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  • Writer's picturekk smith

Welcome to Root & Branch!

Updated: Jan 13, 2021

Incredibly, it took months to come up with this name. Metaphors came and went. I’ve learned that negative connotations can be drawn from nearly any name or combination of letters.

These days, whenever I announce that my new business is called “Root & Branch”, people tend to frown or wrinkle their noses and say, “Why would you call it that?”

Perhaps “Root & Branch” has fallen out of the Canadian vernacular, but it is a bona fide idiom. Search the term on the BBC website and you’ll see the concept is alive and well in the British mind.

Root & Branch means big-picture change. Workplace conflicts and respectful workplace complaints don’t arise in a vacuum. Context matters. Bullying and harassment complaints are a product of many forces – some very personal, and others societal.

I’m launching Root & Branch because, after four years of conducting workplace investigations and assessments, I’ve learned that it’s not enough. So harassment occurred on a balance of probabilities. Now what? Previously, as a lawyer-investigator, this is where I would peace out. After painstakingly collecting reams of evidence, the results of investigations could often be summarized as, “Yep, you’ve got a damned mess on your hands. Good luck with that.”

Sometimes the Employer would ask for recommendations arising from my findings. I might suggest some form of discipline or education for the Respondent. Perhaps communication flows needed tweaking, or policy needed work. If termination was in order, then the Employer could point to the independent investigation report to justify its decision. That all has its place. It does. But if Employers are serious about creating and maintaining psychologically safe and healthy workplaces, it’s not enough.

With Root & Branch, I’m not seeking to perpetuate the existing structures for settling disputes. I know those structures from ten years as a labour and employment lawyer. I can navigate them. I can run a process that is procedurally fair. I can testify if I need to. But those skills are collateral to the actual point: creating healthy workplaces where people have the opportunity to tap their innate gifts to contribute to the organization’s success.

My approach maps onto the Root & Branch metaphor. We must start with acknowledging the roots of conflict. What social, historical, economic and other forces are informing the parties’ view of this dispute? Having acknowledged the lived experience of the parties, we can then move onto reflecting about what would need to happen to restore right relationship between them. Being seen and heard, and making adjustments in response, sets the stage for empowerment. The parties have the support, resources and capacity necessary to nurture their talents and turn them into something that helps the organization to flourish.

You want the business case? Pink Floyd. The Eagles. The Police. Simon & Garfunkel. The Guess Who. These were money-making machines until they broke up because they couldn’t stand each other anymore. Relationship matters. When we pretend that only productivity and growth matter, and fail to recognize that it all hinges on relationship, then the potential exists for relationship to behave like an ignored toddler, causing a ruckus to get attention, even if it’s negative.

The bad news is that there’s no shortcuts, at least not that I’ve found yet. Removing one “toxic” person from the workplace may bring instant relief, but it won’t solve all your problems. Change requires persistence. And a willingness to fail, and try again. I’m here to help organizations with that journey, whatever stage they’re at, and to whatever degree they feel ready to enter the conversation.

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