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Old buzzwords, new approaches

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

From the day they are hired, John Colangeli thinks it's a good idea to engage his employees and make them feel like they really belong. So about three times a year, the Lutherwood chief executive officer rents a small bus and takes new recruits on a tour of the company's southern Ontario office sites.

"We are giving them a message that we hope that they have joined us with the intention of staying for the long haul," says Sandra Watt, head of human resources at the Waterloo, Ont., social services agency.

By accompanying new hires on a guided tour of operations, CEOs such as Mr. Colangeli are showing how far some companies will go to retain talented workers. And it's one of the reasons, why Lutherwood is among the 20 best small companies to work for in Canada, based on a survey conducted by Queen's Centre for Business Venturing and Hewitt Associates.

Other companies on the top 20 list, are also trying to improve their performance through enhanced communication, greater attention to teamwork and by getting more feedback from employees.

For the first time, iTrans Consulting Inc. brought all of its regional employers across the country to the company's 11th anniversary celebrations, held last weekend at a Markham, Ont., golf club.

"We see this as an opportunity for team building," said Amanda Hosford, head of human resources at iTrans, a Richmond Hill, Ont., transportation planning firm, which ranked sixth on this year's best companies survey, up from 10th last year.

Toward that end, management felt it was prudent to make sure its anniversary was a Canada-wide affair, involving employees from its offices in Cambridge, Ont., Ottawa, Vancouver, and Calgary, who normally communicate with their head office colleagues by e-mail or by phone.

In the survey, iTrans scored high marks for a working culture that emphasizes employee development through its lunch and learn program, charity work, and a toastmasters club.

Experts in the field of human resources are not surprised to see how the efforts that some companies will make to ensure that their employees feel valued by the organization.

"Just because you have done well doesn't necessarily mean that you are going to sit back and not try to improve," said Eileen Stewart, head of the human resource teaching program at the British Columbia Institute of Technology.

Ms. Stewart said many employers, especially those with a high number of employees in their late 20s and early 30s, are paying close attention to the working culture because the companies recognize that talented people will leave if they are not happy, or don't feel they belong.

"A lot of young people saw their parents [become victims of corporate downsizings], so they have no faith in large organizations," she said. "If you don't provide what they think they are looking for, then you have lost a potentially valuable resource."

The head of one company that has devoted a lot of time and effort to improving its working environment can see the payoff.

"There is definitely a correlation between employee engagement and a company's success and profitability," said Terry Power, chief executive officer at Toronto-based CNC Global Ltd., Canada's leading IT placement firm. It moved up two spots to second place in the 2007 survey results.

Mr. Power said the benefits of a good working culture show up in the form of strong employee retention rates, referrals from other companies and feedback from staff.

In last year's best companies list, CNC scored high marks for its charitable efforts, including the raising by its staff of $175,000 for a number of organizations, including Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children.

Mr. Power said the company's 280 employees are encouraged to take a day off at least once a year, to allow them to do community work and contribute to social causes.

"I think that in 2007, successful companies need to have a strong social conscience," he said.

Despite its high ranking, CNC says one of its priorities this year is to make sure that its employee benefit packages are competitive with others in the IT services sector.

It is also trying to ensure that employees have an opportunity to advance within the company and to challenge themselves to learn and grow within their existing roles.

"Because we are a small to mid-sized company it is a challenge to make sure that employees have an opportunity to advance," said Leandra Lackey, vice-president of human resources at CNC.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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