Reimbursing tuition reinforces development

Sheraton hotel, EllisDon and BMO show hows, whys of tuition coverage

Having introduced a tuition reimbursement program a few years ago, the Sheraton Vancouver Airport hotel made some tweaks to the program in 2006 to make it more attractive. That included raising the amount from $500 to $1,000 or $1,500, depending on tenure.

Back then, the employment market meant “everybody was fighting for any sort of talent and it certainly became a lot more of a tool that we used,” says Peter Enders, regional director of human resources at Larco Hospitality Management for the Sheraton Vancouver Airport hotel and Vancouver Airport Marriott.

To qualify, people must have worked at the Sheraton hotel for at least one year and, for hourly associates, a minimum of 35 hours per week. Those who have been there for up to three years receive $1,000 while those with longer tenure receive $1,500, so the reimbursement acts as somewhat of an incentive for people to stay longer, says Enders.

Typically at about three years, a person is well-suited to their position and looking to climb the ladder so the reimbursement can motivate them.

“This was just a way, if the next position wasn’t available, to give them some options to say, ‘You know what, here’s something that you can do in the interim, while you’re waiting for that next position within our company, to maybe sharpen your skills a little bit,’” he says.

Part of the policy includes the stipulation employees who leave the hotel less than one year after completing a course could be asked to refund some of the money. But that is more about encouragement than enforcement.

“Honestly, that would probably be a pretty special circumstance that we would do that,” says Enders. “If somebody finished a course yesterday and resigned today, we may pursue that but the intent of it is to try and develop your people and the reality is people look at opportunities and do what’s right for them.”

The Sheraton Vancouver Airport hotel also grants some flexibility when it comes to reimbursement for senior management, such as critical training, he says.

As for the choice of schools, few are refused — but some private colleges can be pricey so HR might encourage employees to consider other options. The courses covered are expected to relate to the hospitality industry, directly or indirectly, such as a bartending or business administration.

“When you start getting into specifics, such as spa-related courses, security management, these are things we’d want to look at the relevance to the position of the person that’s actually applying for them,” says Enders.

As for participation in the tuuition program, the rates are not as high as they could be, though the benefit is conveyed often, at orientation sessions or department meetings, to all of the 280 employees, says Enders.

But the company is looking for people who have the potential to grow and this is a small part of that, he says.

“We’re trying to build a commitment to the employee: ‘You work hard for us, we’ll help you with your education, your career,’ not just with tuition reimbursement but certainly whatever else we can do to help someone develop themselves,” he says.

EllisDon has no caps on tuition

When it comes to tuition, EllisDon has no caps on reimbursement. The Mississauga, Ont.-based construction company encourages employees to take the training and education they need, within reason.

“We don’t have any set limit on amounts, it really just has to be deemed relevant learning, either for your current position or to prepare you for another position,” says Mary Grace Truchan, learning and development manager at EllisDon. “It’s a really simple process.”

Most of the workers take one-day workshops related to the construction industry. But if someone is interested in pursuing a more expensive college or university program, a cost-sharing arrangement is worked out, says Truchan.

“We don’t have a lot of rigid guidelines or policies, it’s really what makes sense, what’s fair and is it going to add value, help that employee get to their career goals?” she says. “We see this as a huge retention strategy. It supports our culture and values of continuous improvement and always learning and always getting better. It absolutely makes sense. It’s good business.”

Interested workers can access an education reimbursement form on the company’s internal portal and explain why they think the course will be valuable. The employee then discusses the course with his manager and, if approved, is set to go ahead.

“The only way a course would be denied is if it was totally unrelated to their position or their career direction or even the industry,” says Truchan.

The form is sent to HR where it is authorized, to keep track of the kinds of courses people are taking, she says. This also gives HR an opportunity to check if the courses are appropriate, as an entry-level person might identify an expensive course that is out of his league.

“We will then have a conversation with the manager and hopefully bring them around that it may be premature to send this individual to that depth of a course,” says Truchan.

After the course, EllisDon asks the “student” to fill out an evaluation form, to provide feedback for other employees.

“We track the information to use it as a resource and to help people identify if that’s the right course they want to take,” she says.

One challenge is knowing the exact number of people taking courses as managers can provide consent while HR provides the rubber stamp.

“We’re not heavy on process so we know there’s a lot of people taking courses that we may not even know about, and that’s one of our challenges, because we are so geographically dispersed and HR is not the ‘go,’ ‘no go’ in that process, it’s totally up to the manager.”

BMO encourages dialogue between employees, managers

Learning and development is a high focus at BMO Financial Group, with more than $65 million invested per year. That includes a corporate university, orientation programs, leadership and sales and service programs, and a tuition refund policy or “continuing education assistance plan.”

To get involved, interested individuals must discuss development priorities with their managers and jointly agree on the plan. If the size of the investment is particularly large, concurrence is also required from a local executive officer.

It’s important the managers and employees have a good dialogue about the plan and the employee’s career, says Mona Malone, vice-president of advanced leadership and management development at BMO Financial Group in Toronto.

“We want to ensure the learning or the training that people are embarking on actually yields in performance in terms of their skills and capabilities on the job,” she says. “Helping to align an individual with what their current capabilities are, what might help round out skill sets, expand their knowledge to help either in the current job they’re in or in the next job they’re going to be in is really key in insuring the organization gets benefit from it.”

There is a $2,500 annual cap on individual courses and a total maximum of $8,000 that requires executive approval. After the courses are successfully completed, the employee is reimbursed. BMO does not require a payback if someone leaves the company shortly after completing a course as there has never been a need for such a policy, says Malone.

Every three years, the bank reviews the refund policy, looking at the marketplace to gauge the cost of education, reimbursement offered by the competition and BMO’s strategies around talent development and HR practices “to make sure it’s aligned and supporting whatever we’re trying to do with our workforce,” says Malone.

The courses have to be somewhat related to a person’s position but if someone is interested in switching from finance to HR, for example, that can be discussed with the manager, she says.

“The benefit for the organization is that (the program is) very connected with career conversations and development conversations between the employee and the manager.”

Looking ahead, BMO is considering including global employees in the program and debating the implementation of special policies for people pursuing graduate education, such as changing the levels of reimbursement or approval.

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