Arbitrating for change

Dr. Kelly Williams-Whitt, associate professor at the Calgary campus of the University of Lethbridge, says a decade spent in the private sector started her on the path to obtaining her PhD in labour relations.

The one-time nurse developed an interest in law after witnessing how difficult the relationship between employers and employees can be. She researched the requirements for a law degree and an MBA and eventually found that labour relations pulled both of her interests together.

"Labour relations wasn't a draw for me initially – I had no idea until I started my MBA," says Williams-Whitt. "But from a human resources perspective, labour relations has a natural link to law."

Dr. Kelly Williams-Whitt researches disability accommodation in the workplace.

She has now found herself heavily involved in law by virtue of her research and expertise. She has been appointed by the federal government to act as an adjudicator for labour disputes that occur under Part III of the Canada Labour Code. She regularly hears cases alleging unjust dismissal, wage disputes and other employment matters.

As a labour arbitrator, Kelly's decisions are legally binding, and she works to ensure that the needs of both employer and employee are equitably addressed. This requires that she maintain current knowledge of labour legislation and case precedent, which also benefits management students who have the opportunity to discuss these "real life" challenges in the classroom.

"There's something about the legal side of labour relations that's appealing to me. Most

labour law cases are stories of misfortune that have escalated to the point that someone has lost their job," she says.

Williams-Whitt adds there are a variety of reasons for job loss besides performance, and they include suffering an injury or illness. When an employer doesn't recognize that illness is a contributing factor, this can sometimes result in poor or hasty decisions.

Williams-Whitt has therefore focused her research in the area of disability accommodation in the workplace, although she says she hates the term "disability".

"Cancer, depression and heart attack are all things that can change a person's ability to work or result in job loss. But these illnesses are not what we think about when we hear the term disability, so we don't think the concept applies to us. Illness and injury, and therefore disability, are likely to impact most people at some point in their working lives."

Employees are important stakeholders in all organizations and Williams-Whitt feels universities have an obligation to teach students about the dual responsibilities they will have as management decision-makers and as employees themselves.

"I think we haven't done a good job of talking about this in the past."

She adds students have historically been taught that corporations exist solely to create profit for shareholders, but she believes they also exist to serve, nurture and invest in social capital.

"Corporations and society have taken notice that some things have not been done well, and that we need to rethink how we approach business."

Today's students are more conscious of social responsibility through a variety of efforts, including the education system.

"Instead of erasing it from people's minds, we're highlighting it. But I think that when we don't take social responsibility seriously enough, everybody pays, whether it be socially or environmentally."

Williams-Whitt teaches labour arbitration, collective bargaining, corporate social responsibility and workplace diversity. She has conducted the majority of her research in the area of disability accommodation, speaks frequently at conferences and has authored a number of peer-reviewed journal articles on this subject. She is currently conducting research on the behaviours of employees returning to work after a health incident.

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