Top firms see advantage in employee satisfaction

Companies scoring high as good places to work don't skimp on the basics
By Uyen Vu
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 08/29/2003

The best places to work are companies that treat employees like they’re customers, according to the annual study of top employers by

Report on Business

magazine.

Take the example of Maritime Life: surveys are passed around every year — sometimes twice a year — to gauge employee satisfaction, said Catherine Woodman, vice-president, human resources of the Halifax-based insurance company, which ranks 19 on the list of the

50 Best Companies to Work for in Canada.

“At Maritime Life there are always forms or questionnaires or surveys for employees to really roll up their sleeves and get involved. We go to quite great extremes to involve employees in decision-making that affects them.”

That’s because, like many businesses on the list, “Maritime Life made a decision years ago that employee satisfaction is at the root of customer satisfaction,” said Woodman.

Talk to the employers that rank high on the survey and a similar pattern of answers emerges: they pay attention to what employees need. The recurrence of the employee satisfaction survey is but a sign of this mentality.

“Leaders at the best companies are genuinely and truly committed to making their companies a good place to work as a strategic advantage,” said Ted Emond, consultant for Hewitt Associates, the firm that conducted the survey. “They genuinely believe that an engaged workforce is great for business.”

At Maritime Life, it’s not just the boss who evaluates her employees; workers also participate in the performance reviews of their bosses, anonymously via online quantitative and qualitative surveys. “So if I am being reviewed, I would let my staff know so they give their input, and my boss would have the ability to look at the comments,” said Woodman.

Maritime Life is one of three companies to have made the list every year since the survey was introduced in 2000 with the participation of 62 companies. For this 2003 survey, 128 companies from 22 different industries signed up. The ranking is largely a popularity poll, with employees’ endorsement counting for 70 per cent of the marks. Surveys of the companies’ leadership teams account for the remaining scores.

The results, said Emond, show that companies that are good places to work do not skimp on the basics. “When it comes to pay, benefits and promotional opportunities, the best companies do those things really well.” When asked how they feel about their salaries, 67 per cent of the employees at the best companies said they’re paid appropriately, compared to 42 per cent of employees at the remaining firms. As for benefits, 64 per cent of the staff at companies that didn’t make the list said they’re content with their packages, compared to 77 per cent of the employees at top 50 companies.

But just as important as the basics is good communication, and good communication means strong and clear direction from the top, as well as thorough feedback from workers, said Emond. He noted one finding in particular: leadership teams among businesses that made the list tended to be more united in their views. When entire leadership teams of each company are polled on a number of issues, individual leaders at companies that made the list tended to offer similar answers. In contrast, responses were more divergent within leadership teams of companies that didn’t make the list.

“Our theory is that if you have a leadership team that thinks similarly, you would be putting out a consistent message to employees. And that contributes to establishing leadership that is accessible and gives clear direction,” said Emond.

At PCL Construction Group, number 12 on the list, staff approval is courted with the same enthusiasm that other companies reserve for their shareholders. The reason for this is simple: three-quarters of the staff hold company shares.

“Because we are employee-owned, we are all accountable to one another. We listen to our people just like another company would listen to its shareholders,” said Dennis Wiens, director, human resource services, at the Edmonton-based firm.

PCL surveys staff satisfaction once every three years, said Wiens, because it takes just about that much time to analyze the results, identify alternatives and implement changes. In the last survey, when employees said they wanted more feedback on their performance and professional development, Wiens’ HR service and the company’s professional development group set out to train district managers and supervisors to equip them with better feedback skills.

The team also put together career guides, which identify competency profiles, technical skills sets and behavioural skills sets for several major career tracks within the company. “So if you’re a graduating engineer and you want to know what lies ahead of you, you have something like a road map to go by,” said Wiens.

Communication is important at Federal Express Canada, where staff get to voice their wishes in yearly surveys. One recent wish: “to have a system in place for them to come forward with their ideas,” said vice-president of human resources Donna Brazelton. As a result, a new ideas-submission program is being introduced — with cash awards to boot.

Staff at the courier company, which ranks 24 on the list, enjoy training perks in the form of tuition reimbursements of $1,500 a year. But they’re also given a commitment from above that their employment is protected, said Brazelton. “We post our new jobs internally. We don’t look outside until we know that we don’t have anyone at the company who can do the job.” During economic downturns, staff are given the assurance of a no-layoffs policy.

“Sometimes companies look at laying off as the first thing to do, we find that it’s a shortsighted response because you will get through the downturn eventually. And with this no-layoffs philosophy, you gain a lot of value in terms of employee loyalty.” As a result, she said, the company enjoys a turnover rate of about 20 per cent among part-timers and three per cent among couriers.

“I think it’s important to the employees that the company has made a commitment to ensure that everybody has a job and to keep everyone’s welfare at heart.”

See "Related articles" link below for a complete list of the best 50 employers.

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