HR leaders talk about employee engagement

Inspiring and encouraging employees to higher levels of productivity and innovation
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/12/2005

Gary Burkett

Managing Director of Human Resources
FedEx Canada

The Mississauga, Ont.-headquartered courier company employs 5,000 employees in 60 stations across Canada.

For Gary Burkett, the HR managing director who joined FedEx Canada two years ago, employee engagement is not hard to define.

“An engaged employee is an employee who is satisfied, who is committed, who is loyal and who gives that above-and-beyond discretionary effort. At FedEx we call that the ‘purple promise’ of making every experience outstanding. It’s not just customer experience; we work hard to make the internal experience the same.”

Burkett, whose HR career includes 25 years of experience at Molson Breweries and seven years at Bell Canada, says he joined FedEx Canada because of its People First philosophy, which ranks people and service first and second, and profit third.

“When you treat people with dignity and respect and you have engaged employees, that has a positive direct impact on the customer experience. That in turn builds strong customer loyalty. That then drives revenue growth and in turn provides profits with which to pay for programs.”

Underpinning this People First philosophy is an emphasis on employee engagement, which is a key scorecard metric that managers are held accountable for, says Burkett.

Along with other FedEx businesses in 210 countries, FedEx Canada takes part in a global employee satisfaction survey that enables the company to rank itself against sister companies. Burkett cannot share FedEx Canada’s results; but he says the 98- to 99-per-cent employee participation in the survey indicates that “our employees know we take the survey feedback very seriously.”

Of the survey’s 36 questions, 10 are set aside to measure aspects of employee engagement, including career development, reward, organizational identification, job security and product quality.

Results for the survey are linked to managers’ performance appraisals and in turn their base pay as well as their variable pay. “This applies to everyone from our president and CEO through to all management within the FedEx Canada region as well as to professionals,” says Burkett.

Managers who score low have to submit action plans to be signed off by their managers, their reports and an employee relations representative, he adds. The company also encourages skip-level meetings, in which an employee can raise issues about her superior with that person’s manager.

Every quarter, company officers and managing directors go to every single station across Canada and meet with employees to go over business updates and take employee questions. “Having done them at 5:30 a.m. and 10 p.m., you get a pretty good feel for the atmosphere and a feel for where work groups are in terms of engagement and disengagement.”

One complaint commonly heard from employee engagement surveys was that the internal job posting system was “slow, manual and cumbersome,” says Burkett. In response, the company’s human resources group revamped its internal job posting system on the Internet. The new web-based system, introduced in June, requires employees to post their profiles or resumes just one time.

“Any time there’s a vacancy for which the employee has the experience, knowledge and skills to fill, they’re automatically notified by e-mail that they’re a candidate. And once the posting comes down, the manager doing the hiring gets a prioritized roster of candidates,” Burkett says. He adds that the new system has “opened up career growth, personal growth and career development opportunities for employees. It also helps managers make quality selections in reduced cycle time.”

And because career growth is important to employees, about six months ago the company added a job directory to its HR portal.

“Employees can look at any function in the company and what they’ll see are the entry-level positions and the career paths within each functional area. And they can click on it and understand what the minimum job specs and where the career growth opportunities are,” says Burkett. To help develop needed skills, employees also have access to a catalogue of 1,700 computer-based courses on soft skills, from communication through to behavioural interviewing.

The reason this kind of attention is paid to internal growth opportunities goes back to the fact that “most employees are lifers,” says Burkett. “When you look at employee needs and what motivates them and what they worry about, job security is the driver.

“I was not around at the time of 9/11 but the world changed. FedEx and the shipping sector were adversely affected. And FedEx made a very conscious decision not to downsize, not to lay off. Did we provide wage and salary increases during that period? No. But what we did provide was job security, and that goes right back to People, Service, Profit. That’s our culture.”

Jane Graydon

Director of Human Resources
BC Biomedical Laboratories

Based in Surrey, B.C., BC Biomedical Laboratories is a community-based, physician-owned diagnostic laboratory service with more than 650 employees across British Columbia’s Lower Mainland. Its staff serve 6,000 patients a day, performing 22,000 tests.

Even when your company has been ranked the best employer in Canada, there’s always room for improvement.

“We’ve been the number one employer in Canada for the last three years,” says Jane Graydon, BC Biomedical Laboratories’ director of human resources. “Our engagement has just been outstanding.”

BC Biomedical employees, who scored a 96-per-cent engagement rate on the annual Hewitt survey of the 50 Best Employers in Canada, did however report several areas, including training and communication, that needed enhancement. So instead of sitting idly by and enjoying the prestige of the Hewitt survey, the British Columbia-based laboratory is using the results to improve itself and make employees happier.

BC Biomedical is introducing video-based on-demand learning programs that supervisors can use during department meetings or employees can view on their desktops. The company is also enhancing its intranet and is putting team leaders in its 45 patient service centres that are spread across B.C.’s Lower Mainland.

Even with the concerns raised in the surveys, employee engagement was actually up one per cent from the previous year, something Graydon didn’t expect given that BC Biomedical laid off a significant number of employees in 2004.

“We were quite surprised at being number one this year because of what we went through last year,” she says.

Graydon says that management was open and honest with employees about the layoffs and that employees understood it was a last resort. Instead of focusing on layoffs as the only way to cut costs, the company also accommodated many employees’ desire for shorter work hours, which reduced the number of jobs that needed to be cut.

“We did what we had to do in the most painless way possible,” says Graydon.

BC Biomedical emphasizes its employee engagement in order to be successful. Graydon says that since the company is a community-based lab, it can’t negotiate big volume discounts to save money. “We really rely on the engagement of our employees to help us compete. It’s absolutely critical.”

Graydon says employee engagement at BC Biomedical can best be seen in the employees’ behaviours, especially how they interact with co-workers and patients. “We’ll see employees really taking the time to help patients in ways that wouldn’t be expected of someone in the front end.”

She notes that the company gets a lot of new hires through employee referrals; something she says only happens if employees are engaged in their jobs.

But engagement isn’t something that happens overnight — it’s something that needs to be built into the corporate culture. “It’s a matter of keeping your ear to the ground, understanding and monitoring engagement and dealing with issues quickly as they emerge,” says Graydon.

To keep the company abreast of how employees are feeling, BC Biomedical has an employee advisory group, made up of representatives from different areas of the organization who meet every two months. At every management meeting the CEO always asks the managers how employees are feeling and if there have been any problems. “It’s something we talk about in our culture,” says Graydon. “We may not use the term engagement, but we absolutely talk about our employees, what they’re feeling and what they’re thinking.”

Recently, an HR advisor noticed some dissension and conflict in a team. After talking with the team supervisor and employees individually, she figured out that the employees were having a hard time understanding each others’ communication styles. One worker had recently left and another one hired on, changing the team dynamic. “They just didn’t have the skills in the group or the awareness of the different styles to change how they communicated to be more effective,” says Graydon.

The HR advisor had each employee complete a personal communication assessment, which they then shared with one another. The advisor facilitated an intervention to help the employees understand each others’ communication styles and how to work together. “The signs of disengagement have disappeared,” says Graydon. “They’re working well together as a team.”

BC Biomedical uses an informal method of recognizing employees for being engaged. When supervisors recognize that an employee is going above and beyond in serving a customer or helping a co-worker, they’ll give the employee a movie pass or a coffee shop gift certificate from the company’s “Treasure Box.”

“We reward and recognize the actual behaviour as opposed to the act of being engaged,” says Graydon. “We pass around the good stories and then people get an informal thank you from different directions.”

Jill Ram

Vice-president of Human Resources
Engenuity Technologies Inc.

A Montreal software company specializing in computer simulation programs, Engenuity Technologies Inc. employs 80 people.

Having gone through a couple of acquisitions and a couple rounds of layoffs in the last few years, Engenuity Technologies is now focused on rebuilding employee trust and engagement, says human resources vice-president Jill Ram.

To start this engagement-building process, the Montreal-based software company conducted an employee satisfaction survey. In the six years that Ram has been with Engenuity, this was the first time such a survey was done.

Doing the survey was important not just because it gave managers a credible sense of how employees felt, says Ram. It was also a signal to employees that “we really do care about how they feel and what they have to say.”

When the results came back, “as opposed to having the executive say, ‘Thank you very much. We’re going to work on this,’ we threw it back to the employees,” says Ram.

“We said, ‘You have to help us help you. We can’t just come up with all the answers.’”

The company then created a task force of about 15 employees who volunteered to meet over a period of three months to mull over the results and come up with solutions to the more pressing issues.

“Right then and there, they were much more engaged. They felt, ‘I’m going to be part of the solution,’” says Ram.

One of the changes the employee task force recommended was an overhaul of the physical environment.

“At one point we had a huge space here with big cubicles and very spread out, old furniture,” says Ram.

“And so we made the decision to bring everyone together. We invested in new furniture, changed their whole workspace, which really changed the dynamic. You see now the synergy. People have said it’s better for them because you see people working together, you hear more of what’s going on, you feel more involved.”

Another task force recommendation was a service recognition award, which the company implemented with prizes going out to people for five, 10 and 15 years of service. The company then built on that award and introduced a performance recognition award to encourage people for their “commitment to the company, their teamwork, their sense of urgency,” says Ram. Recipients get a cash prize, handed out publicly in front of their peers.

The company also took steps to invest in managers, many of whom are technically competent but were less equipped with leadership ability, says Ram. They needed further training on such issues as “how to assess their people, how to coach people, how to deal with issues. If someone’s not engaged, what does that mean? How do you address it? Is it just a personal problem at home or is it the management style? I don’t think they really knew how to address or identify those issues.”

The company addressed this by making an educational reimbursement available. It also brought in an external coach to help managers develop their soft skills. “We’ve put a couple of individuals through this, where they meet with the coach once a week and go through certain issues and go through their homework: ‘How am I going to change my behaviour and work with my people and make changes?’”

The program has been a success so far, says Ram. “We’re starting to build a partnership with this person. He’s in essence an employee of the company. He’s not on the company payroll, but he really gets a feel for what the culture is so that he can relate to the issues.”

Training managers is crucial in that it supports a new focus on empowering managers to make decisions, which CEO Patrice Commune brought with him when he took over the helm in 2002, says Ram.

The three years since then have been “transforming,” she adds. “We still have places we want to go but the engagement level is a lot higher. The financial turnaround also helps people believe in the vision of the company. You see things that were committed to are followed through on. It’s a more trusting environment. People work hard but feel good about the company.”

Linda Hutchison

Human Resources Co-ordinator
Clearwater Seafoods

Clearwater Seafoods is a global Canadian company with more than 2,200 employees who harvest, process and distribute shellfish and groundfish. It’s based Bedford, N.S., but has plants and fisheries around the world.

Nova Scotia-based Clearwater Seafoods started small, with two guys selling lobster at the side of the road nearly 30 years ago. Since then the company has grown to roughly 2,200 global employees, more than half in Canada. But the company hasn’t forgotten its entrepreneurial spirit and every time Clearwater buys an existing fish plant, the company encourages the managers and employees to maintain their sense of ownership and self-reliance.

Linda Hutchison, human resources co-ordinator at Clearwater, says with such a geographically spread company, entrepreneurship and independence is absolutely necessary. It also results in highly stimulated and satisfied employees. “We have probably one of the most engaged and self-motivated workforces I’ve ever seen.”

The culture at Clearwater is one of innovation and ownership, she says, adding that engagement is observed through employee empowerment, pride, respect and innovation. “Our people run our companies. They make daily decisions and formulate and execute those decisions within the corporate strategy.”

It’s this kind of self-reliance that Hutchison sees as key to fostering engagement in such a geographically dispersed company. However, instilling this in management presents its own challenges as well. It takes the right balance of guidance and direction and then knowing when to get out of the way.

“Once you start to manage that way, the results are pretty powerful,” says Hutchison. “The greatest thing about high engagement in employees is that you don’t need to be worried about employee motivation tools. With ownership comes pride and respect for what you do…Nothing gets you pumped more than that.”

While the company doesn’t have a formal method of recognizing engagement, a much too complicated undertaking considering how spread out the company is, says Hutchison, nearly all employees are able to share in the seafood company’s success. Those who work in the plant get a bonus based on the volume of food they package and the fishermen get paid for hours worked as well as a percentage of the catch. “That helps re-emphasize and reward employee engagement,” says Hutchison.

She says another key to engagement and motivation is the company’s flexibility. Often staff come in and work on the weekends of their own volition but then they also have the flexibility to leave in the middle of the day for an appointment without having to clear it with a supervisor. “There’s a lot of commitment to the health of the employees and that comes right from the top.”

Sue Zuccala

Vice-president, Human Resources and Operations
High Road Communications

This media relations firm specializing in the high-tech sector employs 60 people at four offices in Canada, including Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto.

The turnover rate at an agency environment typically hovers around 10 to 12 per cent, sometimes 15, says Sue Zuccala, who has 18 years of human resources experience, mostly in high-tech industries. At High Road Communications, the media relations agency she joined five years ago, the turnover rate is four per cent.

In the entire time she has been with High Road, just two employees have left to go to another agency, says Zuccala. The others left to go abroad or to work for causes they believe in.

“After 18 years in the HR field, it’s nice to work for a senior manager who’s very proactive and who believes that your staff is your commodity. And if you don’t support and provide them with the tools they need, then you don’t have a company,” says Zuccala, referring to the leadership of Mia Wedgbury, managing partner and co-founder of High Road.

Zuccala attributes the low turnover to efforts High Road makes “to proactively put in things before we have employees complaining about it.” To nurture the engagement of the 60-some people working at High Road, Zuccala says she focuses on two things: help their career development and provide challenging work.

“Unlike many other organizations, we actively promote staff when we feel they’re ready. We’ve never had a situation where someone says, ‘Gee, I should have been promoted a year ago and I’m still at the same level.’”

To develop employees, High Road has a company-wide mentoring program that even new employees can participate in after their first month. The program was introduced more than two years ago after one departing employee said in an exit interview, “I never felt like I had any one person I could turn to, to guide me in my career,” says Zuccala.

Employees’ performance reviews are done twice a year, and on an annual basis, employees go through a full 360-degree review involving their peers, subordinates and manager.

To further keep a finger on the pulse of the organization, the vice-presidents will often hold one-on-one chat sessions with individuals in their divisions, no matter if the latter are two or four reporting levels down, says Zuccala.

“The thing is, being a PR firm, we provide communication services to all of our clients. And if we can’t communicate internally then we’ve got an issue. So we’re very proactive in ensuring that there’s a lot of communication going on.”

Part of a good communication program is getting and acting on employee feedback. At High Road, feedback emerging from an employee satisfaction survey has prompted the agency to hire an information technology specialist to support staff with systems issues.

“For a couple of years in a row, we ranked fairly low on IT support. Being a PR firm, we never had an internal IT person. We relied on a third-party company, which was great but not the same as having your own person inside.”

Hiring an IT specialist made an impact on the day-to-day work for all those handling accounts. “We don’t have issues with e-mail anymore, with networking, with spam with all kinds of stuff. That came from results of a staff satisfaction survey, and by implementing someone internally, it made a huge difference.”

Zuccala says it’s important for employees view her as approachable and trustworthy. “I’ve even had people tell me in an exit interview, ‘Sue, you really made my initiation into the organization wonderful — from that first telephone call to set up the telephone interview, right through to encouraging feedback on the mentoring program and the whole exit interview,’” says Zuccala.

“And they know the exit interview goes back to Mia (Wedgbury). She needs to know why people are leaving. It’s nice to know that people consider me the go-to person for issues like that.”

Denise Hayes

Vice-president of Human Resources
ADP Canada

Based in the Greater Toronto Area and operating out of eight cities in Canada, the HR service provider has grown from 300 associates in 1994 to 1,700 associates today.

Being the HR department for other companies’ HR departments comes with certain pressures. Denise Hayes, vice-president of human resources at HR service provider ADP Canada, says having engaged employees — ADP calls them “associates” — “will help deliver on that above-and-beyond service, which is what our business is about.”

“Our business is growing and changing rapidly, and we need a level of engagement to keep up with the growth of the business, to deliver the level of client service and to grow and retain clients and grow our business.”

Hayes makes sure the basic elements are in place: a good, solid relationship with the leadership and with the team; recognition for a job well done; a stock-purchase plan to encourage a sense of investment in the company; and career development in the form of a tuition reimbursement program that covers up to $5,000 in tuition.

The company just recently adopted the Gallup Q12 as its formal engagement assessment tool, used by ADP companies worldwide.

“We got very positive results, but that’s now our benchmark. Year after year, we want to keep improving and we’re committed to tracking associate engagement and improving it year after year just as we do our financial results,” says Hayes.

With that goal, every manager with at least five direct reports gets a report on the engagement level within the team. Managers then have to come up with an action plan for improving the numbers for one or two questions on the survey.

“And that becomes part of the overall managerial objective for the fiscal year,” says Hayes. The action plans she has seen range from more opportunities for cross-functional work to more recognition and more time to celebrate successes.

Hayes says the HR department has a gauge on engagement levels simply by being on the ground. The HR consultants assigned to specific client groups work out of the same locations as their client groups, “so they stay very plugged in to the organization.”

“Associates and managers come to HR for advice and support and so we get a very good temperature check on how associates are doing and feeling in general.” What’s more, the president travels across the country every quarter to deliver business results.

“Usually he takes the opportunity to have what he calls an associates’ roundtable. It’s a random sampling of associates who are invited to go meet with him and they have a talk about the business and what’s going on. People are very honest with him. They tell him what’s working and what’s not working.”

Recognizing that employee engagement ultimately comes down to the relationship people have with their supervisors, Hayes says ADP recently introduced a fun, new approach to recognizing the team leaders who are particular deft at nurturing talent.

“We took them to a video studio and had them talk about their real life experience in nurturing associate engagement and talent management. We’re now using this video as an ongoing training tool for other leaders in the business to give them an opportunity to learn from the successes of their colleagues.”

ADP also has a formal leadership development program built around a core curriculum developed for team leaders, managers and directors. “It’s a progression. By developing certain skills in our team leaders, we’ll prepare them for their next manager-level job.”

When she encounters employees who have turned off, Hayes says she’ll look at what the underlying issue is. “If there’s a manager not taking engagement seriously and not actively trying to make those associates more engaged, or if the manager is not engaged, we’ll always look and ask, is the person in the right job?

“If it’s not a job fit, it’s not a training issue, if it’s a skill gap where the person just can’t do what we want them to do or expect of them, obviously we have to manage those performance issues. And if we have to make changes we’ll do it.”

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