Top 100 employers stay the course for 2011

Firms on list avoid ‘hacking, slashing’ mentality
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 11/15/2010

Despite the economic downturn and slow recovery, Canada’s top employers are not cutting back on offerings to employees, according to Richard Yerema, managing editor of the Canada’s Top 100 Employers project.

“It’s been a tough couple of years for many employers,” he said. “But the one thing we certainly noticed in the applicants’ pool and winners selected, there is a desire to stay the course — we’re not seeing a great retraction from benefits or pullback.”

The dollar values of some benefits, such as tuition subsidies, may have been reduced in the broader applicant pool but top employers are realizing smaller changes, such as offering flexibility, instead of big-ticket items can make a difference he said.

“It’s always been about finding ways to tweak your policies,” said Yerema, especially as the economy recovers and there’s a greater need to keep employer reputations intact. “If you start hacking and slashing, there are intangibles to that.”

Loblaw goes after grads

A program that launched in 2009 helped put Loblaw back on the top employers list for 2011. Grad@Loblaw is an 18-month program for recently graduated university and college students who are hired as full-time salaried staff and go in to streams such as store management, merchandising, marketing or human resources.

“It is unique because it’s not an internship program, not a co-op program,” said Nan Oldroyd, senior director of talent at Loblaw Companies in Toronto, which has 138,000 workers across Canada. “Because the grads are hired permanently, full time with full salary benefits upfront and then provided with the training, it’s a real distinction.”

Overall, the recession really hasn’t had an impact on Loblaw’s employee offerings and long-term approach, said Oldroyd. As an example, with the graduate program, “it wasn’t the recession that spurred it, it was about ‘How do we create a sustainable plan to grow talent in the organization and attract talent to it?’”

The company offers new employee referral bonuses, year-end bonuses, a share-purchase plan, a pension plan, matching retirement savings plan (RSP) contributions and discounts (up to 40 per cent) at its restaurants, stores and services. Loblaw has a voluntary employee turnover rate of 7.9 per cent, according to Mediacorp Canada, which publishes Canada’s Top 100 Employers list.

Loblaw pays 80 per cent of health premiums and family-friendly benefits include fertility treatments, maternity, parental leave and adoptive parent top-up payments (up to 75 per cent of salary for 10 weeks) and an extended, unpaid parental leave option.

New employees receive five sick days and two weeks’ vacation after their first year, with vacation increasing after five years on the job. Long-serving employees receive up to seven weeks’ vacation each year. Mediacorp’s rating for these benefits was “below average” and Loblaw is focusing on this area, said Oldroyd.

“Obviously, we pay attention significantly to feedback that we get on our colleague survey and also Mediacorp is a third party providing us with feedback, so we are focused on this area as a priority, currently.”

NB Liquor focuses on customer service

Another retailer with an impressive array of benefits that helped put it on Mediacorp’s select list was NB Liquor, which has about 445 full-time workers and 250 casual workers at 51 stores across New Brunswick. It provides pension plans with employer contributions and matching RSP contributions along with maternity leave top-up payments (to 75 per cent of salary for 15 weeks) and pays 100 per cent of health premiums.

“Our benefits haven’t changed over time but our traditional benefits are top-notch,” said Jane Washburn, vice-president of HR and corporate services at NB Liquor in Fredericton. “Being that we’re a Crown corporation, we’re not really in a position to be like the IT companies with trips here and TVs there — we’re accountable to the people of the province so our benefits are very good in a more traditional way.”

NB Liquor also offers a self-funded leave program and covers the full cost of tuition for outside courses. New employees receive three weeks’ vacation after their first year and that increases after eight years on the job.

The agency has undergone a strategic transition in the last four years, aiming to be a high-performance retailer engaging employees in service excellence, said Washburn. With a voluntary employee turnover rate of 4.27 per cent, employee engagement is strong — it went up 4.5 per cent in 2009, hitting a five-year target in three years, she said.

And the recession has had an impact, as employees received small bonuses in the first two years of the strategic plan but received vacation days in lieu of bonuses in the third year, said Washburn.

“People were still going to be responsible for doing their jobs and it didn’t come off the bottom line,” she said. “But employees really found that to be valuable.”

Yellow Pages re-brands

Yellow Pages Group (YPG), an online search provider and publisher of phone directories, was on the Top 100 Employers list thanks to benefits that include signing bonuses, new employee referral bonuses, year-end bonuses, a share-purchase plan, a pension plan and tuition subsidies.

New employees receive three weeks’ vacation after their first year and vacation increases after two years on the job. Long-serving employees receive up to seven weeks’ vacation each year. Other family-friendly benefits include fertility treatments, maternity, parental leave and adoptive parent top-up payments (to 66.66 per cent of salary for 15 weeks) and an on-site daycare.

“We always keep pushing the envelope from a continuous improvement perspective,” said Josée Dubuc, chief talent officer at YPG in Montreal, which has about 2,300 employees across Canada and a turnover rate of 4.1 per cent, according to Mediacorp.

Yellow Pages pays 100 per cent of health premiums and 30 per cent of the premiums to cover employees’ family members. That kind of coverage is critical for attracting and recruiting the best talent, said Dubuc.

“We were pretty much in the forefront way, way back, probably before our time. The one good news is that through difficult times, there have been a lot of cutbacks — benefits, pensions — (but) that’s something as a company we totally protected and it was important for us to do that.”

The company did, however, go through a salary freeze last year, she said, but it made sure employees understood the reasoning. The company also re-branded in 2009 and, as part of that, brought in an ecological initiative that included a strong recycling program.

“Whether it’s a new product introduction or any initiative, we really make sure employees are fully engaged and participate in everything we do,” said Dubuc.

Generous sabbaticals at BioWare

Employees at electronic entertainment company BioWare often work long hours under demanding schedules. So when the company was purchased by Electronic Arts in 2007, one of the big perks was a generous leave program that saw seven-year employees rewarded with a seven-week paid sabbatical and 12-year employees rewarded with a five-week paid sabbatical.

The company also provides employees with time off after completing projects, seven paid days off during the Christmas holiday, three weeks’ starting vacation and 10 paid sick days, which help explain its position on the Top 100 Employers list for the sixth time.

“We have to bring a lot of talent from outside of Edmonton into the studio so we have to offer an overall package that compels somebody to move to Edmonton,” said Aaryn Flynn, studio general manager at BioWare Edmonton and BioWare Montreal.

There are also year-end bonuses, matching RSP contributions, a share purchase plan and discounts on home computer and company products. Bioware also pays 100 per cent of health premiums and provides maternity top-up payments (to 100 per cent of salary for eight weeks) and parental leave top-ups for new fathers and adoptive parents (to 100 per cent of salary for one week).

To keep employees healthy, nutritious breakfast options are offered to employees every day, in addition to free memberships to an on-site gym.

“We were founded by three doctors who took the health and wellness of employees very seriously,” said Flynn.

While the recession did mean a merit-raising freeze at Bioware, other benefits were not reduced, he said. However, the voluntary employee turnover rate last year was 14 per cent, according to Mediacorp, and the company scored “average” when it came to compensation and skills and development.

“Our general plan is to always look at those kinds of external data sets and incorporate those into our overall plan for ensuring we’re doing the right thing for employees, so we’re always looking for fresh data for improving somewhere,” said Flynn.

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