An exclusive survey suggests how employers can keep valued staff in a booming economy

Patricia Chisholm May 29 2000


An exclusive survey suggests how employers can keep valued staff in a booming economy

Patricia Chisholm May 29 2000
Marilyn Sing doesn’t wear suits anymore. Office attire at Ideas that Play, a small Vancouver company that develops software for kids, leans more towards sneakers and jeans. Meetings in the company’s Gastown loft are informal chats around a salvaged grade-school table. Staffers get their own coffee. “They listen to your ideas,” she says, still sounding a little amazed after six months as the company’s projects manager. “It’s very inclusive and at the end of a day, a long day, you walk away feeling good about your contribution.”

That’s a world away from the job Sing quit last year as manager of publishing for a national financial industry association. Sing, 36, says she left after becoming frustrated with a Stirling bureaucracy where office politics squeezed the life out of individual initiative. “Decisions were made to appease people at higher levels, not to get the job done right,” she recalls. “Our workloads got larger and larger and yet we didn’t have the resources to do our basic jobs properly, let alone other stuff that got handed off to us.” Now, even though Sing works longer hours for 35-per-cent less pay, she is much happier.

Employers, take note. Canada’s labor force—skilled, committed and in big demand—is changing. Whether they wait on tables, write computer code or plan corporate strategy, the vast majority of people like what they do and aren’t thinking about changing careers. But far fewer are satisfied with the organizations they work for. Like Sing, many cite unreasonable demands and inadequate resources, draining 96.2 power struggles or failure to cultivate individual talents and strengths. And when it comes to personal time, Canadians are growing more demanding: too often, they say, companies do a poor job of helping employees strike a balance between work and home.

Measuring Commitment

The table ranks employee commitment by sector, based on responses to six basic questions, including whether respondents would recommend their organization as a place to work, the quality of its products or services and whether an employee plans to stay for several years. The average score for Canadian employees as a group was 100.2.

High tech 103.9

Insurance, finance 103.5

Health care, education 103

Manufacturing, construction 100

Service 98.7

Transportation, communications, utilities 97.9

Agriculture 96.2

Those are some of the major conclusions of the second annual survey of workforce commitment, provided exclusively to Maclean’s by international human resources firm Aon Consulting. In its spring survey, Aon polled 2,000 Canadians over 18 who work at least 20 hours a week, on issues ranging from the quality of benefit programs to company morale. The survey examines the commodity that more and more employers seem desperate to find—able employees with strong loyalty to their business and its clients.

While the problem is not new, a booming North American economy and shifting demographics mean that companies are feeling the impact of loyalty problems where it hurts—on the bottom line. That is partly because dissatisfied employees are far more likely to vote with their feet than in the past, even moving to positions that pay less or offer less security if management is more responsive to their needs. That, in turn, pushes recruiting costs sharply higher: an increasing number of companies are finding that they simply cannot find qualified people. Even the nature of recruiting is changing as huge Web sites take a leading role (page 24).

And while market forces certainly play a role, some experts believe that top managers could do a much better job of retaining staff. “Many employees are positive about their immediate supervisors,” says David Stum, a 25-year human resources consulting veteran and the senior vice-president at Aon’s Loyalty Institute who supervised the survey. “But the top layer is not doing the job of building loyalty to the organization as well. The leadership is not there.”

Some companies are trying hard to change that. IBM Canada Ltd., long known for its faceless corporate culture, is stepping up its efforts to humanize its personnel policies. Within the past few years, “Big Blue” has introduced more policies aimed at helping working parents cope, such as a part-time program that allows employees the option of working 50, 60 or 80 per cent of a regular schedule, as well as flexible hours and work-at-home options. Like legions of other high-tech companies, though, IBM still has to duke it out in the job market: last week, the company held a widely publicized “job fair,” in which it offered eye-popping starting salaries of $75,000 to $150,000 for people with five years of experience—and was rewarded with a huge turnout of applicants.

Increasingly, companies that want to keep high-end talent must also compete with the dreams that well-compensated people can decide to pursue at any moment. Mac Makenny was an early example. He grew up in Jasper, Alta., but spent most of his working life as a highly paid sales manager for large U.S. companies. In mid-career, he decided he had had enough of corporate pressures and headed for the hills—literally. For the past two decades, he has owned and run a guest ranch near Bragg Creek, in Alberta's spectacular Foothills country. Now 65, he’s never looked back. “This has always been my dream job,” he says. “I certainly don’t have the standard of living that I had before. But you don’t judge things by the amount of dollars you make, but by the quality of your life.” Makenny has no plans to retire. “I don’t know what I’d do if I retired,” he says. “It’s my life.”

A rewarding job for sure, but a surprising number of Canadians say they do not need a glamorous career or a beautiful setting to feel enriched at work. Erin Howard, 20, has been working as a waitress and cashier in Vancouver since she moved from the Okanagan Valley 10 months ago, and as far as she is concerned, her job could hardly be better. “I really like people and I think that’s why I like it here so much,” she says. “Don’t get me wrong—some people can be rude. But I get paid to help them and serve them and I do that with a smile. That’s just me.”

Most employers would probably kill for a staffer like Howard: able, strongly committed and willing to ride out the inevitable rough spots that any job presents. But the Aon survey reveals that, while more than 67 per cent of employees intend to stay at their job for several years and 69 per cent would recommend their company’s products as among the best, there are several areas of simmering discontent. More than half would move to another company for only a slight increase in pay, and less than 50 per cent would recommend their organization as one of the best places to work in the community. Moreover, more than a third gave their companies a failing grade in crucial loyalty-building areas like morale and ability to retain staff. “Employers are quite good at meeting people’s needs for personal growth at the interview stage and often for about 18 months afterward,” notes Stum. “But they need to work harder at keeping commitment high. They need to continuously recruit their own staff.”

Benefits Wanted

What employees said they would like to have most:

34% Flexible benefit program

24 % Cash bonus geared to individual performance

16% Self-directed pension plan

15% Pension plan based on years of service

6% Stock purchase plan

5% Cash bonus geared to group performance

And how various flexible benefits ranked among those that have them:

1. Elder care

2. Working from home

3. Job sharing

4. Flex-time

5. Paid time off

6. Child care

7. Discount programs

Even jobs that look great from the outside—challenging, rewarding and well-paid—can become nightmarish when employees feel frustrated at every turn by management. Typically, attitudes turn sour, motivation dries up, and an otherwise innovative and productive person sinks into resignation or anger, and sometimes worse. When lawyer Joanna Gualtieri took a job in the department of foreign affairs in Ottawa in 1992, she was excited about the future. Her job involved ensuring that the money Canada invests in its foreign embassies is well spent. But she soon found, she maintains, that Treasury Board regulations were not followed and that employees who tried to raise the issue were ignored. She went on unpaid stress leave in 1996 and later filed a lawsuit against the federal government alleging, among other things, that she was harassed for trying to do her job. “As a lower-level functionary, you’re afraid to challenge what a senior person tells you,” says Gualtieri, 39. The government denies her charges and says the guidelines were followed. for links

While slow-to-change sectors like the public service are rife with tales of frustrated and disillusioned employees, some companies are waking up to the powerful connection between satisfied employees, contented customers and the bottom line. In a 1998 report, researchers at the Conference Board of Canada noted that major companies like Nortel Networks Corp. and the Royal Bank of Canada are at the forefront of a new wave in industrial relations: the recognition that happy, high-functioning employees are good for profits. In fact, ensuring that employees have the resources and managerial support they need often outranks wages and benefits when it comes to job satisfaction, the report concludes.

Peter Cullen, senior manager of customer loyalty for retail and business clients at the Royal Bank in Toronto, says the Royal embarked on a new direction five or six years ago when it noticed that customer satisfaction seemed to be declining. Since then, the bank has overhauled many of its personnel and organizational policies in an effort to bolster employee performance. There are more funds available for programs like employee training. If there is a stubborn conflict between two colleagues, there are confidential ways to resolve the issue at a higher level. If employees need time off for matters like a series of medical tests over several days, they are not expected to use their vacation days.

Such people-centered measures, and others like flexible hours and job sharing, are paying off for the bank, Cullen says. “Over the past two or three years, we have noticed a real change,” he says. “Our employees are happier and we have noticed that more customers are giving us their business—and that obviously has revenue implications.”

It’s almost as though some financial institutions are in a race to remake their decades-old reputations for maintaining hoary, top-heavy bureaucracies. Vancouver-based Citizens Bank of Canada, the virtual banking arm of the VanCity Savings Credit Union, offers its 180 employees a range of 21st-century options to help employees balance work and family responsibilities. That issue, according to Aons results, is one of the most important factors driving workforce commitment.

Kelly Morris would agree. She says Citizens’ family policies are one of the biggest reasons she is planning to stay for the foreseeable future. Within months of returning from a maternity leave, Morris, 36, was promoted to management in the bank’s credit department two years ago. She got the promotion even though she works a “compressed” work week: nine hours a day, four days a week. The flexible arrangement means she and her husband, Chris, who works on shifts for B.C. Ferries, can share the responsibility of caring for their three-year-old daughter, Rachel. And because they do not have to shell out $800 to $1,000 every month for day care, the Morrises were able to buy their first home last year. “My loyalty to the bank is so great because they appreciate what’s important to me in my life,” Morris says. “It’s amazing more companies aren’t open to this kind of arrangement because it means that people work better and harder—it just breeds so many good feelings.”

Of course, bad supervisors can always ruin morale. Stuart Chandler, a 29-year-old student at the University of New Brunswick, has done a lot of rotten jobs in order to pay the bills. But the worst was a stint on a tanker vessel, where his duties included dishwasher and cook. With more than a bit of understatement, Chandler recalls that the head cook was an “unstable” character. “This guy once started throwing pots around the kitchen in a tantrum, just to shake me up,” he recalls. “It got so bad, the crew had to step in.”

54 % Employees saying that their job is often so stressful they feel burned-out

Many in the corporate world may see parallels. But weeding out malevolent managers is relatively easy, while creating a company that hums with goodwill is harder. The Aon survey found that employee loyalty reaches its highest levels when people feel a deep commitment to their organization as a whole, not simply their own department or team. And the happiest of all, it seems, are those for whom work is a true calling.

For four years, Torontonian Seana Massey has been the executive director of the Canadian branch of Amref, an international group that raises funds for long-term health initiatives in southern and eastern Africa. After university, Massey had taken a number of jobs in broadcasting and public relations, eager to climb the corporate ladder. But she found herself restless, or bored, or both. It was not until she became involved in volunteer work that she really began to feel engaged. Finally, she left the private sector. “Your work is a huge part of your life,” says Massey, 32. “Even when you are not in the office, you carry it around with you. Before, I felt empty. But for the last four years, I have never questioned what I do. The opportunities to make a difference are endless and there is so much room for creativity. It’s incredibly rewarding.” Bosses, listen up.

Incentives to Stay

Employees who gave as their No. 1 reason . . .

Opportunities for growth and advancement: 27% to join --- 23% to stay

Job security: 26% to join --- 27% to stay

Pay: 17% to join --- 20% to stay

Ability to balance work and personal life: 14% to join --- 15% to stay

Organization’s reputation: 13% to join --- 8% to stay

Benefits: 3% to join --- 6% to stay