Riveted by retention

With unemployment low and multiple generations in the workforce, retention can be a challenge. We talked to 5 HR leaders to find out how they're tackling the issue.

Riveted by retention

Brandie Yarish

vice-president of people and culture and CHRO at Enmax

The utility is owned by the City of Calgary and has 1,700 employees


Employee retention has definitely become more of a priority these days, according to Brandie Yarish, vice-president of people and culture at Enmax in Calgary. And there are a few reasons for that.

“There’s a recognition in terms of the amount of time and expense [involved with] turnover, as organizations are becoming increasingly complex, and the pace of change is accelerating,” she says.

There’s also a big demographic shift happening across Canada, with baby boomer retirement making it harder to find key talent to fill leadership roles, says Yarish.

“Any time you have somebody leave the organization with specialized knowledge and skills and you’re trying to backfill and get business operations running smoothly again quickly, [it] is very challenging.”

As part of the retention focus, Enmax focuses its energy on employee engagement and moving the needle, she says.

“We’re coming at it through a proactive way, to go at it strategically to drive a number of outcomes, including retention,” says Yarish. “When we focus on engagement, we get a whole bunch of byproducts beyond just retention — we also get to see our safety improve, we get to see our productivity improve and our overall performance as an organization.”

As a result, the utility has concentrated on leaders and assessing their impact on engagement, she says.

“We’re really focused on making sure that all of our supervisors have the appropriate leadership skills and experience to provide what’s needed to our workforce. So that’s a key area of focus for us, as is making sure that our all of our employees understand our vision and our purpose in making them feel like they’re part of the organization and part of our overall community.” 

To better understand employee preferences, engagement data can be cut based on age, for example, so that provides some trending numbers, says Yarish.

“We are seeing some new values that are coming from those [workers] that are entering the workforce and what really matters to them,” such as flexibility and work-life balance.

“I think a lot of the things that the millennials are asking for, the other generations were too fearful to ask for, but they want them, too.”

The 1,700-employee organization also focuses on recognition, she says.

“Acknowledging people for their contribution and making sure that they feel appreciated goes a long way in terms of really making them feel part of something and having a sticky factor in terms of wanting to stay with the organization.”

The utility also has variable pay programs that are performance driven, says Yarish, “so everybody within our organization is eligible for short-term incentives, which includes all of our unionized employees, which isn’t as common. And that’s based on hitting corporate objectives, individual objectives, as well as business objectives.”

Enmax has also prioritized filling positions internally, and it completes a talent assessment annually, focusing on succession planning, she says.

“There are development plans that are built in-house for individuals [and] we’re regularly monitoring who’s available to take on a stretch assignment or the next role. And while we still need to augment with external skillsets, just based on where the business is going, and some of the new skills and experience that are required, we very much do move people throughout the organization and give them the opportunity to grow their careers.”

But there’s one area that could use improvement — improving retention when it comes to diversity and inclusion, says Yarish.

“That’s another area where Canadian employers have a lot of work to do in developing the specific solutions to ensure that we’re putting the appropriate supports in place to enable diversity and inclusion and that once we attract people to the organization, they don’t feel isolated or that they don’t have support to be successful and stay with the organization. So, that’s another area where we want to focus… even if we just look at females in the workplace, a really important retention factor would be making sure that we’ve got good support for women when they come back from maternity leave.” 

Another particular challenge: How to retain the right employees versus the wrong ones, she says.

“There’s some employees that, frankly, would be better off moving on. And so how do you ensure that when you’re focused on retention, you’re focused on the things that matter most to the employees you want to retain, but not making it so attractive and so enticing that, at the same time, you’re retaining all of those that really should have left a couple years ago and gone on to something different?”


Andrei Fartais 

HR director at Church & Dwight Canada

The Mississauga, Ont.-based household goods manufacturer has 300 workers in Canada and 5,000 globally

Research has shown most people don’t leave companies, they leave managers, so building up the management team is critical to retain employees, according to Andrei Fartais, HR director at Church & Dwight Canada.

“The damage generated by a non-skilled manager can have a ripple effect throughout the organization. So you really need to pay particular attention to how you select your managers and how you invest in them,” he says.

“It’s the responsibility of each and every manager to make sure that their particular groups are directly contributing to raising up the engagement scores.”

As part of that, the company gauges employee engagement through an interactive survey tool.

“It’s your barometer in terms of where you are,” says Fartias.

 “The new approach that we’re trying is pushing this from HR, where we’re not the party responsible, over to the managers. So it’s really… the functions that have the responsibility to make sure that they engage with the tool, that they understand it, and then that they put together very simple solutions in terms of the opportunities identified  by function.”

“At the end of the day, it’s the responsibility of each and every manager to make sure that their particular groups are directly contributing to raising up the engagement scores.”

The household goods manufacturer faces a few challenges on the retention front, such as a low unemployment rate in Quebec and increased competition from the likes of employers in the cannabis industry seeking skilled workers, says Fartais.

Then there’s the generational mix, with new workers who are very selective and have different motivators, he says.

“It becomes a very challenging environment for the HR function and how you stay competitive throughout all of that.”

One way to meet that challenge is to start at the beginning: Assessing fit factor during recruitment. Essentially, it’s about assessing job candidates for how they’ll fit with the company’s culture, with a very clear target in mind, according to Fartais.

“If you understand how that works, and if you’ve done a bit of a marketing exercise, and you know your brand, and your employer value proposition,  you should be able to identify that.”

The company has a turnover rate below seven per cent, and part of that is attributable to targeted behavioural interviewing during hiring, says Fartais.

“We’re going to drill down to the bottom line of what the candidate has done in a certain context.”

Church & Dwight then combines these results with psychometric analysis, he says, and then rolls all that into the employee’s subsequent onboarding, development and engagement, he says, “so hopefully, it will get to some retention numbers.”

On the perks side, the company is “doing some of the classics,” says Fartais, such as offering employees summer hours. 

“It is a trend and, certainly, this is something that we see more and more people coming into the workforce and asking about — work-life balance.”

But to make sure employees “have skin in the game,” Church & Dwight shares corporate profits with them, says Fartais.

“So that that’s from top to bottom… from the line operator to the CEO, everybody is part of a bonus plan that has exactly the same metrics. Of course, the incentive percentages vary by position but the core metrics are universal,” he says.

“Since we introduced this… all-employee bonus, we’ve seen some very interesting results and numbers really shaping up nicely in terms of retention.”

Church & Dwight also makes a point to do exit interviews, knowing it’s good practice to try and understand why people leave, he says.

“(It’s about) being humble and trying to open yourself to ‘Hey, we don’t know what we don’t know, tell us how we can be better. And trust us with that information.’ That has proven to be beneficial.”


Denise Hayes

CHRO of Moneris in Toronto

The financial technology company has 1,750 employees across five offices in Canada


Retention used to be the holy grail as an HR metric — but HR professionals need to rethink what is the new norm for retention, according to Denise Hayes, CHRO of Moneris in Toronto.

In tracking both internal data and external benchmarks, the highest level of turnover is among the millennial demographic and those with less than three years’ service, because they are moving on to the next new thing, she says.

“When that first started happening, we wondered: ‘Did we have a problem?’ But as we delved into it more, my question, really, is is this the new norm? And I believe that it is.”

Hayes says she is seeing a change in the focus on retention and its importance.

“I see it personally as really being highly affected by change and employee expectations. And, certainly the business world — technology’s advancing, there’s economic factors, there’s business evolutions, etcetera. But I’m seeing a real change in employee expectations around what they want from their workplace experience,” she says.

“The millennial population are definitely more keen to advance [their] career and be less hesitant to make moves from organization to organization, whether it’s to grow upward, up the corporate ladder, but also, we’re seeing they will change just to do different things and have different job experiences.”

To gauge the need for retention initiatives, and to focus strategy, Moneris relies heavily on data and feedback from employee surveys, says Hayes.

“We cut the data by millennials and gen X and boomers, and we’re seeing some really distinct drivers of engagement and drivers of retention.” 

In the millennial population, for example, drivers of retention are all around career, career goals and recognition. For gen-Xers, it’s around action taking, so having confidence that Moneris will respond to the feedback from surveys, their purpose and inclusion. And for boomers, it’s about manager feedback and career paths, she says. 

“This data is really important because it actually enables us to… focus our retention strategies around the various populations and, where possible, cross-pollinate, so that we’re not delivering a multitude of strategies, but we’re really being both focused and cross across generational boundaries where possible.”

If employers don’t differentiate how they approach retention discussions with changing demographics, there will be constant churn, says Hayes. 

“It will be hard to drive an engaged workforce, but if there’s stratification around your retention focus, based upon your own personal organizational data, I think that you can still run a very successful organization and have good key talent — you’re just spinning it to what makes sense for your business and for your culture.” 

The company has several initiatives around retention, such as formalizing career development plans. It also has seen a huge impact in focusing on its culture, and reinforcing and re-establishing corporate values, says Hayes.

“If you’re doing good things and the right things around your culture, and you’re consistent with your messaging and what you’re communicating back to employees and you act on it, I think you can really have a differentiator in terms of that employee experience, that employee relationship, that ultimately does positively impact retention and engagement.”

There’s also an online learning platform and a recognition program for employees, along with greater interest in flex arrangements, says Hayes.

“That’s one of the areas we’ve gotten feedback on [in] some of the surveys that we’ve done. And so, over the past a year or so, we have formalized all of our flexible work arrangements, whether it’s flex hours, whether there’s flexibility around working from home,” she says.

Moneris also does regular check-ins around performance, with annual and mid-year talks. It’s about calibrating or fine-tuning approaches for the second half of the year, says Hayes.

“We really encourage keeping the ongoing dialogue and conversation going to be able to course-correct where needed. And we really equip our leaders and put a focus on training them and preparing them so that they can go out and have these conversations,” she says.

Moneris also does stay surveys and exit interviews, to be more proactive and predictive.

“We try to get out ahead of it and say, ‘What’s keeping you here? Why do you stay with us?’” she says. “We’re getting some really consistent, reliable data that we can actually action and been actioning, and now we’re starting to see results from the actions that we’ve been taking.”


Ingrid Huss

director of total rewards and HR operations at Dynacare

The health and wellness solutions provider has more than 3,000 employees across Canada


While the retention of key talent should always be a priority, newer trends can make a difference, according to Ingrid Huss, director of total rewards and HR operations at Dynacare in Toronto.

“Our current record-low unemployment rates and strong job market are definitely highlighting the need to focus on retention. I know in our industry, we constantly have a need for skilled, trained individuals in certain roles,” she says. 

“Key talent is always something you need to focus on retaining, but sometimes there are economic situations… that make it more challenging at times to retain people because there are more opportunities people can choose from.”

Retention at Dynacare is also important when there are major changes, such as an office relocation or business transformation, or when there’s a stronger need for hiring certain skill sets, says Huss.

“We have highly specialized skills in some areas, and any time you have an initiative of that nature, it’s really important to ensure you have an appropriate transition of work processes and you’re not losing the skills that you need.”

And if the 3,000-employee company is having trouble filling certain specialized positions, such as a medical lab technician, it needs to ensure it’s retaining existing talent, she says.

Turnover is looked at on a monthly basis at Dynacare, along with feedback from engagement surveys, which can be segmented down, for example, by different functional areas or length of service, says Huss.

“Retention is really an outcome that we want to see as a result of having engaged employees,” she says. 

“We want employees to feel connected to their work and to the company, and research has shown that engaged employees will definitely provide that discretionary effort you need to deliver on your business results.”

And while the company has an overall philosophical approach, doing many things that should apply to everyone, it also tailors its offerings to different groups, says Huss.

“For example, leadership development — we tend to focus a little bit more on people that have people leadership skills.”

To support engagement, Dynacare implemented a recognition program and it regularly monitors utilization rates, she says.

“We found that there’s been considerable uptake on that. I think it’s something, at least for our organization, that was new and different.”

It also holds focus groups and, most importantly, follows up on feedback by taking appropriate actions, says Huss.

Dynacare has also introduced wellness programs, such as on-site exercise sessions, she says.

“We think it’s important that people feel energized and we want to promote both physical and mental emotional well-being.”

The company has also had some momentum in enhancing talent selection internally, says Huss.

“We know that it’s not possible to fill all vacancies from within so we do hire externally, and it’s good to have the right balance between the two because we want to give internal people the opportunity to grow and progress in their careers and, at the same time, we want to bring in fresh ideas.”

When it comes to retention, compensation and benefits are foundational elements, she says.

“It’s really about the things that you do above and beyond that make the difference, and that’s certainly something Dynacare has decided to focus on in terms of really trying to enhance the employee experience through reward-type initiatives, like career pathing, leadership development, even just simple recognition on a regular basis.”

As for particular challenges around retention, not surprisingly, budget is an issue, says Huss.

“It’s not like there’s a bottomless well that we draw from in terms of financial resources, so we really do — when we’re looking at where we’re going to invest and what we’re going to invest in —  think about it more broadly and more strategically in terms of ‘Where do we think we’re going to get the best return?’”


Ed Kwan

vice-president of HR at GCT (Global Container Terminals) Canada 

The Vancouver-based company has 2,500 employees


With a changing industry — as shipping lines grow bigger and more consolidation leads to tougher competition — retention is an important issue for GCT (Global Container Terminals) Canada. 

The war for talent is heating up yet again, partly because of baby boomers retiring and fewer entrants coming into the workforce, says Ed Kwan, vice-president of HR at GCT in Vancouver. 

“There’s a demand and supply issue there.” 

The other issue is the arrival of millennials to the market, he says. 

“It’s not a job-for-life mentality; it’s not just a paycheque. They don’t hesitate to move and they want to be passionate about what they’re doing. So, if they don’t feel a pretty strong sense of purpose of why they’re there, and what value they’re creating, they won’t hesitate to move on.” 

There’s also a greater recognition that it’s not just the bells and whistles or the technology and equipment that retain people. 

“People and culture really is a competitive advantage,” says Kwan. “We’re starting to see much more of an emphasis on creating a culture that really attracts and retains people.” 

To gauge its retention efforts, the 2,500-employee company looks at its voluntary turnover rate, which sits at about seven per cent. GCT also focuses on engagement levels, and it recently held focus groups among the different departments to garner further insights, he says. 

“I like to peel back the onion and understand, ‘OK, what really is on the minds of employees?’”

While the company pays well, says Kwan, one of the challenges around retention is the 24-7 shift environment. Many workers — especially newer ones — are keen on greater work-life balance, he says. 

“This new group, it’s a very different mentality right there. They’d rather not have the overtime in some cases, because they’ve got things to do.” 

So, the company has worked to provide shift schedules that create more stability, such as four days on, four days off or 12-hour days. While it has taken people some time to adjust to the new approach, they now appreciate it, he says. 

GCT also has a recognition program that includes a monthly employee appreciation lunch and a program run by a third-party vendor that gives out experiential awards — popular with employees looking for their next Instagram photo op, says Kwan. 

“When you have a performance-based environment, and you have high achievers, the tendency is you’re always looking for what’s next. And sometimes you don’t take that time out to celebrate and acknowledge what we’ve accomplished and what people have done.” 

“[It’s about] trying to build that habit and culture across our management group. And… it’s not an employee of the month — there will be some months where there won’t be anything, and they’ll be other months where we might recognize two or three people or, in some cases, a whole department… so it just helps connect our organization.”

Emphasizing opportunities for growth development and career progression are also key, he says.

“We tend to hire, at the front end, capable people, and we promote from within before going external, as much as possible.”

It’s also important to have strong leadership at the company, and let people know that they’re making a difference in their role, regardless of where they are in the organization, says Kwan.

“When people contribute and perform and are engaged and have a good attitude, then there’s typically opportunities for progression.”

GCT has also worked hard to clarify roles and responsibilities across departments, he says.

“The nature of our business being logistics, there’s a lot of interdependencies across different departments. And there’s this heightened focused on, ‘OK, how do we change process? How do we become more efficient? And how do we leverage technologies?’” says Kwan.

“And as we go through all of that change, that impacts what people thought they had responsibility for, and what they’re now doing going forward. And how does this impact them? [So] how do we work together effectively, as we make these changes?”

Silos start to build up, he says.

“So, we need to constantly look at ‘OK, let’s make sure we break down those silos, make sure we’re working collectively as a team, as opposed to competing for the work — there’s plenty of work to go around.”

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