Archive for November, 2010

Where is my jet pack?

The sooner we can stop the misuse of technology, the sooner we can get to working on all those cool inventions the comic books from the 1950s promised us

By Todd Humber (

A few years ago, I found a great book under the Christmas tree written by Daniel Wilson. Entitled Where is My Jet Pack: A Guide to the Amazing Science Fiction Future that Never Arrived, it took a look at a bunch of those space-age inventions — you know, all the good stuff we saw at futuristic rides at Disney World, on Star Trek and The Jetsons — that were supposed to make life easier for us in the 21st century.

Where's My Jetpack?: A Guide to the Amazing Science Fiction Future that Never Arrived, by author Daniel H. Wilson.

But when we awoke in a post-Y2K world, there were no flying cars, ray guns or jet packs in sight. Velvet spandex unitards have yet to become the customary workplace outfit (though, we might be thankful for that one). But hoverboards? Servant robots? A colony on the moon? Those things are just plain cool.

So what happened? Where, exactly, is my jet pack? I have a sneaking suspicion it has something to do with one of this issue’s cover stories.

You have to give us credit — humans have done a pretty good job at developing technology. We’re just not very good at keeping up with it, maximizing its upside or fully understanding its ramifications — and that last point is being showcased in workplaces around the world.

Example one: The story about two workers in British Columbia fired for trashing their employer on Facebook. (See “Status update: ‘You’re fired,’” in the Nov. 29 issue of Canadian HR Reporter.)

Anyone who has been anywhere near Facebook knows the deal. You create an online profile, you add friends (which you’re free to accept or reject) and you have control over how public your profile is.

So, when you’re on Facebook and you’ve made the decision to “friend” your boss — meaning she can see anything you’re posting — you might think it wise not to trash said employer in your status updates. (See: Biting the hand that feeds you.)

Common sense, right? Well, those two folks in B.C. didn’t quite catch on.

Example two: Proving that online stupidity isn’t a North American trait, Ireland stepped into the spotlight earlier this month after 17 male employees in the Dublin office of PricewaterhouseCoopers thought it was a good idea to rate the “hotness” of some of the female first-year accounting trainees.

Not content to just have this conversation at the water cooler — which would have been silly enough — they decided to put their transgressions in email form and circulate it. (And everyone can see where this is heading.) Inevitably, and predictably, the email went viral and onto the pages of newspapers around the globe.

Now, anyone can view the offending emails online, complete with the names and headshots of the female workers, the names and contact information of the offending employees (including titles, in some cases) and — and let’s all feel sorry for the HR folks at PwC here — the email signature touting the firm as “Voted one of the Best Workplaces in Ireland for eight years running” and “Best Work Experience/Internship Programme 2010.”

You just can’t make this stuff up.

So let’s say it one last time with feeling: Anything you put in an email, anything you post on Facebook, any text message you send on your cellphone — it’s all permanent. It’s all forwardable. And it could go viral. Think about that before you hit “send” or press “update.”

The sooner we can get past this misuse of technology, the sooner we can start manufacturing those jet packs, flying cars and robots that comic books in the 1950s promised us.

Todd Humber is the managing editor of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resources management. For more information, visit


Are workers undermining referral programs?

Cash bonuses are effective, but some employees are blanketing HR with resumés of strangers in effort to win the ‘recruitment lottery’

By Todd Humber (

Employee referral programs are effective — there’s no denying that fact. That’s why so many employers have programs in place and encourage employees to refer friends, family and other contacts to apply.

Many firms even offer a cash bonus to employees if their referral gets hired. It’s a great way to recruit employees.

Many employers have an employee referral program that pays cash to workers who recommend someone, but are employees abusing these programs? (Photo: Brian Snyder/Reuters)

But what if the referral program goes beyond just friends and family? I had an interesting discussion last week with an HR professional from Winnipeg who works for a retailer. He relayed a story about two retail workers at one of their Alberta stores who have set up a mini-business to supplement their income by referring people for positions.

But these workers don’t always actually know the people they’re referring. They find candidates across the country by trolling websites, such as Craigslist, to find people who they think might be interested and qualified for these positions.

So, the question was raised: Is this a good thing or a bad thing? The short answer is, well, yes — because it’s a bit of both.

The plusses are easy. These two employees are doing work that would otherwise have to be done by the HR department (or by a paid recruiter) to source candidates. It’s costing the employer nothing, and there’s really not much risk. The company only has to pay out when the referral is successfully hired.

The minuses are a bit more complicated. The entire point of a referral program is to tap into your employees’ network. If the staff in Alberta are recommending a bloke in Saskatchewan, whom they’ve never met, then doesn’t that defeat the entire purpose?

And how comfortable is the employer with workers supplementing their income in this manner? And if other workers caught wind of this scheme, wouldn’t they be tempted to follow suit? The end result could be thousands of resumés flowing into the HR department with employees essentially trying to win the “recruitment lottery” and hope one of their recommendations gets the job.

From HR’s point of view, that’s no better than just posting a job and watching the sea of resumés flood in — and the point of a referral program is to avoid that scenario.

These workers are hardly alone in cashing in on recruitment. Some websites — one is Bohire, which we’ve written about in the past — allow employers to post jobs and attach a “reward” to it for anyone who can refer a successful candidate. On Nov. 22, Bohire alone had nearly $275,000 in referral cash up for grabs. Last year, the hospital in the small town of Hawkesbury, Ont., announced it was willing to pay $5,000 to anyone who could refer a doctor who would stay for a minimum of two years.

There’s no doubt referral programs are an effective and valuable source of candidates. But should employers draw the line on how many people workers can refer? Or at least ensure they actually know the person?

Todd Humber is the managing editor of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. For more information, visit

It takes a very steady hand

Winners of the 2011 Canada’s Top 100 Employers competition know one thing for certain: Employees have a long memory, and shareholders can be short-sighted

By Todd Humber (

The theme that emanated from the 2011 Canada’s Top 100 Employers competition (see the Nov. 15 issue of Canadian HR Reporter) was “stay the course.”

With a tough economy and corporations cutting corners wherever possible, companies adding perks and raising the bar on the employee experience were a tad scarce. Instead, the companies that made the list were the ones resisting the urge to slash and burn. (Full disclosure: Carswell, the company that publishes Canadian HR Reporter, made the list in 2011 for the fourth year in a row.)

A sign displaying TSX information in Toronto. Share values will go up and go down, but its employers that stay the course that can expect the biggest returns from employees. (Photo: Mark Blinch/Reuters)

The editors of Mediacorp Canada, the company behind the list, could have called the 2011 competition Canada’s Most Far-Sighted employers. In the darkest days of the recession, when nearly every company in every industry across the country — the globe, really — was feeling the pinch, the easy way out was to cut. Cut headcount. Slash benefits. Take the axe to every single expense possible.

To be fair, for some firms, it truly was a matter of survival — either cut staff or go out of business. But too many firms looked at quarter-by-quarter balance sheets, saw reductions in revenue and gave in to the knee-jerk reaction.

While such actions may have placated shareholders for a few months, the long-term picture is likely to be slightly less than positive. Employees have notoriously long memories. Talent won’t hesitate to jump ship if they don’t like what happened during the depths of the Great Recession. Shareholders, conversely, have very short memories. They will quickly forget the temporary benefit if the long-term prognosis sours as the true ramifications of the cuts come into focus.

In a video posted earlier this month on Canadian HR Reporter TV, Lance Jensen Richards, senior director and global practice leader for HR consulting at Kelly Services, had this memorable line: “The war for talent is over, and talent won.” (You can view this video here, and be sure to check out other videos on Canadian HR Reporter‘s Multimedia Centre.)

While it makes for a cute quote, it’s a point employers should take to heart. Top talent has always, and always will, hold all the cards. Treat your talent well when the going gets rough and you’ll be paid back in spades when the grass gets greener.

If I were placing bets, I’d be confident wagering on the future of pretty much every company on this year’s list. By staying the course, these employers have proven they know what their greatest asset is and have set the stage to thrive as the economy rebounds.

There’s also a great feature starting on page 17 of the Nov. 15 issue. Shannon Klie, one of our senior editors, talked with five HR professionals who have obtained the Senior Human Resources Professional (SHRP) designation. While the SHRP isn’t available in every province (Ontario and Saskatchewan have it and other provinces are contemplating it), those who have received it are at the pinnacle of their careers.

They have some great stories to share about how they rose to the top of their profession. And don’t think it’s a coincidence that there’s no talk of slashing and burning with this bunch.

Todd Humber is the managing editor of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. For more infomration visit Follow us on Twitter at and Facebook at

Another nail in the DB coffin

U.S. Steel lockout at Hamilton plant over pensions another harbinger of the end of private-sector defined benefit plans — so how will retirement be funded?

By Todd Humber (

Anyone searching for yet another sign the defined benefit (DB) pension plan is an endangered species — and almost extinct in the private sector — need look no further than Hamilton.

Just after 7 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 7, U.S. Steel padlocked the gates at its Hamilton plant, locking out 900 workers in a labour dispute that hinges on the company’s DB plan.

Steam billows from a stack at the U.S. Steel Canada plant in Hamilton, in this Reuters file photo. The company locked out 900 workers on Nov. 7 in a dispute centred on the company's DB pension plan. (Photo: Mike Cassese/Reuters)

According to published reports, the company dropped its demands for concessions on vacation time, benefits and cost of living allowances. But it has refused to budge on the pension issue.

U.S. Steel wants the current DB plan closed to new hires. New employees would fall under a defined contribution pension scheme. And the company also wants to stop indexing payments for current retirees.

The union has refused to take management’s proposal to a vote, even though the terms offered by U.S. Steel are similar to those accepted by workers at Lake Erie Works earlier this year following an eight-month lockout, according to the Toronto Star.

How the Hamilton lockout will conclude remains to be seen, but it will be very surprising if U.S. Steel caves on the pension issue. While it’s not yet possible to count the number of private-sector firms with DB plans with your fingers, that day is not long off — for better or worse. It won’t be long before the only organizations that offer gold-plated pension plans are in the public sector. And as deficits rise, and a bitter electorate ushers right-leaning governments into office, even public sector DB plans might be endangered.

The demographics problem facing recruiters as the baby boomers begin to retire en masse is nothing compared to the financial nightmare facing actuaries and employers that have to bankroll pension costs for this burgeoning group of retirees.

So what’s the solution? If the private sector is unwilling (or unable, depending on whom you choose to believe) to bear the costs of worker retirement and taxpayers are loathe to foot the bill, where will the money to sustain workers in their golden years come from? DC plans have replaced DBs in many organizations, but who out there with a DC plan feels entirely confident about their retirement prospects?

So where can employees turn for help? This looks like a role best suited for the venerable Canada Pension Plan, as many experts have touted. Giving workers the ability to sock more money away during their careers, and getting higher CPP payments in return, looks appealing.

Sure, employers will have to contribute more. But an extra couple of bucks on employees’ paycheques is going to be a lot easier for a CFO to swallow than ensuring a DB plan is fully funded well into the future.

Todd Humber is the managing editor of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. For more information, visit

Cloudy with a chance of damages

If human resources professionals had the tools of meteorologists, this is what the forecast might look like

By Todd Humber (

“There’s a big storm brewing off the employer coast.” Well, that’s the way we might talk if HR departments had the forecasting tools of meteorologists at their disposal.

The weather radar of the HR world would show plenty of storms churning in the ocean, preparing to make landfall. There are the hurricanes we’ve been tracking well, such as the demographic crunch and labour shortage expected to hit as the baby boomers start retiring en masse next year.

But, to the keen eye, the Doppler radar is showing a small blip — a tropical depression if you will — that is already lashing the workplace and looks determined to form into a significant hurricane. The long-term forecast is troubling.

That’s probably enough with the weather metaphors, but there’s a reason we called mental health issues in the workplace a “perfect legal storm” in one of the cover stories in the Nov. 1 issue of Canadian HR Reporter.

Legislators are increasingly putting the onus and liability on employers to ensure workplaces are free of psychological harassment. The bar for what constitutes harassment is being lowered and courts are awarding a lot more money — an increase of as much as 700 per cent in the last five years.

Hurricane Earl is pictured moving north-northwest in the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of southeastern United States, in this National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) satellite image taken and released on Sept. 2, 2010. If HR had similar technology, it would show plenty of storms churning in the ocean, preparing to make landfall. (Photo: Reuters/NOAA/Handout)

And mental health is no longer taboo. The “suck it up” attitude of yore is disappearing along with the stigma, replaced by a more compassionate bent from all parties.

From an employer’s perspective, it’s daunting. Mental health is a disability worthy of accommodation, but it’s also notoriously tough to assess. A supervisor can see a worker has a broken leg, but mental health issues aren’t as obvious. Accommodating a worker with a sore shoulder is simple, and the timelines for recovery are predictable. But a worker suffering from depression? It’s a completely different ball game.

And, unfortunately, there will be a minority who try to fake mental health problems in an effort to get some paid time off. Employers and insurance companies on the hook for compensation will often suspect a worker is malingering.

Employers have to meet the mental health challenge head on. Bosses who bully subordinates have to be dealt with — verbally abusing a worker is as intolerable as striking one. Staff need training to recognize the warning signs of mental health issues, and resources should be made available to employees.

Employee assistance programs, once thought of as a nice-to-have, have become almost compulsory. Workers need a confidential outlet.

But remember — any investment in employees’ mental health will pay dividends, and not just in terms of avoiding costly lawsuits. The mindset of being asked to do more with less, which has always existed but was exacerbated by the recession, won’t be changing anytime soon.

What has to change is complacency on this front. The cost to employers, in terms of lost productivity and punitive damages from courts, are far too high to ignore.

Todd Humber is the managing editor of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management, and its family of publications. For more information, visit

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