Ford’s win, HR’s loss

Not a good day for human resources when punchline of a mayor scores win by axing engagement survey

By Todd Humber

HR took a bit of a gut-punch in council chambers at Toronto’s city hall last week.

The city’s infamous crack-smoking mayor, Rob Ford, showed up to a budget meeting with a laundry list of last-minute items to trim the city’s $9.6 billion operating budget by $60 million.

Ford has little respect left on council, which stripped him of powers and handed the keys to the city to deputy mayor Norm Kelly. Council pretty much just listens to Ford drone on, and then goes about its business as if he doesn’t even exist.

Suffice to say, it doesn’t take the mayor very seriously anymore.

So his laundry list of cuts went pretty much ignored, as council rejected item after item — only approving two of his cuts. The first slash was to stop printing a city newspaper, saving $476,000. But the second cut hurts HR at its core — council latched on to his idea to eliminate an employee engagement survey in 2014, trimming $250,000 off the nearly $10 billion budget.

“That’s 250 man, I’ll take anything right now,” the mayor said, while giving two thumbs up.

What does this say about HR, and the importance of measuring engagement, that a council will reject almost everything Ford wants but, when it comes to axing the engagement survey, the politicians jumped on board his bandwagon?

Employee engagement, after all, has become the core of best HR practices in recent years. Sure, we can argue about what exactly is being measured and whether or not employers actually act on the results.

But there’s no denying every employer should want an engaged workforce. And if you don’t make the effort to find out what makes them tick, what’s bugging them and what motivates them, you’ll never get it. There’s ample evidence to back up the assertion that engaged employees deliver a better customer experience and are more productive. This all translates into pretty numbers for the bottom line.

The City of Toronto has conducted engagement surveys in the past, so clearly it understands the importance of getting employee input. So axing this survey, in a last-minute fashion on the mayor’s whim, sends a terrible message to the city’s workers. The headline that came out of city hall is, “We don’t really give a crap about your opinions.”

That’ll do wonders for morale and productivity.

And who knows what will be missed by not doing the survey — $250,000 isn’t pocket change, but when you’re talking about morale and productivity and finding ways to improve engagement at an organization the size of the City of Toronto, it’s pretty small potatoes.

Sure, it’s easy to look at a $250,000 expense and axe it at the last minute on budget day to save some cash. But the easy decision isn’t always the right one.

Question the amount? Sure. Perhaps look for cheaper ways to measure engagement? Of course. But don’t chop it outright — that’s an irresponsible move when we all know the benefits of an engaged workforce.

It’s a bitter pill for the profession to swallow when a mayor who is better fodder for late-night punchlines than for leadership is able to rally a council — that doesn’t respect him — to quickly slash the measurement of a critical HR ingredient.

In the public sector, with every dollar being watched, good HR practices are going to be under fire from cost-cutting politicians. HR professionals will have to show them that, done right, these engagement surveys can pay for themselves — and then some.

Todd Humber is the managing editor of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. He can be reached at or visit for more information.

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Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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