Sure you can borrow the Porsche — just promise you won’t quit

It’s come to this: beer fridges, chocolates, pinball machines, flowers and painting employees’ houses.

It is the reality of today’s labour-starved economy that employers have to go to extraordinary lengths to attract and retain the talent necessary to thrive.

As compensation becomes less of a lure for employees looking for fulfilling work in an atmosphere where they feel comfortable and appreciated, employers are forced to become more creative in the benefits and perks they provide.

It’s those extra things, often little things, that give companies an edge over competitors, says Richard Yerema, author of a new book, Canada’s Top 100 Employers. It is a showcase of companies that are going to extraordinary lengths to attract and hire.

“It’s the tricks companies are willing to try to make them stand out amongst the competition in the industry,” he says.

Some of the more sensitive companies out there will send flowers or dinner certificates to spouses of employees when they are travelling or working a lot of overtime. “It’s almost like an apology for having to keep them so long,” he says.

Eventually, many of the novel benefits detailed in the book will become standards, he predicts. “The more you see it, the more it is expected,” he says, pointing to flexible work arrangements as an example of a policy that was once rare but is now the norm.

Similarly, employers are increasingly playing a very active role in employee development and education. “Mostly it’s subsidies; not just part but full and not just job-related,” he says of the growing number of companies that encourage employees to take courses. Some will now even pay a bonus beyond the tuition rebate to an employee who gains professional accreditation, and one company pays a bonus to standout interns — not only to the student but to his school, too.

There is a subjective element to the book, admits Yerema. “You have to draw a line somewhere, and I’m very aware there are excellent employers out there that aren’t on the list.”

Any company that had undergone layoffs was immediately excluded from consideration for this year’s list simply because if they are laying off, they probably are not forced to go the same extraordinary lengths other companies are, he says.

The book is a look from outside at what is going on inside these companies in terms of the work environment, benefits, development and communication, as well as their work in the community. When companies play an active role in the community and take a broader view of their social responsibilities, it’s usually a pretty good indication that they will be more focused on their human resources, he says.

Small companies have always found it easier to turn on a dime and introduce new policies and perks to reward or assist employees — a fully stocked beer fridge, places to take a nap during a long day, and the like. “But that’s the kind of thing working its way through to larger workplaces,” says Yerema. However, it has to be done right, he warns.

“If you are going to bring something in, you have to change the culture. You can’t just bring it in and say, ‘OK, now we’re a hip workplace.’”

AiT Corporation, developers of software and equipment for machine-readable travel documents, made it onto this year’s list for, among other things, starting employees with four weeks’ holiday and weekly visits from a massage therapist. But head of HR at the Ottawa-based company, Tina Girimonte, credits the company’s open-door policy for figuring out how to create a workplace in which employees feel appreciated.

“Ask employees what they want, that’s very important,” says Girimonte. If somebody suddenly needs a week off starting the next day, he will be given it. Or if an employee would prefer a different project than the one he is working on, AiT figures it would be better to have him working on something he is excited in and will move him to his project of choice. Certainly there are exceptions, she admits, but whenever possible they will give the employee what he wants.

Besides the open-door policy and the four weeks’ holidays that show employees they are appreciated for the hard work they do, there are also the chocolates and inspirational notes delivered to employees every Monday. “It sounds strange,” Girimonte admits, “But it does, in a small way, produce an atmosphere where employees feel appreciated. It’s another way to make someone feel good.”

AiT is one of the companies that provides its employees with a fully-stocked beer fridge. It’s not used a whole lot, she says, but occasionally after a hard day or a long meeting employees may order some pizza, have a cold beer and relax over a game of pool, with taxi chits always available for employees just in case.

Girimonte says they were pleased to make it onto the list of Canada’s top employers. As a high-tech company about to embark on another recruitment campaign, she knows how important it is to be perceived as a great place to work. “Hopefully it will bring in a few more resumes,” she says.

Some of the little things that add up
Besides giving all employees five “care days” a year to tend to personal matters outside their standard holiday time, when one employee of Winnipeg-based Cangene Corporation wanted to help victims of Hurricane Mitch, the company paid for his flight and continued to pay him his regular salary.

IT consulting firm Daedalion Systems Group Inc., has kept its turnover down around eight per cent, unusual in the high-tech industry, in part by spending an average of $10,000 a year on employee education, holding a beer-bash every month and turning one whole floor of their Toronto offices into a beach with palm trees, a canopy, and murals of sand, boats and sun.

As a non-profit organization, the Industrial Accident Prevention Association faces unique challenges retaining quality employees. IAPA offers comprehensive benefits packages that include extended maternity or paternity leave and maternity top-up. And for their many employees who choose to work from home, IAPA provides cellular phones, pagers, laptop computers, separate phone lines and ergonomic office furniture.

Momentum Business Systems in Montreal is so intent on providing an upbeat, vibrant culture, the president loans his Porsche Boxster out to employees; non-management personnel get the desks by the floor-to-ceiling windows and as a reward for good work, employees get special perks like weekend getaways or having their house painted.

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