After 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.
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