What’s on HR’s radar

We talked to five HR leaders from across the country to find out about the top issues and challenges facing human resources. Not surprisingly, recruitment, retention, succession planning and talent management top the list.
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/15/2017

Serge Auclair: vice-president of strategy and HR at the Port of Montreal. The company has about 250 employees.

One of the trials for HR is it needs to do more strategic stuff, and less HR for HR people, according to Serge Auclair, vice-president of strategy and HR at the Port of Montreal.

“We need to find a way to be connected with the corporate strategy and to be at the forefront of the changes and the innovation that will need to happen to the organization to make sure that we put the resources, the program, to basically bring the company where it needs to be.”

But the challenge to being strategic is there’s been a tendency over the years for companies to work in silos, including HR, he says.

“When you work in silos, you start doing things for yourself, things that you know, you have expertise in, that you like and that please you... We need to lead the organization to break the silos, we need to be the ones helping to break the silos… which means… we need to be more open to input from other partners.”

Also testing HR are the changing demands of employees, says Auclair. While on the one hand, people are looking for perks such as daycare in the workplace, they are also asking for greater privacy and respect of their rights.

“There’s an expectation that employers will do more for them and that’s a big challenge in the sense that to what point do you go to? What do you do? What does it mean in terms of delivering services to meet the expectations of employees but, at the same time, managing costs, managing privacy and basically staying aligned with the corporate strategy? So that’s a big issue for employers.”

A third challenge concerns the economy and the global environment, with increasing competition, says Auclair.

“You’re trying to plan for three, five years ahead of you but, at the same time, the reality is every year there’s something new happening and although you have plans for the long term, you need to make adjustments every year and sometimes every six months. So that’s extremely complicated,” he says. “If you put in place a comp program and, six months later, something happens — you need to downsize, you’ve lost contracts, you have a new competitor coming in — you need to adjust, you need to manage costs, and it’s quite complicated. So now you need to build into what you do the fact that it might have to change within a very short period of time… you need to be able to adapt, change your models quite rapidly.”

As for all the data available, it’s easy to get caught up in the big data movement, he says.

“We have all this information and data but, at the end of the day, what does it mean for us? Especially if we want to put that into KPIs (key performance indicators) that will matter for the organization. Even some of the traditional KPIs like turnarounds don’t mean a thing — you need to go well beyond that to try to understand what’s happening.

“Having two per cent turnaround in your organization used to be considered extraordinary but today it doesn’t mean anything — we need to go to the second, third, even the fourth level of information. So it’s not that technology’s not there, I think that the user of technology will still have to figure out what he wants to do with all the of data.”

Down the road, generational differences will be another issue for HR, says Auclair.

“You have a new generation that sees things a lot differently than the older one but, at the same time, all these generations are working together so the big challenge is to make sure that you get everyone together and to look at the other generations and see the possible benefits.”

For example, the Port of Montreal is reconfiguring its building and some of the people who have been there for 25 years like it the way it used to be, while newer employees are keen to go further.

“How can you create a result that pleases everyone?” says Auclair. “You need to be a lot of things to a lot of different people and, at the same time, create a lot of alignment — to me, that’s a huge challenge.”

“If you can get these people to work together, that’s incredible, you can leverage and you can create something quite interesting in terms of value for the companies — but it means working differently in terms of HR and what we’ve been used to.”

Twenty years ago, employers would tell employees “This is the way it is and if you’re not happy, well, move on,” he says. Now, it’s about understanding and integrating their feedback.

“You have all these corporate surveys, you have the CEO doing meetings with employees, town hall meeting with VPs and… it’s good to communicate more but you’re creating expectations, you need to manage expectations after that and employees need to feel that their voice is being heard by the management and management is caring about what they’re saying, management is making decisions, is adapting things according to what they’re saying. But they’re not speaking with one voice, which means everyone has different expectations — how do you connect all of that?”

Heather Ryan: vice-president of HR at Federated Co-operatives in Saskatoon. The 3,000-employee co-op provides support to 25,000 employees at retail co-ops.

One of the big challenges for human resources is continuing to ensure it understands the business and is aligned with business needs, according to Heather Ryan, vice-president of HR at Federated Co-operatives in Saskatoon.

“There’s a lot of talk about being strategic, I know that’s a model that we’ve taken on as being an advisory support, a business partner, but to do that, you have to actually be engaged with the business and not just implementing what you think the business needs are but actually relating to the true business needs from their perspective.”

With the economy, if HR isn’t adding value, it doesn’t have a purpose, she says.

“If you look in terms of the value proposition, we follow the expense side, so you really have to ensure there’s a value, because we talk about people being our greatest and most valuable asset, so that’s the support and the leverage that I think HR has to make sure people are providing, and have the processes, practices to be able to carry out what the business needs.”

But that doesn’t mean human resources is providing all the answers, says Ryan.

“You’re providing the framework, the policy, the practices, the processes for the leaders of the organization to then implement because really HR, in terms of a discipline, it’s all about the relationships and the credibility because you don’t have that immediate line over the rest of the organization. It’s really through those relationships and adding the value.”

With a troubled economy, it’s about understanding that employers can’t ride the highs and then jump with the lows, says Ryan. And one area that keeps HR busy is mergers and acquisitions, with the blending of cultures.

“There’s efficiencies and redundancies, potentially, of positions and departments and you can’t just mesh cultures and expect them to work. So there’s a lot of work involved in acknowledging that, the change process, and sometimes… it takes more resources to do that appropriately.”

Metrics are also important, but they can be both a help and a hindrance, according to Ryan.

“It’s one thing to collect data, that’s just data — it’s how you can use it to analyze it and make decisions… the golden key is to actually be able to analyze that data and make decisions, so use it as a leading indicator rather than a lagging indicator.”

If, for example, you’re looking at turnover numbers, it’s about looking for trending over time and possible links to performance, she says.

“Are the people that are turning over high performers? Are you not challenging them? Is it an environment situation?... You can start using that (data) and analyzing it, and then you can make decisions.”

And when it comes to potential challenges around having four to five generations in the workplace, we have to be cautious about stereotypes, says Ryan.

“You may have a millennial who is totally different than the stereotype, or you may have a baby boomer that loves change and adapting to technology, so it comes back to the age-old ‘You need to know your people as individuals’ and balance their needs with the business needs. And have the generations learn from each other,” she says. “It’s about leveraging rather than ‘I’m different than you so I can’t appreciate you.’”

Looking ahead, talent development and leadership will continue to be pressing issues for HR, says Ryan.

“The person that you look to the most is your team leader, your boss, your supervisor, and so HR can put in all of the processes and practices — that’s our role, to provide the framework — but if that leader can’t lead, then you’re going to have, potentially, people that are unengaged or don’t understand or don’t feel challenged. And I think that’s the piece; it’s the age-old ‘Just because you put somebody in a management role doesn’t mean they know how to lead,’” she says.

“You can have all of the best processes and practices and frameworks but if you don’t actually practise them and implement them, and have those supervisors, your leaders throughout the organization, able to utilize that and leverage their team, then it’s going to be a non-starter.”

Ann Therese MacEachern: vice-president of human resources at Canada Post. The 50,000-employee Crown corporation is based in Ottawa.

When it comes to the bigger issues facing human resources these days, a few things come to mind — but they’re not necessarily new, according to Ann Therese MacEachern, vice-president of HR at Canada Post in Ottawa.

The first is attracting, developing and retaining the right talent. The second is keeping people engaged, motivated and excited about their work. And the third is delivering measurable value to the business.

“At Canada Post, we’re working pretty hard to meet these challenges by ensuring everything we do is practical, it’s sustainable, easy to use, affordable and timely,” she says.

For example, the Crown corporation launched a senior leadership program that provides participants with the opportunity to work on cross-functional teams.

“That not only breaks down silos but these teams are asked to provide realistic foundations on issues facing Canada Post... and we’re looking at... bringing it down to the mid-management level.”

The 50,000-employee organization is also looking to pilot a new performance management program that would aim to substitute formal ratings for “ongoing and meaningful discussions,” she says, adding people have pretty significant reactions to the performance ratings process itself and it’s not necessarily bringing out the best in them.

“By eliminating ratings and focusing on more regular, meaningful conversations, we’re fairly confident we’re going to see performance management do what it’s intended to do, and not only help us drive performance but help us drive employee development as well,” says MacEachern.

As for a multi-generational workforce, fundamentally, people are motivated by the same things, she says.

“They want to have the chance to do meaningful work, they want their opinions heard and acted upon, they want to be recognized for their contributions, they want to grow and develop, they want to work with engaged colleagues. So rather than focus on how people differ, (we) strive to encourage collaboration, trust and shared purpose.”

Also a focus are metrics — to know what impact programs are having on the business and to understand what’s delivering value, says MacEachern.

“But the hardest part is not just gathering metrics but turning metrics into information and really using that information to provide insight as to what and how to improve…. We’ve been working on a number of initiatives where it’s only with the overlay of data that you really start to understand what’s truly happening and what you can do to influence it. Intuition and gut feel is just not enough.”

But Canada Post is also trying to use metrics in an integrated manner, says MacEachern.

“We look at things like grievances, human resources complaints, injury frequency — and instead of looking at them in isolation, we’re really piecing them together… (to) address issues more holistically and based on the root cause.”

As for technology, the pace of renewal has been phenomenal in the past 10 years, she says.

“The type and speed of change is testing business models and shifting the way that services are designed and delivered and used,” says MacEachern.

“In HR, we not only need to know how to respond to technological shifts but how to best leverage investments in HR systems, so there are two dynamics at play: What’s happening in business as a result of technology, and what’s happening in the HR space.”

In the latter, it’s about digital learning, talent management and payroll systems, she says. For example, Canada Post has seen the utilization rate for its digital learning rise from four per cent to upwards of 20 per cent, “so that’s had a tremendously positive impact on our ability to deliver on some pretty important initiatives.”

 But given the multitude of technological solutions, it’s key to have a good understanding, says MacEachern.

“It’s easier said than done, given the speed of change, the availability of options and the costs associated with introducing new technology. So it goes without saying that those who figure it out first are going to have a sizeable competitive advantage.”

And for HR to be taken seriously, it has no choice but to be strategic, she says.

“Most businesses, including ours, face competitive pressures and don’t have the luxury of standing still. And HR’s reputation rests on its ability to forecast and anticipate business challenges and opportunities, while we still deal with day-to-day issues, earn credibility by anticipating problems and addressing challenges, and introduce solutions that are pragmatic and affordable. We need to speak the language of external and internal customers and provide advance and guidance that keeps value and keeps pace.”

Scott Phillips: senior vice-president of HR at Gateway Casinos and Entertainment. The Burnaby, B.C.-based company has 4,000 employees.

Having blossomed from roughly 3,000 to 4,000 employees, Gateway Casinos and Entertainment has kept Scott Phillips busy in the three years he’s been there.

Not surprisingly, recruitment and retention are among the challenges faced by the Burnaby, B.C.-based senior vice-president of HR.

“We’re always recruiting for the perfect fit or the best fit, and the dynamics of the business are such that the best fit today might not be the best fit in a year from now. So it’s a matter of how do people evolve their positions, how does the business need those positions to evolve? There’s not always perfect alignment as far as that goes.”

The challenges were evident this past summer when Gateway added 300 employees for a new location in Edmonton, he says.

“You can take a look at the unemployment numbers and say, ‘Well, these areas are struggling to a certain extent,’ but again it comes down to finding the right talent and skills. I mean, Fort McMurray is a good example where there may be some people out of work in that area and close to Edmonton but their skill sets aren’t aligned to being a chef in an upscale restaurant or a maître d’ or customer service as opposed to being… in some of those positions affiliated with the oil and gas industry. So there’s still recruitment issues, there’s still turnover issues, there’s still those types of challenges.”

The company has used social media to help with recruitment, along with web scraping programs that aggregate ads, but it’s hard to beat employee referrals, he says.

“It’s good to get a good referral from a good employee and it gives you that much more confidence. We do (have incentives for that), we’ve got a formal program that’s built around that with some modest incentives but where the position is critical or particularly challenging, we have provisions and we have in the past bumped that up significantly.”

And when it comes to turnover issues, employee data is a big help, according to Phillips.

“I’m a bit of a geek when it comes to the data, I think it’s critical to understand what’s going on in the business, and then making good decisions to make sure that you’re impacting on the areas you need to impact on,” he says.

“When things make sense from a fact-based perspective, there’s not much pushback on ‘Yeah, we need to make sure we need to take care of that.’”

For example, turnover at the company is a bit higher than 20 per cent — which isn’t bad considering it’s customer service and the company has seen a jump in staff numbers, he says.

“But then when you drill down into it, you take a look at where the turnover has really been, the majority of it has been for employees within the first two years of service, so that data, the ability to analyze that data, has allowed us to dedicate and target some of our programs towards taking care of those people a little bit better.”

The company has also put a “big effort on orientation, making sure new employee as well as existing employees go through a re-orientation and understanding who we are and what our business is about,” says Phillips.

As for the elusive goal of HR being more strategic than administrative, dealing with day-to-day issues, it’s tough to find that balance, he says — but it’s about being properly organized and structured throughout the business. For example, a recent restructuring included a significant investment in the HR team, which is a help for a company that’s two-thirds unionized and has nine different collective agreements.

“The idea is I won’t be pulled into negotiations with unions two weeks at a time. I’m almost completely unavailable to work with on building the business so we’ll have a labour relations expert that can actually dedicate some time to that,” says Phillips.

“It’s a matter of having the right people doing the work to allow everybody to do their job a little bit more appropriately… as we grow the business, we definitely need to grow the support.”

Valarie Dillon: executive director of HR and volunteer services at Scouts Canada. The Ottawa-based organization has about 200 employees.

For Valarie Dillon, employee engagement is an all-encompassing issue and it’s a major focus for the executive director of HR and volunteer services at Scouts Canada.

“If you’re able to engage your workforce, recruitment becomes less of an issue, retention becomes less of an issue, productivity is good. It’s all good.”

As a result, the 200-employee not-for-profit organization has moved to a different type of engagement score, using a monthly measure — with one question about recommending Scouts Canada — in addition to its annual survey, she says.

“It’s very similar to the net promoter score that you would see in marketing, so it looks at the number of promoters versus detractors, and that gives you a pulse as to what’s going on. We can look at it in terms of seasonal trends or monthly trends, we can slice and dice, and what that enables us to do is get a better measure in time.”

The annual survey is more reactive so the monthly query helps Scouts Canada be more proactive, says Dillon.

“Managers can look at that monthly score and ensure that they’re having discussions with their teams to say, ‘OK, so what’s going on, what can we do differently, what can we help you out with, what obstacles are there, what improvements can be made?’”

Another focus for the organization is succession planning, as baby boomers are retiring and leaving gaps in terms of corporate knowledge, she says.

“(It’s about) being able to identify the career paths that are necessary for growth, which kind of provides a dual purpose as well because certainly the millennials are looking for those career paths. So being able to identify which positions are critical, which positions are going to be vacant within the next few years, and how we can best ensure that they’re filled.”

And with the different generations in the workplace, it’s not a matter of one-size-fits-all, says Dillon.

“There are very distinct needs and interests of the different generations, and different behaviours that you’ll see within those different generations as well, so it’s really being able to speak to all of them and find a common ground among them and really focus on that, while still trying to customize.”

For example, millennials want more collaboration, having been taught that teamwork is important, so it’s about breaking down the silos in an organization, she says.

“If you have been used to working in your silo, depending on what generation you may be in, are you still comfortable in being able to collaborate and being able to understand collaboration is good thing and sharing of knowledge is a good thing?”

Opportunities for learning are another focus of millennials, which leads into career development and succession planning, says Dillon.

“It’s looking to identify common issues, not necessarily common interests, but where you can leverage the interests and benefits of one generation with the other, and sort of marry the two of them together.”

Dillon is also a fan of data and analytics, especially the newer ones that are less reactive.

“We subscribe to a third party where we get a lot of help in terms of our analytics, and exploring the use of predictive analytics as well. And, similar to that, to the way we’re approaching our engagement with that pulse (survey), it’s not a direct measure of engagement but it’s going to give you an indication of where engagement is going. And I think that that’s kind of what’s exciting about the predictive analytics is it’s more business-focused and less HR-centric.”

And when it comes to technology, Dillon sees it more as a help than a hindrance.

“I find our lack thereof being a hindrance,” she says, as Scouts Canada doesn’t currently have an HRIS — but it’s on the business plan for this year.

“It hasn’t been the end of the world but it’s going to change this year, which I’m quite looking forward to.”

But it’s important to keep things in perspective and keep them relative to actual needs, says Dillon.

“There are a lot of systems out there with wonderful bells and whistles, which are all time-consuming to be able to load or to use in some situations, and if you’re not going to actually make use of them, then why bother? I quite like being able to build as we go for our needs.”

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