Banking on a benefits redesign

RBC organizes pay, benefits, training, work environment into a single package
By Todd Humber
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 07/28/2005


hen RBC Financial Group decided to adopt a total rewards philosophy a year-and-a-half ago, it wanted to be sure it was meeting employees’ needs.

So it asked them.

And it didn’t just ask a few.

RBC’s HR department reached out to 16,000 of the company’s 65,000 employees to make sure it was getting good, solid data to work with.

HR talked to the 40 most senior leaders about business strategies and the notion that rewards is much more than pay and benefits. Managers were surveyed to find the challenges they were facing, what rewards were working well and what needed to be changed. And employees were polled and put into focus groups in an effort to find out what was important to them.

“That was something that debunked some myths for us,” said Zabeen Hirji, senior vice-president of human resources for RBC. “We asked them if they had to make choices and tradeoffs, what would those be? That really gets to the issue of what you really value. It’s a marketing technique, where we really get people to think hard about the relative importance of things.”

When the reams of data were broken down and analyzed, Hirji said there were a few surprises. The thing that struck her most was how similar responses were across business groups and geographic areas.

“For example, if you work in finance, whether you work in the corporate group of finance or whether you work in the banking or the investment side, what employees were looking for was quite similar,” she said.

The dominant theme from the results can be summed up in one word: flexibility. Employees wanted choice and flexibility, and for management to recognize that needs change over the course of a career.

“What an employee wants today and what gets to the top of their list today may be different than five years from now,” said Hirji.

The impetus for change

RBC started pursuing a total rewards strategy in the summer of 2002, driven in a large part by its aggressive expansion into the United States which saw the number of American employees skyrocket from 1,000 to 15,000.

“We were thinking about how our employees are changing in terms of a more diverse workforce,” she said. “What we started to realize is that a one-size-fits-all approach is really not what employees are looking for. We were really looking to see how do we define and articulate what rewards and philosophies are common across the group and how do we also account for the differences?”

The crucial role of the manager

One of the best ways to account for those differences was to recognize the pivotal role the manager plays, said Hirji. Without good managers, even the best designed program will flop.

“You can have great rewards, but if you’re not able to really leverage them appropriately, apply them appropriately and integrate them into the way the employee experiences the workplace on a day-to-day basis, you’re not getting the full value,” she said.

But it’s not an easy task for managers to juggle the one-size-doesn’t-fit-all total rewards ball, she said. It can become complex and quite tricky because there’s a plethora of issues managers can be presented with and really no black-and-white policy book to turn to for answers.

Hirji gave the example of an employee who walks into her manager’s office and asks for her hours on Friday to be switched from a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. shift to a noon to 8 p.m. shift. The manager gives the okay because it works for the team and it’s not going to negatively impact clients. A second employee then asks for the same thing, but the manager can’t accommodate that request as well because it would have a negative impact on the team and on clients to have two employees working those hours.

“That’s harder to manage, because you can’t really rely on ‘the policy is this or the policy is that’ because the application is so much more flexible,” said Hirji.

Five years too long for service award

One of the changes RBC implemented was offering employees a special service award at the two-year mark in addition to the traditional five-year anniversary.

Gary Dobbie, senior vice-president of compensation and benefits at RBC, said they got a message from employees in the survey that waiting until the five-year mark seemed a little too long to wait to honour an employee for loyalty.

So the bank now gives junior employees a small token of appreciation on their two-year anniversaries. It’s basically a paperweight — a small metal square box with the RBC logo embossed on it. Engraved around the edges are the company’s values.

“What it does is it helps formalize a process and makes it easier for managers to recognize that milestone,” said Dobbie.

The award is presented to the employees in front of co-workers, and it makes a nice little recognition ceremony that boosts morale and, hopefully, reduces turnover in the process. Hirji again pointed to the critical role the manager plays in the ceremony.

“It’s not about the item that the person is getting,” said Hirji. “It’s about how the manager uses that opportunity to say, ‘Great, you’ve been with us for two years. We’re really pleased about that.”

Gord Green, vice-president of business development at Rideau Recognition, the Montreal-based firm that handles RBC’s recognition program, helped RBC make some significant changes to the way it recognizes staff as part of its total rewards program. He said the two-year award was quite an achievement for a company the size of RBC.

“I don’t know of a lot of corporations in Canada that are that large that have an early recognition program,” said Green. “It’s going to be something that relates to their values so that they can really impact the new employee fairly early.”

RBC wanted to harmonize the recognition program across its entire operations, and that posed some challenges.

“For example, in Canadian corporations it’s not unusual to give an Inuit sculpture. We’d look at that and say, ‘Oh, that’s great. That’s so Canadian,’” said Green. “But someone from South Carolina looks at it and goes, ‘What the heck is that?’”

RBC also needed to up the ante a bit because of its expansion in the U.S. Green said companies south of the border tend to spend more money on recognition than Canadian firms, so RBC had to bring values up across the board in order to put it in on par with American financial institutions.

It’s also made enhancements to all of its traditional service awards — awarded at five-year intervals starting in the fifth year — and really boosted the awards given at the 25 year mark and up.

He said the entire philosophy around recognition at RBC is a can’t-miss scenario.

“They’re seeing the service award program as not being just about awarding someone for hanging around or just as a passive, tenure-based award,” said Green. “They’re seeing this now as more of a manager’s award. Recognizing people for the years of service is creating an opportunity for a manager to enhance and support the building of a strong relationship. They realize very much that any program like this lives or dies on how it’s presented and the managers are key to that.”

Selling the soft components

Hirji said employees have a clear understanding of the value of compensation and benefits, but don’t always fully appreciate how valuable the softer components of a total rewards package are. But that’s not to say RBC isn’t focusing on a competitive compensation package.

“I don’t want to minimize that because even as you communicate (the value of soft rewards), you have to be clear about communicating that our pay and benefits are competitive and that’s clearly where we intend to stay,” she said.

She said it’s understandable that employees take for granted some of the other things that make work enjoyable because it’s much harder to attach a value to them and to communicate that value to staff.

The message is delivered to employees primarily through the company’s intranet, a site for employees called “Me and RBC.” When employees sign in to the HR portal, they’re presented with the total rewards quadrant (see sidebar on page G12) and can then enter into one of the four sections. And employees are using the site in huge numbers. Hirji said 85 to 90 per cent of employees visit the site at least once a month.

The total rewards concept is also promoted through the employee magazine and a monthly communication is sent out from HR to managers. And everything is emblazoned with a special total rewards icon so there is consistent branding to the program, she said.

One thing she credits for the success of the program to date is the level of commitment from senior management. She said it’s a two- to three-year change initiative and it’s important to constantly communicate with staff to let them know how things are changing and what the new norms will be.

“By just saying that we did the program and we’re moving on, you’re going to raise employee cynicism,” she said. “It’s going to be flavour of the month.”

The success come from being committed to the change, in being committed to being continually challenged on flexibility and choice and recognizing different needs of employees at different times, she said.

“You have to be sincere about making change,” she said. “It is a changing environment and you have to be open and willing to go places where perhaps you might not have gone before.”

And while she admits it can be tough to measure the success of the changes on paper, there will be some very key indicators of how it’s working.

“There are some pieces that are anecdotal,” she said. “If employees are talking about it to potential employees — you know, externally to their friends and families — well, that will be a sign to us that it’s embedded in their mindset."

RBC’s four quadrants of total rewards

The centerpiece to RBC’s total rewards program is something it calls the “four quadrants.” They are:


Includes salary, commission, performance-based incentive program, personalized benefits, retirement programs and a share ownership plan.


Includes a base level of coverage with the flexibility to add additional coverage. Basic life and disability benefits, a pension plan and health and dental plans are all available with several options. Also includes employee assistance and work-life support services and special benefits like VISA cards and mortgages.

Learning and career development:

Includes access to diverse learning opportunities and a wide array of career tools. Features e-learning accessible anytime, anywhere. Employees also have access to internal career search software, part of a “one company, many careers” philosophy that gives employees the ability to move through different jobs and business units at RBC.

Work environment:

Includes a commitment to provide good workplace culture, diversity and a barrier-free and accessible workplace. It recognizes that employees have unique needs, work styles and preferences and continuously changing priorities in the quest to achieve work-life balance.

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