Awarding HR’s best in Atlantic Canada

Irving Oil, xwave and Maritime Life take top honours

Greg Bambury, director of HR at Irving Oil, says his HR department can’t take all the credit for its award for innovation at June’s Atlantic Canada HR Awards.

“All we did was leverage some strengths that already existed in the organization,” he said.

Irving Oil has been developing positive relationships with its employees for 75 years. And as a result, Bambury believes most people work at the company not because they have to, but because they feel a bond with the organization.

Work has to be more than a transaction, it must be a relationship that creates mutual value, said Bambury. That is the underlying philosophy for the company’s Mutual Values Program (MVP) which won it the award.

Although the company built this culture, it was left to the HR group to define it, package it up and make it more explicit. Ultimately, this was an exercise in employee communication, said Bambury.

According to Irving Oil, productive workplace relationships are comprised of four key elements: learning and development, work environment, benefits and pay. By getting those four elements right and making sure employees understand everything they are getting from the company, employee satisfaction goes up and so too does their effort.

The Atlantic Canada HR Awards (ACHRA) are a joint effort of the Human Resource Association of New Brunswick and the Human Resource Association of Nova Scotia. The awards recognize achievement in HR management in four categories: innovation, strategic partnership, excellence in human resources and new HR leader.

While Bambury wants to share the credit for Irving’s award, Pierre Battah, chair of the judging panel, said Bambury is being modest. It is difficult to underestimate how important it is for employees to understand what a company is trying to do, he said.

“People complain, ‘We don’t have a vision,’ but if you talk to a bunch of people they actually realize there is a vision, but they aren’t able to articulate it because they cannot find the words for it.” The Irving Oil HR team helped those people find the words. “Clearly the stuff they were doing was well above and beyond the others in terms of this kind of foresight.”

The program was not created to solve any glaring employee satisfaction problem, rather to drive the employee satisfaction still higher, said Bambury. “We really wanted to educate (employees) on the fact that this is a different organization.”

That said, the company reviewed its practices and policies to make sure employees were getting what they wanted from the organization.

For instance, the company increased its investment in leadership development. “We developed a whole program called Leadership For Results,” he said. The program taught leaders the importance of understanding employees well enough to know how to make the work environment meaningful and rewarding for each person.

It didn’t take long to see the impact of the MVP program, with a surprising improvement in employee satisfaction as the program was being rolled out. “We saw improvement over that period of time that the (survey) vendor thought was impossible,” he said.

The ACHRA award for new HR leader went to Cindy Goucher from IT services company, xwave. The honour for excellence in human resources was given to George Raine of Montana HR Services.

The HR team at Maritime Life took home the prize for strategic partnership for its “Embracing a Season of Change” change management program created to help employees adjust to a merger with Manulife.

It was a partnership in the truest sense of the word because HR worked so closely with the executive team, said Paula Whitman, a learning and development consultant in HR at Maritime. In fact, the request for the program came from the very top. “(CEO) Bill Black asked HR to come up with an approach to deal with the merger, to help employees cope.”

The challenge was to come up with a program that would help explain to employees the possible impact and to deal with the uncertainty of change.

The HR team partnered with Texas-based change management consulting company Pritchett LP. They were chosen because their practices and philosophy were similar to those of author and change management expert William Bridges, said Whitman.

Workshops included theory on how humans respond to change so that they could make better sense of how they were feeling. “We talked about different situations and about if you are feeling this way here are some things you can do.” Employees were given 10 steps to survive change, as well as a handbook and other resources for coping with stress, on the company intranet site. The program was not intended to help employees adjust to job loss because, at that time, it was still unclear what jobs would be lost. “We were just helping them stay positive and be productive through the whole transition,” she said.

Of the 2,800 employees at Maritime, roughly 2,100 people attended workshops. Of those, followup surveys indicated about 87 per cent were either satisfied or very satisfied.

“Just by being given the knowledge and understanding of change, and the reason why people feel a certain way, and to have supporting people around and an opportunity to share feelings, that is very empowering,” said Whitman.

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