Caring culture boosts North Atlantic Refining

Company's extensive Employee Assistance Plan a strong asset

Last year, an employee with a problem wandered into the HR department at North Atlantic Refining. The worker had just found out his partner had a gambling addiction and he wanted help.

That’s something that makes Alfred Efford, director of HR at the Come by Chance, Nfld.-based oil refinery, proud.

“We care,” he said. “We can say, with sincerity, that for any concern, whether it’s a job issue or off-the-job issue, we are there for employees.”

Efford can make this claim because, rather than hand off the employee’s problem to an employee assistance program (EAP) provider, the four-person HR department has established a network of resources in the community. Following confidentiality protocols, the department personally organizes and arranges help for every individual employee in need of assistance. Together with the United Steelworkers, the company has four employee co-ordinators out in the workforce who act as touch points for encouraging and referring staff to the HR department.

North Atlantic Refining is also there for its 700 employees when they’re facing long waits for medical treatment. Because medical screenings or specialist appointments aren’t always quickly accessible in Come by Chance, a community about 150 kilometres west of St. John’s, the company will fly employees to the nearest medical facilities for independent assessments and cover the cost. They do this about three or four times a year, said Efford.

“It’s one of those things we asked our medical advisor, ‘How can we do better for our employees, how can we speed this up?’ ”

With this degree of personal commitment to employee well-being, it’s little wonder North Atlantic Refining was named as one of Canada’s Top 100 Employers in 2008 by Mediacorp Canada Inc. for the third year in a row.

The company is also able to boast a turnover rate of less than one per cent for the past 12 years. Attractive employee perks include an annual gas card worth $240 and a program that reimburses the total costs of educational programs taken by employees.

North Atlantic Refining also has an interesting hiring and retention strategy. It regularly offers skills training to part-time and temporary employees so it has a pool to choose from when a full-time vacancy pops up. Certain staff earmarked for promotion gain experience in the “step up to supervisor” program that lets them fill in for supervisors on vacation. And the company reaches out to all the universities in the area, interning 12 to 15 students, mostly engineers, at any given time. It does all this even though it’s not faced with recruitment challenges since about 3,000 candidates apply for jobs every year.

North Atlantic Refining’s commitment to community involvement also has an unintended effect on loyalty. The $65,000 it donates in scholarships every year affects generations of families.

“An employee’s son may have gone to school with a scholarship,” said Efford.

Another company charity program helps boost worker health. For every walk a worker takes at lunch, the company donates $1 to a local charity.

“Last year we raised $6,000 that way,” said Gloria Warren-Slade, communications manager.

Because the refinery has some of the best-trained firefighters in the province, it also hosts an annual weekend fire-training seminar and workshop for local volunteer firefighters, including hazardous-response training free of charge, said Warren-Slade.

The company also prides itself on having a strong safety culture. It achieved one-million man hours last August without a lost-time injury and it’s the second time in three years it’s done that, said Warren-Slade.

However, the company’s success is driven by another facet of the employee culture, which the HR department can’t necessarily take credit for, said Warren-Slade. “Newfoundlanders have a real pride in the workplace, I know it sounds like a cliché, but they really do.”

Lesley Young is a Toronto-based freelance writer.

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