First-time Atlantic Canada awards celebrate HR

By Asha Tomlinson and David Brown
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/05/2002

Forget the Academy Awards, this was even more exciting, Claudette Hammock says about the inaugural Atlantic Canada Human Resources Awards (ACHRA) gala. The event, held in June, recognized outstanding HR leadership and innovation in Atlantic Canada.

“We had a big screen focused on the winner, it was special and you got that feeling from start to finish…people were feeling proud of who they are and what they do,” says Hammock, ACHRA co-chair. “Everybody was talking HR while sipping wine and listening to jazz.”

More than 250 people from across the Atlantic region attended the event established by the Human Resources Association of Nova Scotia. Four awards were given out in the categories of HR innovation, strategic partnership, excellence in HR and new HR leader. There were a total of 34 nominations representing the region’s four provinces, and nominees included large and small businesses in both the private and public sectors.

“When you look at all four categories, as different as they are, it’s the dedication and passion that really shines through,” Hammock says.

An organizing committee of about 20 people put the event together, and preparations began last fall. Rick Fullerton, ACHRA co-chair, says it took hours of work to set the criteria for the awards and find credible judges in the HR and business fields.

“We did some thorough research on other award initiatives. We looked at what they used for criteria. There were times when we’d be working so hard and we weren’t sure if we would get two or 50 nominations,” he says.

With the overwhelming response they received — nominations were still coming in after the deadline — Fullerton says the hard work paid off.

In addition to the gala dinner and awards presentations, there was an Excellence Expo; patrons were able to learn best practices from award finalists and event sponsors. That’s the other real benefit of the awards, it’s a learning opportunity, Fullerton says.

The ACHRA will be held annually in different locations across Atlantic Canada and may be combined with conferences or other HR-related events.

HR innovation

Colette Curran, HR director at Trade Centre Limited in Halifax, was presented with the HR Innovation award for the customer service rewards program, Catch A Star. The program is based on Trade Centre’s customer service tagline: “Every guest is a star.”

“We’re in a service industry and that’s what matters most. We catch employees doing great things instead of reprimanding them,” says Curran. “I wanted it (the program) to be fun but with impact.”

Fun is a big part of working at Trade Centre. The company is comprised of six operating units — many of them multi-purpose entertainment facilities like the Halifax Metro Convention Centre and Events Halifax, where national and international sports and cultural events are held.

So, how does Catch A Star work? If an employee goes above and beyond the call of duty, a co-worker, manager or even a client can refer the person for the reward. The recipient gets a scratch card, similar to a lottery ticket, worth a value of $5 to $50. Or they can get the mystery prize that ranges from $25 to $50. To redeem the prize, the winner has to visit Trade Centre’s CEO and president Fred MacGillivray. When MacGillivray meets winners he greets them with a horn that toots out “happy music.”

Curran says MacGillivray insisted he meet every single Catch A Star winner.

“He asks them what they did to receive the award and they get a chance to talk. That really shows the support from the top,” she says.

Every scratch card is entered into a grand prize draw, which takes place in December at the year-end dinner.

The lucky employee gets a $2,000 travel voucher. The employee who won last year went to Alaska and wrote an emotional letter to Curran about the trip.

Although hundreds of awards have been given out for internal and external service, Curran recalls one winner who really went “above and beyond.” An employee who worked as an usher at hockey games discovered a regular attendee had a back problem. So, the usher brought a pillow to every game for the patron. It’s those kinds of behaviours that Trade Centre wants to reward, Curran says.

Strategic partnership

Newfoundland Power’s HR department took the strategic partnership award back to St. John’s for playing a key role in productivity and performance improvement at the electrical utility.

Three years ago, the company embarked upon a culture change initiative that rested on one simple premise, explains Juliet Crosbie, manager of human resources. “Success of the employee equates to success for the organization.”

A great deal of history and organizational knowledge has built up during the 100-year history of the utility. “But we felt that there was an untapped opportunity to allow people to do things they hadn’t done before and to give them more accountability and responsibility.”

Since then, the organization’s leadership — this is not just an HR initiative, says Crosbie — has focused on ensuring that every employee is given the tools, training and information necessary to perform at optimal levels.

A new job shadow program was created so that employees could go out and spend half a day or so with employees from somewhere else in the organization.

“When we do a job shadow, it is a job shadow where that person, by knowing more about another part of the company, will make better or improved decisions in what they do,” says Crosbie. Customer service representatives, for example, often go out with meter readers so they understand the processes about which they receive so many calls.

“I think the biggest thing we needed to do different was develop our leaders to lead versus manage,” says Crosbie. “And leading, in that context, is to encourage, grow, motivate, support the people.” If all employees are performing well, getting results and feeling good about their jobs, then the whole company is going to perform better, she says.

With a new emphasis on individual success, employee satisfaction numbers have risen and customer satisfaction has gone up to an all-time high of 90 per cent. At the same time, operating costs per customer have dropped to their lowest level in a decade.

The move to employee empowerment also wrought a much flatter organization — the senior leadership team has shrunk from about 25 to 15, says Crosbie.

Excellence in HR

Even with the upheaval of two acquisitions that doubled the number of staff, Maritime Life Assurance still came out on top, with 91 per cent of workers in its latest employee survey stating they are satisfied with Maritime as a place to work. This achievement, coupled with Maritime’s company values, won it the Excellence in HR award.

“I think it’s about our shared vision. You can ask anybody in Maritime Life about our vision and values, and everyone will answer the same way,” says Janet Byrne, director of HR consulting at Maritime’s Halifax head office.

If asked on the spot, employees would likely recite the following: satisfied employees lead to satisfied customers and company growth.

In addition to winning the Excellence in HR award, the firm has been listed — for three consecutive years — by

Report on Business

(ROB) magazine as one of the 50 best companies to work for in Canada.

“We went into the ROB (rankings) to learn, we hoped that we would get on the list, but it’s really about learning what our employees are saying,” Byrne says.

What it comes down to is employee engagement and leveraging talent, she says. Maritime’s strong people practices, customer focus and teamwork have worked in its favour, Byrne says.

“A lot of companies focus externally on their brand, we do that too, but we also focus on our internal brand. We’re able to explain to (employees) the messages around our brand and what they mean.”

This branding is evident in the unique benefits package Maritime offers, which includes a life performance plan, customer satisfaction awards, a career investment account, wellness programs, flex benefits, a computer purchase program and a flex-time policy.

Everyone at Maritime is pleased about the Atlantic Canada award, Byrne says.

“I think the awards are important. It sends out a message to the business community that HR does play a supportive role in achieving business objectives and we can add value,” she notes. “It was stiff competition and there are an awful lot of great companies out here in Atlantic Canada.”

New HR leader

Jennifer Anderson was hired by ICT Group last year to look after benefits administration, but her performance in that role convinced her boss, David Cannon, that she could take on more than just administrative duties; in fact her performance won her the new HR leader award.

Anderson not only performed the necessary requirements of the job but also demonstrated initiative to improve the processes that were in place when she moved into the role, says Cannon, senior director of HR for the Moncton, New Brunswick-based customer relationship management services provider.

The rapid growth of the organization meant it took more time to do the old job and without new efficiencies it would have become unmanageable, explained Anderson.

One problem with the old benefits system was that the provider didn’t differentiate between any of the 12 centres across the country. And getting employee information or accessing records was complicated when two employees had the same name.

A simple change to benefits forms allowed the provider to treat each of the centres as separate organizations. Once that was finished, Anderson developed training so that each of the centres would be able to take over some of the administration.

Anderson also played an important role in reducing turnover at the Moncton call centre.

“She looked at the turnover and came up with the statistics about why people are leaving us and came up with 48 recommendations,” says Cannon. After many of the recommendations were implemented, the centre saw a striking drop in turnover, he says.

Online recruitment was embraced for the first time and applicants were made more aware of the nature of the work they were being hired for. “One of the reasons for our turnover was that people weren’t being hired for jobs they expected,” Cannon says.

Anderson also sits on the employee relations committee at the Moncton operation. “She is the go-to person for those employees, and I’ve never received a complaint,” says Cannon.

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