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'Check in before you check out': expert speaks to inclusive leadership in mining

Tina Varughese was the opening keynote speaker during the 2024 Mining Health and Safety Conference in Sudbury, hosted by Workplace Safety North
Tina Varughese addressed a full house during the 2024 Mining Health and Safety Conference hosted by Workplace Safety North.

Are you a mining leader who’s surrounded by silence at work?

If your employees don’t feel comfortable speaking openly, are afraid of retribution in sharing ideas, or don’t feel respected on the job, you may be creating a psychologically unsafe workplace.

“If people are surrounded by silence, that would be an indicator that you don't have a psychologically safe environment,” according to Tina Varughese, a Calgary-based expert in cross-cultural communication and diversity.

“Because that means that people don't feel safe enough, quite frankly, to speak, to voice their concerns, to voice their ideas.”

Varughese delivered the opening keynote address during the 2024 Mining Health and Safety Conference, being hosted by Workplace Safety North in Sudbury this week.

Taking place April 16-18, the annual get-together draws health and safety leaders from across Northern Ontario’s mining industry for three days of panel discussions, networking, technical presentations, and best practices shared by experts like Varughese, all aimed at creating healthier, safer workplaces in the sector.

With the theme ‘Inclusive mines, a safer future,’ this year’s conference is focused on creating environments that are not only safe and healthy, but diverse and equitable.

Varughese acknowledged that creating a psychologically safe workplace can be challenging, and it’s not a destination, but a journey.

Leaders can start by watching for microaggressions in the workplace, which she defined as “unintentional hostilities directed toward marginalized groups.”

It might be asking a Black coworker how she gets a brush through her kinky hair, why a colleague wears a head covering, telling a peer “you don’t look gay,” or categorizing a coworker with a disability as an “inspiration.”

Though they’re called “microaggressions,” they actually have a bigger, long-term impact. Even if said without malice, they can hurt.

Much like a mosquito bite, one or two may not be a big deal, but after suffering thousands of bites over a lifetime, “they scar, they bleed, they scab, but they never heal,” Varughese said.

Born and raised in Saskatoon, Sask., with Indian roots, Varughese said she’s constantly asked, ‘Where are you from?’

Instead, Varughese suggested if you’re genuinely interested in learning about someone, ask about their cultural background.

“Well, now you’re creating a relationship with me, because the key here is to share a bit about your own cultural background. That becomes a relationship,” she said.

“So now it’s not a microagression, but rather it’s just part of building a relationship.”

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Varughese offered some tips for engaging employees and encouraging healthy debate and discussion in their workplace.

Though it’s a simple idea, she said mining leaders should always provide an agenda prior to a meeting, even if it’s a casual meeting held regularly. It helps ensure people have a sense of inclusion and belonging, and sets them up for success.

Some workers might be introverts, who tend to need time to process information and gather their thoughts.

For others, English might not be their first language, and they actually have to translate the information in their heads before responding. This is becoming more common as companies across Canada look to foreign-trained workers to help close the labour gap.

Currently, Varughese said, the top source countries of immigrants coming into Canada are India, China, Pakistan, Philippines, Korea, and Syria.

“If you have an accent, people sometimes think you’re not necessarily as smart,” said Varughese, who is the child of parents that immigrated to Canada from India more than 60 years ago.

“Well, at the end of the day, if you have an accent, you’re bold, you’re brave, you’re badass, and why is that? Probably because you actually had to immigrate from another country, potentially learn a language, and leave everything that you knew.”

She also cautioned leaders against falling prey to ‘affinity bias,’ which is relating to, and often favouring, people that remind us of ourselves.

When Canadians meet for the first time, for example, they tend to default to common conversation icebreakers like talking about the weather. But in other cultures, that familiarity doesn’t land.

Leaders could be missing out on quality job candidates and engaging interactions because of this.

“Our first impressions are made in seconds,” Varughese said. “We potentially screen someone out before we screen them in simply because they couldn't answer a question as simple as the weather in the way that we assumed they could because of our affinity bias."

In general, Varughese urged leaders to have compassion for those they work with by listening to them and legitimizing their concerns.

Pressures associated with employees’ personal lives — divorce, illness, caring for an aging parent — don’t disappear once they arrive at work, Varughese said, and these pressures can often lead to anxiety, depression, or other symptoms.

Employees may just need an empathetic ear to listen to them, or they may welcome suggestions on how to cope.

“Get the help; check in before you check out because there is a lot of support,” Varughese advised. “And if you notice colleagues are experiencing any of the symptoms, one small thing: you can ask.”


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Lindsay Kelly

About the Author: Lindsay Kelly

Lindsay Kelly is a Sudbury-based reporter who's worked in print and digital media for more than two decades. She joined the Northern Ontario Business newsroom in 2011.
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