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Throwing out 3 years of rot

BlackBerry has stopped bleeding employees, but HR has a tough slog ahead to rebuild engagement – here are 3 steps that could make a difference

By Todd Humber

BlackBerry has stopped the bleeding — at least when it comes to employees, anyway.

Right before the August long weekend, CEO John Chen gave the company’s employees reason to raise an extra glass in backyards, cottages and campsites. He sent staff a memo stating that the company had reached the end of its reorganization (which began three years ago) and was even in a position to embark on “modest” hiring in areas such as product development and sales — that’s going to be one dusty sign when it gets hung in the window.

The Waterloo, Ont.-based tech giant had little choice but to embark on this drastic cost-cutting path three years ago — it was fighting for its very existence in an intensely competitive environment.

But now that the dust has settled, and the company claims to be on relatively stable ground, some heavy lifting needs to be done by HR — and the entire management team — to rebuild confidence, trust and morale. Because without firm commitment from those who survived round after round of pink slips, the company’s rebound will be short lived.

Employees left on the payroll are shellshocked. Over the last 36 months, they’ve lived in constant fear of losing their jobs and have watched countless friends and colleagues walk out the door, never to return. Even amongst the most loyal BlackBerrians, that takes a toll.

Add in the intense media coverage and the sometimes gleeful commentary from pundits  about how the firm isn’t relevant anymore and how Apple or Samsung or any other manufacturer has eaten their lunch — it hasn’t been a fun road to travel. (And all those neighbours and friends showing off their shiny new iPhones hasn’t helped either.)

I don’t need the keys to BlackBerry’s HR department to know the results of its employee engagement scores. They’re bad. Probably very bad.

And if we know anything about human resources in this era, we know employee engagement is critical to the success of an organization. Higher sales and higher profits are directly linked to employee performance — that debate is over.

3 things BlackBerry needs to do for employees

We all remember our psych days in high school and university when we were introduced to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. BlackBerry staffers have been stuck at the bottom of the pyramid, in the primal physiological and safety areas, for the past 36 months.

But with the layoffs officially over, it needs to work quickly to get them into the self-actualization phase, where truly great things can happen. Here’s a couple of ways they might be able to do that:

Communication: The memo from Chen was a fantastic start. A clear message that it’s over is the single biggest step the company can take to ease the minds of employees — and bonus points for sending it right before a long weekend. But it can’t end there.

Chen needs to keep the transparency and honesty going. Everyone knows the company isn’t out of the woods yet — far from it. It will only take one rumour or one headline to re-spark the anxiety that has been hanging over workers’ heads. Chen, and the entire management team, needs to stay on top of this issue and keep in constant touch with employees.

Innovation: BlackBerry hasn’t been known as an innovator for some time. Other tech firms have grabbed that crown, but the company still has plenty of world-class talent on its roster.

It needs to find time to give staff the freedom to innovate, to work on incubator type projects (a la Google, which lets workers devote time to projects that aren’t part of their regular day jobs). Innovation hasn’t been on the mind of the average BlackBerry worker, but that needs to change.

If workers are given the luxury of time to spend working on innovative ideas and projects, to brainstorm creative advancements, it will kickstart the process of re-engagement.

Marketing: BlackBerry has lost its swagger and the cool factor. So it needs a strong, innovative campaign to get the word out that it’s back and a player again.

Marketing might not seem like an engagement driver, but when your brand is this battered it can be pretty easy for an outsider to knock the wind out of an employee’s sails. BlackBerry workers have endured far too many jokes at their expense, too many eye rolls when they say where they work. (And no repeats of that bizarre Super Bowl ad - see below.)

A strong campaign to show BlackBerry is back and ready to be a player again could go a long way to alleviate those issues.

It won’t be an easy hill to climb, but we’re pulling for our plucky friends in Waterloo. Canada hasn’t had enough success stories on the technology front. I wrote the bulk of this column on a BlackBerry Q10. There’s no punchline there — just a fact. It worked brilliantly.

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.

BlackBerry's weird Super Bowl Commercial

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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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