Best of the best

4 organizations provide insights into 10 years as ‘top employers’
By Liz Bernier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/01/2015

It’s a coveted title, and for good reason: Every year, the Best Workplaces in Canada competition highlights organizations that have an extraordinary work culture. 

And while there are plenty of companies that make repeat appearances on the list, only four Canadian organizations have won for 10 consecutive years: Carswell, Softchoice, TD Bank and Urban Systems. 

The award-winners — compiled by the Great Place to Work Institute Canada — are selected based on feedback from employees at the nominated companies. Judging is based on survey answers completed by randomly selected employees, as well as an in-depth review of the organization’s culture and HR policies. 

And the four dissimilar companies share similarities when it comes to dealing with change, HR’s changing role and cultural fit.

Coping with change 

One critical factor behind any workplace with a strong culture is being able to thrive through change, said José Tolovi Neto, managing partner at the Great Place to Work Institute Canada. 

And dealing with change and growth is one thing Carswell in particular has gotten quite comfortable with, said Barbara Conway, Toronto-based vice-president of HR at Carswell, a Thomson Reuters business. 

“(Since) 2005, we’ve become a much more global organization. So one of the challenges from an employee engagement (perspective)… is how do you be part of something global and yet keep that sense of community? So we’ve worked really hard to make sure that we strike that balance,” she said.

“We’re about a 1,000-person organization in Canada but we’re part of a 60,000-person broader company. And there are some real advantages to that but, at the same time, we don’t want to lose that sense of community that we have within our local organization.”

Softchoice has grown by about 60 per cent since 2005, according to David MacDonald, president, CEO and director in Toronto. 

“As a company, we’ve focused and really galvanized around the purpose of our organization, which is to unleash the potential of our people,” he said. 

“What has really changed is that the bar has continued to rise on the search for great talent, which we’re all in… whether the unemployment rate is five per cent or 10 per cent or 15 per cent, we’re all looking for the top 20 per cent of the people in the marketplace.”

People are the core asset of the organization, he said. 

“So we focus on their satisfaction, their growth and their development as the cornerstone of our strategy. We believe if they’re happy and engaged and growing, they will do the same for our customers. And obviously from there, that sort of relationship is a virtuous circle which will grow the business — which it has over the last 10 years.”

TD has experienced similar changes, but on quite a large scale, said Jennifer Young, global head of HR for TD securities at TD Bank in Toronto. 

“Over the last 10 years, we’ve doubled our employee base, so we went from 40,000 employees to over 85,000,” she said, adding that it also expanded in the United States. “What we had to do was be very mindful of what was special and unique about TD, which was the culture.”

Changing workforce demographics is also an important factor to watch, said Gordon Petersen, founder and former CEO at B.C.-based Urban Systems. 

“One is… the inevitable aging. People stick with our company over many years… we’re coming to the end of our careers and, at the same time, we still need to regenerate with younger people,” he said. 

“So we are now dealing with four generations all working together at the same time. And with that comes succession planning and transition planning and so on.” 

Rapid technological change is another huge factor affecting organizations of all stripes, sizes and sectors, said MacDonald. 

“The world’s a much more open place and between the effects of the Internet, Google and the proliferation of technology and social media particularly, there’s no hidden secrets in any organization,” he said. “It’s an open book.”

TD is very mindful of technological change, said Young. 

“The whole way we recruit now is different, how we work is different. In a world of 24-7, people are very much enabled in terms of flexible work arrangements, apps… to work very differently today.”

Role of HR

Another key consideration is how the role of HR is evolving, becoming more strategic and creating value for the overall business. 

“I’ve been quite lucky to work for a CEO who right from the beginning had initially had responsibility for human resources and people,” said Conway. 

“So he’s always had a strong belief in that; HR has always been very well-represented at the strategic table. We’ve been encouraged to actually move beyond the traditional human resources function.”

But HR needs to share some of its traditional areas of expertise as well, she said. 

“Culture can’t be owned by HR; culture has to be owned by everybody — by your leadership and by your employees. And that’s been a big part of our organization.”

MacDonald would tend to agree. 

 “My view is I’m the custodian of the culture. That doesn’t mean I’m solely responsible but I am responsible to make sure that particularly my team reflects the culture of the organization,” he said. “The CEO does have ultimate responsibility for the people. I read every exit letter from our organization, every exit interview, I meet everyone who joins the company. And I want them to know how much I care about their future career with the organization.”

TD has a head of people strategy who sits on the bank’s senior executive team; it also has an HR committee on its external board, said Young. 

“The expectation of HR is not only to be a key partner but fully at the table — so much so that when we now bring HR people into our organization, the biggest focus is on sort of a business and commercial orientation so that you are equally inclined to opine on people issues or business issues or trends that are happening within the environment, and what that could translate into in terms of what you do with your people.”

At Urban Systems, all leaders — not just HR — are responsible for creating a work environment where people thrive, said Petersen. 

“We really put an emphasis that, fundamentally, we are in the people business. We happen to do a bit of engineering and planning and so on, but we are in the people business and our success depends on it.” 

Cultural fit 

Another key differentiator of excellent workplaces is how they handle situations where an employee is a good performer, but not a cultural fit. 

Carswell has had challenges around this before, particularly at a leadership level when people were coming from an organization with a very different culture, said Conway. 

“One of our biggest pieces in our organization is around respect and how people operate with each other. So we do find that that has been a challenge (at times)… our first commitment is let’s try to make this work and make sure that there’s coaching and mentorship and role modeling and setting of expectations — because a big part of it is people coming in and not understanding those expectations.”  

They’ve had some great success where, ultimately, people learn about the new culture and embrace it, she said.

“We have had to make those difficult decisions, but we’ve also had some great successes where people get it and they opt in and they become some of our best leaders and employees.”

The most important thing is having a culture aligned with where you want to go with the performance of the organization, said MacDonald. 

“If you’ve got a culture that’s not supporting the business strategy, then you have to think about where you’re going.” 

It’s also important to be very deliberate about who you fire and who you promote, he said. 

“Actions speak louder than words. (You can have) the charts, the posters, the advertising, the videos, the surveys, but it’s who you promote and who you fire that people remember the most.”

At TD, hiring, firing and promotions are all based on an ingrained leadership profile, said Young. 

“If you are not emblematic of the leadership profile, odds are you will not stay with the organization, no matter what (your) performance,” she said. 

“You see all of this chatter around capital markets and the Wolf of Wall Street… there’s this view that the trading businesses or investment banking is a certain way. It is absolutely not like that. You would not see differences in how our traders behave versus people in a retail bank because culture is such a strong part and our leadership profile is so ingrained. And the leadership profile is not magical — it’s very basic things like operating with integrity, having an impact, driving results, being transparent.”

But fitting that profile doesn’t mean you can’t be yourself at work, said Young.

“You can be yourself at work; we’re not saying you have to fit in a specific mold. It’s just ‘Here are the values that are important.’” 

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