When the going gets tough

Employers are forced to get inventive to lure—and retain—the best and brightest

When the going gets toughAfter the video game development studio where Geoff Coates was working abruptly shut down, the Vancouver-based art director found himself looking for a new gig. He heard about another local company, Next Level Games Inc., from a friend. “The more I talked to these guys, the more I wanted to work here,” says Coates. The firm’s positive office environment, as well as the collaboration he saw, appealed to him. After spending more than 10 years in the industry, the 40-year-old says, “it became more about the people than the job title.” He took a job at Next Level Games—one of Canada’s Top 100 Employers—three months ago, and he hasn’t looked back.

Attracting and retaining highly skilled workers is crucial, especially during a recession when “you need your best and brightest,” says Richard Yerema, managing editor of Mediacorp Canada Inc., which compiles the list of Canada’s Top 100 Employers. With all the company closures and layoffs of late, there’s no shortage of unclaimed talent on the market. In good times, prospective employers could afford to offer fat signing bonuses and generous benefit packages to lure the best of them, but in today’s tough economic climate, firms have to be more inventive. By offering things like in-house training, volunteer opportunities and flexible work hours, companies on the Top 100 list are proving it’s possible to offer perks that people want, without breaking the bank.

Despite the recession, 25 per cent of “high-potential employees” are now considering leaving their jobs, according to one U.S. study. That could be because they’re anxious about their firm’s prospects or because they have better options, says Leigh Branham, founder and CEO of the consulting firm Keeping the People Inc., and author of The 7 Hidden Reasons Employees Leave. Those with what Branham calls “loose-in-the-saddle syndrome” represent an opportunity for employers.

As Coates knows, though, most people aren’t ultimately attracted to a job because of company-funded getaways to Cancun or free cappuccinos in the office lounge. Surprisingly, it’s often not even about the money. According to Branham, only 12 per cent of workers leave a job because they feel they aren’t paid enough; managers mistakenly estimate that number to be closer to 80 per cent. “Workers are leaving because they feel burnt out, or don’t trust their senior leaders,” he says. “But they didn’t want to say that in an exit interview.”

Ultimately, say experts, most employees are looking to feel appreciated and to have opportunities for advancement and growth. So it’s no surprise that many in the Top 100 focus heavily on training and development, offering everything from job shadowing to tuition subsidies. PCL Constructors Inc., for example, has its own in-house College of Construction to help workers hone their technical, personal and leadership skills. Statistics Canada, another top employer, offers a program called “career broadening”: after four years, employees can request a developmental assignment with another department and “can’t be refused,” says Claude Graziadei, Statistics Canada’s director of human resource development. Employees benefit by learning a new skill set, and it saves jobs, too. “When we get budget cuts, as long as people are willing to move, we can keep them on and give them meaningful work elsewhere,” Graziadei says. The program also helps the government agency staff up new projects “really quickly,” he adds, “with very little red tape.”

Also common among top firms are job sharing and reduced workweeks. Such policies cost little to implement, but have been shown to boost worker satisfaction and cut costs. At SaskEnergy Inc., 10 employees have job-sharing arrangements, working one week on, one off. Some companies go a step further by offering telecommuting—that’s a fancy way of saying employees work from home. “People like the flexibility,” says Tina Dacin, director of the Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility at the Queen’s School of Business. “And they’ll feel more responsible and accountable, like the organization trusts them.” (At Best Buy’s corporate headquarters in Minneapolis, employees famously have a “results-only work environment,” Branham notes, where they make their own hours and are judged on output instead of physical hours in the workplace.)

Family-friendly programs are becoming increasingly popular, too. According to Yerema, this year’s Top 100 list features more employers offering parental and maternity top-up benefits than ever before. When Next Level Games considered adding a parental leave top-up program for employees a few years ago, “they took a look and asked, ‘Can we afford to do this?’ ” he says. For employer and employees alike, it was worth it. The policy doesn’t cost the company a lot, since in a given year only about eight per cent of staff use it. (The plan tops up maternity benefits to 80 per cent of pay for 27 weeks.) But “when you look at the value to the people who use it, it’s exceptional,” says Yerema. “It wasn’t about breaking the bank. It was about saying, ‘We can have you develop a career here.’ ”

While many businesses have slashed recruitment budgets—for instance, just 17 companies attended the career fair at York University’s Schulich School of Business this year, down from 40 in 2008—companies in the Top 100 have been reluctant to do so. “We can’t ever stop investing in talent,” says Martial Lalancette, L’Oréal Canada Inc.’s senior vice-president of human resources. “That would be a big, big mistake.” While the company implemented a hiring freeze for senior positions during the recent recession, campus recruitment continues unabated. In fact, L’Oréal Canada’s investment in training and recruitment has increased this year.

Meanwhile, managers at Edmonton-based PCL are always on the lookout, says Karen White, the company’s director of human resources and professional development. “If we find someone who’ll be a tremendous asset, we always have a spot for them,” she says. “We have hired even when there’s not a vacancy to fill. We’re thinking about the future.” Lynne Gervais, associate vice-principal, human resources at McGill University (another Top 100 employer), says it’s all about keeping the best talent “to position ourselves for the recovery.” Several companies offer bonuses to employees who refer successful candidates (Siemens Canada Ltd. pays up to $2,000 each), a strategy that makes those who referred the hire feel that their opinions matter.

Planning for succession is also crucial. “If companies take even a couple years off hiring, when they need to fill more senior roles the talent won’t be there,” says Joseph Palumbo, executive director of the career development centre at the Schulich School of Business. Statistics Canada, for one, hired about 180 post-secondary graduates last year, and will add another 100 in 2009. With a wave of retirements approaching as the population ages, Graziadei says, “We’re making sure the pipeline stays full all the way through.”

To capture the attention of young workers, employers are turning to one of Generation Y’s favourite causes: the environment. Sask­Energy, for example, offers its employees the chance to do volunteer work retrofitting low-income housing to make it more energy-efficient. The project was a major reason 26-year-old Sean Anderson accepted a job there in January: “It jumped out at me as a chance to help the community,” says the marketing assistant, who just finished fixing up homes in Regina (all on company time) with about 100 other volunteers. “We got a really nice, handwritten letter from someone who had their house fixed up,” he says. “It made me feel good to be a part of it.”

Indeed, offering feel-good initiatives is another popular trend. PricewaterhouseCoopers Canada LLP is just one of the top employers that encourages volunteering: the company donates $300 to a worker’s favourite charity if they volunteer more than 50 hours a year. Such programs are a worthwhile investment, Dacin says, noting that companies that provide opportunities for employees to do charity in the community “are seeing huge results.” After all, “people want meaning from their work,” she adds. “If an employer can give them three hours a week to go volunteer, it’s a great investment for them.”

And a bit of fun goes a long way. At Sask­Energy, employees age 30 and under are encouraged to join Generation Energy, an initiative that offers mentorship and networking opportunities, as well as the chance to do volunteer work. Some of the activities take place on company time, but the group socializes after hours, too. At SAS Institute Canada Inc., a provider of business analytics software and services, employees started an in-house band (called SASquatch) that performs at various functions. “Everybody’s mingling and having a good time on the dance floor,” says Stephen Keelan, 40, the company’s director of education and lead singer in the band. “It’s great for team-building.” At Next Level Games, staff can bring their pets to work.

Once members of the Top 100 reel in talent, they tend to stick around. At SAS Canada, the staff retention rate is more than 98 per cent this year. And Statistics Canada loses more people to retirement than anything else “by a factor of two,” says Graziadei. That kind of loyalty is important for a couple of reasons. If you have a constant churn of employees, “the customer doesn’t have a stable relationship with your company,” says Branham. “That’s a threat to your business.” And staff who quit are expensive: replacing someone who makes $60,000, for instance, will cost the company about that much just to find a replacement and get the new hire up to speed, not to mention the potential cost of losing that employee’s clients and contracts. In some cases, “keeping your employees is actually helping you save money,” says Yerema. Still, adds Dacin, it’s all “about retaining the right people.”

People like Geoff Coates. At Next Level, he feels like a valued part of the team. “Here,” he says, “we all have a voice.”