Best companies list shows good HR comes in many forms

What works at one company could be an HR disaster at another

It’s not any single HR practice or even set of practices that will get an organization on the list of 50 Best Employers in Canada.

“When you look at the actual programs and practices of these companies, you’ll find very little pattern,” said Ted Emond, a consultant with Hewitt Associates, the HR consultancy that conducted the study for Report on Business magazine.

In its fifth year, the survey measured employee feedback in 129 Canadian organizations that opted to compete in the annual challenge. Survey organizers invited 2,500 organizations with at least 300 employees to participate. Initially, 142 companies applied, but 13 failed to complete all the steps.

Employee feedback, obtained through an employee opinion survey, represents 70 per cent of a company’s overall score. The remaining scores reflect results of the leadership survey and the human resources survey.

“What we have found is it’s not in the practices per se, but it’s in making sure that whatever practice you do have at your company, is perfectly in alignment with the kind of employee you want to attract and retain and the kind of business strategy you have decided is the most appropriate for your organization,” said Emond.

Referring to the company at the top of the list, BC Biomedical Laboratories, Emond said with the company’s predominantly female workforce, it makes sense for the Surrey, B.C.-based organization to be heavy on family-oriented practices.

“They have a lot of programs directed toward making it easy and convenient for working mothers to have good employment,” said Emond. “If you look at the number two company, Flight Centre, they attract a younger, more diverse group of employees who are really strongly motivated by a high level of performance and a high level of energy.”

The two companies are so different that if they were to trade HR policies with each other, “you would have a disaster,” said Emond.

“So our point of view is it’s not necessarily the practice that makes you a great employer. It’s in fact finding out what kind of business you want to be, and ensuring that you hire and keep the people who are comfortable working in your business.”

Using Wal-Mart, which ranked 14th, as another example, Emond noted that despite paying its workers not much more than minimum wage, the retailer manages to find employees who are “very committed, very engaged and very enthusiastic about their employer.”

The company’s well-known style of keeping tight control over operational processes works because “they say to people who join Wal-Mart: ‘We want you to be happy doing things the Wal-Mart way. We don’t want people who try to reinvent how we stock shelves and who think out of the box in dealing with the customer. We’ve already done that,’” said Emond.

“And they’re very skilled at hiring people who are comfortable fitting in and who are happy being focused on the job in the way Wal-Mart wants them to do it. These people get job satisfaction doing it the Wal-Mart way.”

A marked contrast to Wal-Mart is the flexible management style at Union Canadienne, a Quebec City-based insurance company that ranked 10th on the list.

“We try to keep an open mind. We don’t do things formally. Yes, we have guides and procedures and policies, but we never do things by the book,” said vice-president of human resources Lucie Vachon.

She recalled one instance when an employee approached her and asked for a three-month leave to accompany her husband who was being transferred to France.

“It wasn’t part of our practices to allow for the leave, but she explained the opportunity she had. And we thought, ‘She’s a good employee. And this is a unique opportunity for her,’” said Vachon.

Going with that decision meant she had to win over some managers who were concerned that the company was setting a precedent.

“But we convinced those managers that we can analyze each case on its merit. A ‘Yes’ this one time doesn’t necessarily mean ‘Yes’ every time. People are different, and opportunities are different. And if she wasn’t already a good employee, we wouldn’t have had the same open-mindedness.”

At BC Biomedical, vice-president of human resources Jane Graydon said the main reason the laboratory has placed first two years in a row “comes down to the respect employees have for each other and the respect the corporation has for the employees.”

When Graydon joined the company in September, she was struck by the extent to which “people listen to each other and allow for involvement in decision-making and communicate openly.”

She hopes that culture will see the company through “a very challenging time,” referring to the province’s decision to cut payments for laboratory services by 20 per cent. More uncertainty is ahead this year when all medical testing will be put up for tender.

As an example of the level of respect, noted Graydon, the company’s response to potential upheavals was to turn to employees for ideas.

Some have suggested introducing handling fees for transporting biopsies to hospitals and specimens to the Red Cross and the Centers for Disease Control. Others call for the company’s mobile lab services, now still free, to carry a fee.

Some even suggested curtailing employee benefits. “Our employees feel that connection to the business and to their co-workers. They would prefer to have everybody work a few hours less, perhaps, if that’s necessary, than see one of their co-workers leave.”

Regardless of potentially gloomy days ahead, the lab is throwing a party to celebrate the win. Fast on the heels of quilting nights, scrap-booking get-togethers and skating parties, the celebration will just feel like business as usual at BC Biomedical.

Also making the 50 Best Employers in Canada list is Canadian HR Reporter’s parent company Carswell, a division of Thomson Canada Limited — click the link below to read John Hobel's eidtorial for commentary and for a complete list of the top 50 employers.

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