Walking the Walk as an Employer of Choice

In these days of the shrinking labour force and shortages of employees in many industries, it is fashionable for companies to portray themselves as an “employer of choice”. This is a fancied-up way of saying that the company is a great place to work.

Employers seeking to hire the cream of the employee crop have always sought ways to distinguish themselves from the crowd. Recently, human resources experts have urged employers to become more creative in offering enticements such as progressive compensation arrangements, flexible work schedules, support for a variety of family situations, etc.

It is not at all unusual to read articles offering up the latest twist on the working relationship as the sure road towards establishing a company as an employer of choice. I wonder, however, whether either consultants or employers are giving due consideration to matters which go beyond the recruitment stage.

After all, hiring an employee is only the first hurdle. Retaining her may be the greater challenge. There are, however, numerous steps an employer can be taking on a day-to-day basis to ensure it is considered by its employees to be an employer of choice.

First, my own experience has convinced me that employees want to work in an environment where the rules are clearly defined. I have a belief that people generally like to know the boundaries within which they are permitted to operate in their work.

That means that the employer must invest time and resources in creating, and maintaining, a comprehensive policy structure. There is a balance to be struck, of course, because nobody wants to be buried under an avalanche of rules. But, having clear policies defining acceptable workplace conduct, employee entitlements and obligations, etc. is definitely more desirable than a workplace in which decisions relating to employees are made on an ad hoc basis.

Slavish adherence to corporate policies, however, must be avoided. The entire premise underlying the law of employment (in both the union and non-union settings) is that each situation must be assessed and dealt with in context and on its own merits. Outcomes which are dictated by policy (such as a “3 strikes and you’re out” disciplinary policy) and which do not take into account the contextual setting are sure to fail, both legally and with the employees.

Notwithstanding the need to be flexible, employees appreciate an employer which consistently follows its own rules, making decisions in a principled, unbiased manner. A workplace in which the employer makes inconsistent decisions and, worse, favours certain employees over others, is one which is sure to drive valuable staff out the door.

Second, being an employer of choice means showing trust and faith in your employees. For instance, employers which unduly restrict employees’ social relationships with co-workers or which track their employees’ activities with intrusive electronic systems are not employers which have a trust for their employees. They are employers who have started from the unproductive premise that their employees are adversaries rather than allies.

This is not to say that some intrusive management techniques aren’t required at certain times in relation to certain employees. There will, after all, tend to be the occasional bad apples in every bunch. But the case law is increasingly populated by stories of employers who unnecessarily intrude on their employees’ privacy, and that strikes me as a recipe for disaster.

Third, I believe that employees want to work for an employer which takes action when action is required. It has never been a good employment strategy for the employer to bury its head in the sand, ignoring a festering employee issue. Relying on the pattern of logic that says “this will go away on its own” will almost always guarantee a negative outcome.

But employees also want to work for an employer which is patient and compassionate when it comes to employee issues. Taking active steps to fashion a solution which truly addresses a workplace problem not only makes good legal sense, it make good people sense. On the other hand, once an employer gains the reputation of having an abyss into which employee concerns enter but are never addressed, it has the basis for a serious retention problem.

So, employers looking for a new year’s resolution to improve their employee retention rate, and to become an “employer of choice” need look no farther than their day-to-day practices in relation to their employees. These three steps will help tremendously: establish clear workplace rules; show your employees that you respect them; and be responsive to your employees’ needs and concerns. It ain’t rocket science, but it works.


Robert Smithson is a partner at Pushor Mitchell LLP in Kelowna practicing exclusively in the area of labour and employment law. For more information about his practice, log onto www.pushormitchell.com. If you have a labour or employment question for him to answer in a future “Legal Ease”, email him at smithson@pushormitchell.com. This subject matter is provided for general informational purposes only and is not intended to be relied upon as legal advice.