Focus on engagement helped 2010’s best employers weather recession

When the economy is in a nosedive, organizations would do well to keep their attention focused on their employees in order to cope with the downturn and be better positioned for recovery, according to findings from the 2010 Best Employers in Canada study, conducted by Hewitt Associates, a global human resources consulting and outsourcing company.

“The 50 organizations that appear on the 2010 list of the Best Employers in Canada faced the same challenges confronting virtually all employers, yet managed to maintain high employee productivity and commitment to organizational success,” says Neil Crawford, national leader of the Hewitt study. “Now that the economy is starting to recover and the demand for talent is heating up again, these employers will be able to retain key people, thanks to their focus on sustaining and improving high employee engagement.”

The list of the 50 Best Employers in Canada for 2010 (click here) appeared in the January issue of The Globe and Mail’s Report on Business magazine and in La Presse. One hundred and thirty-four Canadian organizations registered to participate in the study. The results from this year’s study are based on survey responses from more than 108,000 Canadian employees, with additional input from over 1,200 leaders and human resources professionals.

Economic downturn results in higher engagement
Data from Hewitt’s 2010 Best Employers in Canada study indicates that average employee engagement across all study participants is higher than it was a year ago – 69 per cent versus 65 per cent.

“The fact that employee engagement increases during an economic downturn is not unexpected,” states Ted Emond, a senior consultant in Hewitt’s Toronto office. “One of the determinants of engagement is a willingness to remain with one’s current employer, so when there are fewer options, many employees are glad to stay put and hang on to the job they have.”

However, the “stay” factor is only one of three behaviours Hewitt assesses using answers to the employee survey component of the study. The other two are “say” – how positively employees speak about their employer to others – and “strive” – how motivated they are to go “above and beyond” to contribute to business success. When employees respond positively to questions about all three factors, they are engaged. The average engagement score for the organizations that ranked amongst the year’s 50 Best Employers was 80 per cent, up from 76 per cent for last year’s list.

“The ‘say’ and ‘strive’ responses are important factors to consider, especially during a recession,” says Emond. “When employers drill down into the data they receive as a study participant, they are able to determine whether their scores are higher because overall engagement has increased, or simply because employees are stuck. If the latter, organizations run the risk of losing key talent to competitors once the economy improves.”

“Recession-proof” behaviour
“Intuitively, it makes sense that having high employee engagement would make it easier to manage through a recession,” says Crawford. “Findings from the Best Employers study confirm this belief.”

Organizations with high engagement stated that their employees exhibited the following behaviours during the recent downturn:
  • Support for improving productivity. Employers reported, for instance, that employees endorsed the introduction of new technologies and processes. They were ready to make changes to help improve the business.

  • Willingness to make trade-offs. In several cases, for example, employees opted for reduced salaries and/or hours of work for all staff rather than see some co-workers laid-off.

  • High trust and confidence in leaders. Employees really believed that their leaders were the right people to confront and overcome the challenges faced in tough times.

The “right way” to engage employees varies from one workplace to the next. For some, it means focusing on drivers of engagement like pay or recognition, while others will get positive results by revamping their approach to managing performance or career development. However, one characteristic common to all organizations with high engagement is open, transparent, complete and timely two-way communication, according to Emond. “During the last year, employees were well aware of the challenges the organization was facing, understood the possible solutions, proactively offered input, and committed to the course of action the organization’s leaders decided to follow.”

For the 50 organizations that appear on the 2010 Best Employers list, clear communication is nothing new. “The recent economic difficulties have not altered the Best Employers’ efforts to maintain a positive relationship with their employees,” says Crawford. “If anything, these challenges have provided an opportunity to renew their focus on employee engagement and build a sense of loyalty that will last beyond the recession.”

For additional information about the Best Employers in Canada study and to register online, please visit the Best Employers Web site at

Hewitt Associates (NYSE: HEW) provides leading organizations around the world with expert human resources consulting and outsourcing solutions to help them anticipate and solve their most complex benefits, talent, and related financial challenges. For more information, please visit