Engagement drives top employers

EllisDon takes top spot, again, on Hewitt’s top 50 list
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/27/2009

For the second year in a row, EllisDon has landed at the very top of the Best Employers in Canada list, despite a slip in its overall engagement score — which has a large influence on the rating.

“A company like EllisDon, and this is probably true of all of the companies, especially in the top 10, is they have so instilled into the DNA of the organizations what it is that engages their employees,” said Ted Emond, senior consultant with Hewitt Associates, which conducts the annual survey.

And this kind of “popularity” could be helpful during a recession, he said.

“Our sense is having an engaged workforce helped them to get ahead of the curve on the upside,” said Emond. “We believe it’s going to help them manage the sacrifices and challenges that will be asked of employees on the downside.”

Engagement scores at the London, Ont.-based construction services firm are still high: 89 per cent, compared to 92 per cent in 2007. What keeps the company’s 1,100 employees engaged? Openness and transparency, said Janine Szczepanowski, vice-president of leadership and entrepreneurial development at EllisDon, where all employees are given access to financials and the business plan, and they have the opportunity to ask questions.

The competition is a great way to hear the voice of employees and helps the company focus its energy on the right areas, said Szczepanowski.

“It gives us that collective voice to say, ‘Hey, as a company, you need to focus here or you’re doing really well there,’” she said. “By taking that strategy and being very focused and making changes, that’s what’s getting us better and better each year, or keeping our employees so committed, because they are seeing that effort, that willingness and that commitment.”

One change the company made as a result of employee feedback was putting more emphasis on performance management.

“The construction industry has probably, historically, been less free with the dialogue,” said Szczepanowski. “It’s really been an education process for us to say to leaders, ‘You’ve got to talk to people about what you expect, how they’re doing, how they can improve.’”

Decentralized decision-making is also encouraged, as people are given the authority to make the decisions they need to make. They are held accountable, but mistakes are acceptable.

“That accountability is reinforced by a culture that doesn’t say, ‘One strike, you’re out,’” she said.

Other benefits that help with engagement include a vacation policy that recently rose to three weeks for first-year employees, four weeks for 10-year employees, five weeks for 20-year employees and six weeks for 30-year employees.

Common threads

Top companies on Hewitt’s list have a few things in common. They have solid HR programs and are transparent and fair, said Emond. Leadership also plays a big part — employees at top companies say their leaders are inspiring and give them confidence that the right strategies and tactics are being used to move the company forward, he said. Also important are strong managers who provide access to necessary resources and tools, continuous feedback and coaching and recognition throughout the year.

A focus on leadership development is just one of several initiatives at Meyers Norris Penny (MNP). The national accounting firm has grown from 400 employees 10 years ago to 2,300 today, so it has had to implement formal HR programs that previously didn’t exist, such as performance management, professional development and wellness initiatives.

“We’ve recognized that we can have the best HR programs but if we can’t have enthusiastic and committed managers and partners who are delivering those programs, it will fall short,” said Bob Twerdun, vice-president of human capital at Calgary-based MNP.

And the approach paid off, as MNP participated for the first time in the competition and landed in the 45th spot.

“It was really confirmation to us that we were able to embed our values or help people new to the organization understand our values and become aware of them and really internalize those values,” he said.

The competition in the accounting field is particularly tight, especially during the last five years and “clearly being able to tell people we’re in the top 50 employers is positive in terms of our attraction,” said Twerdun.

Compensation, pensions and benefits are market-competitive at MNP, but aren’t seen as differentiators, he said. There are other programs, however, that help boost engagement, such as performance management with two reviews per year that establish a clear connection between achievement and annual goals and bonuses.

The firm also has MNP University, which offers 150 courses, and the company “spends more money than it needs to” in recognizing the value of bringing people from various parts of the organization together for training.

“There are additional costs involved in bringing those people together,” said Twerdun. “But we see the value that pays back to us.”

MNP also offers career transition courses, which look at career opportunities and chart, for example, how managers can become partners.

“We try and make success as transparent as possible — there are no hidden agendas,” said Twerdun.

For vacation, most of those in the “professional track” with accounting designations start at four weeks while others start at three weeks. MNP also provides flexible work arrangements, including working 10 months per year, working from home and four-day workweeks.


2009 WINNERS

10 Best Employers in Canada

The top employer achieves an engagement score of 88 to 90 per cent while the lowest achieves about 68 to 70 per cent, says Ted Emond, senior consultant with Hewitt Associates. The average for 2009 for the top 50 companies is 76 per cent, while the average for all of the 154 submissions is 54 per cent. For a complete list of the Best Employers in Canada, see article #6587.

1. EllisDon, London, Ont.

2. PCL Constructors, Edmonton

3. Bennett Jones, Calgary

4. Edward Jones, Mississauga, Ont.

5. CIMA, Montreal

6. Wellington West Holdings, Winnipeg

7. G&K Services Canada, Mississauga

8. Farm Credit Canada, Regina

9. B.C. Biomedical Laboratories, Surrey, B.C.

10. Aecon Group, Toronto

Source: Hewitt Associates