. The community also plays a crucial role in helping assess the skills makeup and career interests of its members.

One mining professional in human resources told me that negotiating is easy, but implementation is the hard part. After time and resources have been invested in the training and hiring of community members, a retention and inclusion strategy is essential to minimize turnover and maintain the local workforce. As aboriginal employees start to learn about mine life, non-aboriginal co-workers need to learn about local cultures and traditions to develop a truly inclusive workspace. For example, an aboriginal employee may not speak to her supervisor about her interest in an advancement opportunity because her cultural background may frown upon bragging or putting one’s self above the group. Through understanding the cultural context that influences behaviours, the employer can instead recognize the individual’s merits, ask the employee if she is interested in advancement and assist with the employee’s progression. This process can be enhanced by creating a role for a trusted community liaison officer who acts as a bridge between the community and the employer and, additionally, can ensure problems are managed before they escalate. Some mining employers have implemented thoughtful and effective inclusion and retention methods. Examples include translating company publications into aboriginal languages and introducing flexible schedules to allow time for the individuals to continue to support their community and take part in traditional activities. In an ideal scenario, companies will also provide the community with skills that are transferrable after the mine closes, or involve the creation of support services that are owned and managed by the community.

The result of any partnership should be a win-win, but it does require time, resources and compromise. Early, open communication and spending time together builds the critical element of trust and often will set the tone for the duration of this working relationship. Companies and communities embarking on this process for the first time are fortunate in that they can learn from those who have walked the path before them.

Read about some of these lessons in Lessons Learned: A Report on HR Components of Aboriginal Community and Mining Company Partnership Agreements and Forging Stronger Pathways to Education and Employment: A Report from the Proceedings of the Aboriginal Mining Education Forum.

Melanie Sturk is the director of attraction, retention and transition at the Mining Industry Human Resources Council (MiHR), the national HR council for Canada’s minerals and metals industry.

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