Best Jobs

Best Employers 2016: How they thrive in the face of crisis

Whether it’s bad luck, bad strategy or sudden growth, every company faces challenges to morale. Getting employees back onside requires listening—and a ban on B.S.

UPDATED! Click here for 2017’s ranking of Canada’s Best Jobs »
Co-operators employees talking

The Co-operators found it had to pare down its priorities to get employee buy-in. (George Qua-Enoo)

When Lorne Rubis walked into ATB Financial in April 2012, it wasn’t a happy place.

“The organization was somewhat exhausted and enormously frustrated,” says Rubis, the Alberta-based bank’s chief people officer. ATB had launched an ambitious new banking system that overhauled everything, from automatic debits to processing business accounts to loans approvals. The system changed “everything.” But, it wasn’t working properly. To make matters worse, the bosses went ahead and declared it a success. “The frustration was palpable,” says Rubis, a former football player, teacher, executive and author. “So many things just didn’t work…that ‘mission accomplished’ didn’t compute. It was like [management] wasn’t listening.”

Engagement scores tanking to 68%—down from a high of 79%—was an impetus to tackle the situation. The company stopped all development projects and assigned four top executives to fix more than 200 major glitches over the next year. “Team members felt that… [the company] heard and listened,” says Rubis. “We took action and put our money where our mouth was. That statement, that huge stake in the ground­, gave us a foundation to do a bunch of other things.”

The “secret sauce” to keeping people happy through change, says Rubis, has several ingredients. The first is “personal equity”—giving each employee every opportunity to grow. At ATB, that means everything from a robust pension plan to a program that allows staff to experience “firsts,” whether that’s a board meeting or a special project. Equally important is helping staff find the right position where they enjoy and excel in their work—thus encouraging “a heck of a contribution.” And then there’s leadership. It’s got to be top-notch and devoted to people. “Before I took this job, I sat down with the chairman and CEO and said, ‘Do not bullshit me on this,’” says Rubis. “I said, ‘I’m going to put my heart and soul into this thing and I’m not going to come here and find out that you guys want to put [employee engagement] up on a wall and on coffee cups, but you don’t really believe it when push comes to shove.’” Thanks to this “people-first” approach—which challenges executives to put employees ahead of shareholders—net income is growing 20% or more year over year, the company’s rankings across the board are skyrocketing, and employee engagement has leapt up to 84%.

Strong leadership from the top similarly helped the Co-operators navigate rapid change, says Bernadette Mitchell, the company’s senior vice president of HR. Slow economic growth, increasing extreme weather events and volatility in capital markets made the insurance business tumultuous in recent years, with employees facing upheaval in their day-to-day roles as well as layoffs. “We weren’t as crisp and clear on what our priorities should be,” says Mitchell. “We were oversaturating our people with change.”

The company has focused on carefully vetting its priorities. In devising its latest four-year strategy, senior executives sent a draft to stakeholders. The feedback was that it was too much to handle for some areas. Senior managers went back and revised.

For Intact Financial Corporation, it was growth that created challenges. Spun off from ING Group in 2009 with about 7,000 employees, it acquired AXA Canada in 2011 and soon swelled to 12,000 employees. The keys to successful integration, says chief human resources officer Lucie Martel, were communication and one-on-one contact between employees of formerly separate companies. Intact pairs up new employees with old, and uses webcasts, internal networks and town hall meetings to make sure everyone is informed. “Let employees know that you’re aware of their concerns and their needs,” says Martel. “Make sure they know where you’re going.”



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