Stability, continuity touted in Top 100 list

Traditional benefits upstage flashy perks

Despite its remote island location — on a lake 300 kilometres north of Yellowknife — the Diavik Diamond Mine was not forgotten this year when it was selected for Canada’s Top 100 Employers for the first time. The company has a very dedicated workforce of about 825, with a strong commitment to safety and professionalism, so the award from Mediacorp Canada “is a wonderful way to acknowledge that,” said Doug Ashbury, acting principal adviser of communications at Diavik.

One of the North’s largest employers, the mine started production in 2003. Employees fly there for two-week shifts to stay in “excellent accommodations,” said Ashbury, which include a cafeteria with free meals, library, lounge with pool tables and recreational facilities with a running track, squash courts and weight rooms. Private sleeping quarters also feature darkening shades to combat the continuous sunlight in the summer.

The subsidiary of Rio Tinto — which includes a headquarters and a product-splitting facility in Yellowknife — is in the midst of transitioning from an open-pit mine to an underground mine, and that means hiring about 150 people, so the Top 100 recognition is well-timed, said Ashbury.

The mine is committed to hiring locally for two-thirds of its workforce — and one-third of the workers are Aboriginal — but not all have underground experience, so it will be a challenge to find people with the appropriate skills, he said. In addition, there are two other mines in the area competing for similar expertise, along with the oil sands projects in northern Alberta.

“We have to be very competitive when it comes to pay and benefits,” said Ashbury.

About one-fifth of the employees are women and Diavik offers maternity leave top-ups for new mothers (up to 90 per cent of salary for 18 weeks). New employees receive three weeks’ vacation to start, in addition to five personal days. Diavik also matches retirement savings plan contributions and offers a defined contribution (to six per cent of salary) pension plan.

A more unusual but popular perk is discounts off the diamonds.

The company also provides substantial training and skills development, with up to $5,000 per year for employees who take specific courses and degrees or diplomas.

Winners of Canada’s Top 100 Employers are graded on eight areas: physical workplace; work atmosphere and social; health, financial and family benefits; vacation and time off; employee communications; performance management; training and skills development; and community development. And this year has seen a change in the programs and benefits offered, said Richard Yerema, managing editor of the project.

“Stability and continuity in workplace programs have become the dominant values, with the flashy extras taking a backseat to traditional benefits that make a real difference in the lives of working Canadians.”

Loblaw reaps rewards

For the past three years, Loblaw has focused on working with 139,000 corporate and franchise employees to review its programs. It also took regional programs and made them national in scope, while editing programs based on feedback, said Nan Oldroyd, senior director of talent and diversity at Loblaw, a Brampton, Ont.-based grocery chain. It’s all part of a formula for growth.

“(The award) is a testament to the work that’s been done, to find the right mix of programs and incorporate our colleagues’ feedback into our ‘great place to work’ initiatives,” she said. “We know we still have work to do — that’s part of the journey.”

A 10-per-cent discount off products has resonated very well, as has a volunteer program that encourages employees who volunteer for 40 hours per year to apply for a $500 contribution to a charity. The grocer has also worked hard to have a more transparent culture, providing an opportunity for workers to email Galen Weston, Loblaw’s executive chairman, with ideas and questions.

“That heavily involves them in the process of the change we’ve been going through,” said Oldroyd.

A national “Tell It As It Is” survey was also rolled out about a year ago, she said. The feedback is shared with relevant teams across the organization and stores are provided with rapid-action funds to implement changes and recommendations, “which is quite a strong commitment and a real recognition of how colleagues are crucial to our success,” said Oldroyd.

Training is also prominent at Loblaw, with a virtual learning centre, learning stores and a tuition-reimbursement program that provides up to $1,200 for a worker. Employees can apply for an additional $1,300 if pursuing specific degrees.

The grocery chain has also implemented an “inclusion” council of senior leaders who oversee a diversity strategy and measure results, she said. The company has rolled out several initiatives to recruit and retain groups such as Aboriginals, new Canadians and women. And for new graduates, Loblaw recently started a rotational training program.

“It’s part of our commitment to hire 1,000 grads over the next five years,” said Oldroyd.

Johnson listens well

As an insurance and benefits provider, Johnson knows well the value of solid benefits for employees. The 1,200-employee company offers best practices when it comes to benefits, such as a health-care spending account, top-up benefits for new parents, an employee assistance program, a 35-hour workweek (with full pay), telecommuting, shortened workweeks, special holidays, referral bonuses, training and development (including financial bonuses up to $2,000 for completion of a professional designation), phased-in retirement work options, and a defined benefit (DB) and defined contribution pension plan.

“We’re constantly monitoring where we are in the marketplace to make sure our compensation plans are attractive, we’re getting the top talent we need,” said Ken Bennett, president of the St. John’s, N.L.-based company, which joined Canada’s Top 100 Employers for the first time. “We’ve made a lot of really significant improvements in our human resources area, in the culture, the company overall.”

With operations across the country, the award gives Johnson national recognition to recruit in other markets, he said.

“Internally, the achievement will help us heighten the sense of pride and celebration within the business, so drive staff engagement and morale,” said Bennett. “Externally, the win certainly helps generate awareness of our brand across the country. It’s obviously a very powerful recruitment tool.”

Johnson has started an annual employee survey and made a strong point to respond to the input. The company also has large employee gatherings to talk about corporate strategy and hear from employees, and an inbox for workers to connect directly to Bennett.

“It’s really important to show our staff out there we’re actually following up on the feedback that they give,” he said. “We get better as we go forward. All of that has actually been very helpful and is one of the key reasons we’re on the Top 100 this year.”

B.C. museum touts stewardship

Steps away from Victoria’s picturesque harbor, the Royal British Columbia Museum joined the Top 100 list for the first time. With this recognition, the institution is hoping to stand out and let people know about the really great things it does, said Angela Williams, director of business and operational services at the museum.

The organization has a collection of impressive benefits, including a DB pension plan with employer contributions, an employer-paid health plan, three weeks’ vacation to start and tuition subsidies for courses related to the job. There are also maternity, paternity and compassionate leave top-ups and employees can partake of flexible work options, such as variable scheduling, telecommuting, reduced summer hours and a 35-hour workweek with full pay.

Beyond these basics, the museum offers many other facets, said Williams.

“People are looking for work-life balance, the ability to work with multiple generations, to learn from people, they’re looking for employers that have community connections and are active participants in environmental sustainability,” she said. “All of these things we do as a matter of practice and have been doing for years.”

The environmental sustainability program, for example, became more official in the last three years. It includes the banning of tropical hardwoods, a refusal to sell fossils and LED lighting.

“Being an archive, we preserve things for the future, we’re just the latest stewards,” she said. “We’ve been in existence for 122 years and we intend on being here for much, much longer.”

When recruiting, the organization goes from local to international, whether looking for a cashier or a scientist. From an HR point of view, the museum has worked hard to describe the work better, in less-formal terms, enabling people to get a sense of “who we are as individuals” rather than relying on impersonal tests and interviews.

“It gives people an opportunity to check us out as much as we’re checking them out and I think that is making a difference as well,” said Williams.

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