Benefits consultations make SFU top employer

Daycare, maternity and parental leaves among top benefits at university
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/15/2009

Editor’s note: This is the last of a seven-part series taking a look at some of the best practices of Canada’s award-winning employers.

A few years ago, a select group of employees at Simon Fraser University (SFU) was presented with the option of health-care savings accounts at work. E-mails explained the system and its advantages and HR waited for a response. But none came from the “test zone.”

“Because nobody seemed to be overly interested, rather than us trying to sell it, we thought, ‘Fine, let’s move on,’” says Dario Nonis, executive director of HR at SFU in Burnaby, B.C. If a proposition is received as the proverbial lead balloon, that’s where it ends.

“We haven’t really pushed it when people haven’t been interested because it has to be perceived as a win-win rather than imposed on people,” he said. “Sometimes people are comfortable with the status quo.”

“It fell on deaf ears. There was no interest at all. I didn’t get one question,” says Alan Black, pension and benefits manager at SFU. But he intends to bring the proposal back again because sometimes it’s a matter of reintroducing a new item, in a different way, he says.

Benefits at the school include an on-site and off-site daycare with more than 200 spots, parental leave top-up payments that run to 100 per cent for 37 weeks for new mothers, fathers and adoptive parents, free membership at the school’s fitness facilities and a generous health-benefits plan — the school pays 100 per cent of the premiums and the plan includes retiree coverage with no age limit. SFU also allows for flexible workweeks and provides four weeks’ vacation after the first year.

“We have a large number of women on staff so, as a result, we have a lot of mothers and the university recognized almost by necessity we have to be more flexible,” says Nonis. (For staff employees, women make up 62 per cent and men 38 per cent. For faculty, women make up 36 per cent and men 64 per cent.)

SFU also has several retirement savings plans — a defined benefit plan, a hybrid defined contribution plan and a group registered retirement savings plan, along with a group retirement income fund and life income fund.

Most of SFU’s benefits have been in place for years and are the result of negotiations with the various groups at SFU that include faculty, research assistants, administrative and professional staff and union employees. HR meets regularly with the groups so there is plenty of dialogue and feedback to make for a consultative environment, says Nonis.

SFU also meets regularly with the University of British Columbia and the University of Victoria so the schools have a good sense of what each is doing when it comes to benefits. And if another school is doing something new and innovative, SFU might try to incorporate a similar approach, he says.

Before implementation of a new benefit or policy, or making a change, HR considers the administrative side and the costing side. The type of benefit or policy determines who is consulted but can include payroll, finance, legal affairs, the vice-president or president.

“We want to make sure they’re aware and if there are administrative factors involved, it’s something they can cope with,” says Nonis. “There’s a lot of back-end work because we’re large enough that something sounds fine on the face of it but we want to make sure administratively we’re actually able to do it or we can do it on a fairly straightforward basis.”

If it looks like it’s going to be a significant issue, Nonis reports to the vice-president of legal affairs, whom he meets with weekly, and if broader consultation is needed, the issues go to SFU’s vice-president or president.

For final approval and ratification of larger items, such as collective bargaining agreements, there’s the board of governors, as schools in B.C. are structured under the University Act. But smaller items, such as compensation, are largely taken care of by HR in consultation with the vice-president of legal affairs, says Nonis.

The finance department is involved in the costing but many stakeholders are consulted as well, says Pat Hibbitts, vice-president of finance and administration at SFU.

Much of the budgeting is done internally by HR, and then run by finance to confirm numbers, says Nonis. And changes or initiatives can move through quickly as everyone is very approachable, even senior executives.

“We’re not highly bureaucratic in that regard,” he says. “It’s part of the culture here.”


Seven-part series

Topic overview and schedule

This is the last of a seven-part series on best practices. Here’s what’s been covered:

Dec. 1: The physical workspace at the University of Toronto.

Dec. 15: Employee engagement at Microsoft.

Jan. 12: Vacation and time off at McGill University Health Centre.

Jan. 26: Community involvement at SaskTel.

Feb. 9: Training and skills development at Sierra Systems.

Feb. 23: Family-friendly benefits at TD Bank Financial Group.