Age-free culture goal of top employers

5 organizations awarded for efforts to entice, retain 50-plus workers
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 01/11/2009

In Edmonton, there is a 91-year-old man who greets customers entering Wal-Mart. He’s the oldest employee at the chain, which has no maximum age for its workers.

“We’ve had retired dentists come back to work as greeters because it’s a very social position and allows them to be engaged with the community. Certainly the greeter is one of the most popular positions for the 50-plus,” said Karin Campbell, manager of corporate affairs for Wal-Mart Canada, based in Mississauga, Ont.

That inclusive culture is one of the reasons the 77,000-employee retailer, along with four other organizations, received the 2009 Best Employer Award for 50-Plus Canadians — the fifth annual award from the Workplace Institute which recognizes great workplaces for Canadians aged 50 and above. Judges evaluate entries based on innovative approaches to retirement, management practices and attraction and retention of mature workers.

Wal-Mart and the other winners for 2009 — Bethany Care Society, the Catholic Children’s Aid Society of Toronto, HSBC Bank Canada and Seven Oaks General Hospital — are constantly innovating and continuing to work on different aspects to strengthen the value proposition for older workers, said Barbara Jaworski, founder of the awards and author of Kaa-Boom! How to Engage the 50-Plus Worker and Beat the Workforce Crisis. “They may find, for whatever reason, it’s strategically important to their business to retain those folks or attract them.”

Wal-Mart has ambitious goals for expansion and for hiring, and it sees the 50-plus category as a really important one, said Campbell.

“Certainly our objective is to let them know we have these opportunities available and we do offer flexible and rewarding work for them, in a variety of different positions, not just at the store level but home office.”

In 2008, Wal-Mart Canada introduced “progressive retirement services,” a program to help the company effectively retain and recruit more experienced workers through work-life flexibility options. Workers are encouraged to return as consultants, special project managers or mentors.

“We were doing it on an ad hoc basis before and really wanted to formalize it so everyone had access,” said Campbell. “We really saw an opportunity to use the knowledge and expertise of these 50-plus individuals, in markets particularly where we couldn’t find younger associates, and we have seen the value of their experience firsthand.”

There is also a diversity council at Wal-Mart that was established to create a culture of inclusion by encouraging the special qualities of each associate and celebrating how individual differences bring value to customers and the workplace. And for each store, the retailer looks at the surrounding area to assess the different demographics, customer ages and multicultural clusters, both for the selection of merchandise and for hiring.

“We look at what we need to do at the store level to recruit,” said Campbell. “For a store where there are a lot of boomers working in the community, you see a lot of boomers in the store.”

The 50-plus awards recognize several specific areas, such as career development, recruitment practices, workplace culture, health supports, benefits, pensions or recognition. For career development, that can mean continued, targeted training for workers, even if they are approaching retirement age, and the chance to move to different positions if so desired, to keep work interesting. Or it can mean a tailored career development plan for each employee, regardless of age.

“Continuing to offer training can be an important message to older workers that they’re not being put on the back shelf,” said Jaworski.

All of these strategies are very tied in to business needs, as companies see a gap and then ask employees, through focus groups, for example, about alternatives, she said.

“Flexibility is number one. Organizations that don’t offer that flexibility are asking for trouble, asking their older workers to leave to go to competitors where they may get greater flexibility or work on a part-time basis,” said Jaworski.

Organizations are also focusing more on marketing to older workers. While many companies are afraid to take such an approach for fear of “offending” Gen Ys, whom they also hope to attract, “smart organizations are trying to attract the total labour pool — all age groups, different skill levels,” she said.

And while younger workers may be concerned more senior employees will lock jobs, preventing them from moving forward, “what’s interesting about older workers, especially when rehired after 50, is they generally are not that interested in moving up in the organization,” said Jaworski.

“They are interested in what they do well and helping younger workers attain some of those supervisory positions they may be looking for,” she said. “They’re not always interested in taking on more responsibility. They want to contribute and to do a good job.”

And the winners are…

2009 Best Employer Award for 50-Plus Canadians

• Wal-Mart Canada

• Bethany Care Society

• Catholic Children’s Aid Society of Toronto

• HSBC Bank Canada

• Seven Oaks General Hospital

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