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Sodexo Canada respects the experience of older employees and does all it can to keep them

Being 50-plus at Sodexo Canada is an asset. The food and facilities management company— servicing everything from fitness centres and call centres, to food and housekeeping services— has 10,000 employees at 750 locations across the country, and one-third of those employees are over 50.

While engagement scores for Sodexo’s multi-generational workplace have been high, the scores for its 50-plus employees have been even higher. According to the company’s latest engagement survey in 2012—Sodexo does the survey biennially—the fiftysomethings are actually three times more engaged than younger employees, and their retention rate is 100 times better. Engagement scores for those 40-plus were in the mid-80% range, compared with those for age 39 and under, in the mid-70% range.

Sodexo’s strategic plan is to be an employer of choice, of which engagement of all employees is one factor. Vanessa White, senior vice-president, HR, with Sodexo, says that employees feel valued in the organization, particularly the 50-plus group. And Sodexo does its part to keep it that way. “We are an organization that values experience, and we have actually taken an approach with our 50-plus employees to ensure they’re engaged.”

This approach offers, from a work/life perspective, flexible work hours and a business casual dress code. Sodexo also offers what it calls work/life enhancement days, in which employees can take 20 days over and above their annual vacation at 25% of their pay. The company also extended its employee benefits to continue to age 70 (for salaried employees in 2007 and for hourly employees in the plan in 2010). It offers massage and acupuncture in the office, and every October it focuses on Healthy Workplace Month. “We try to encourage our employees to stay as healthy as they can because we know that the longer they stay healthy, the longer they’ll work.”

Sodexo also offers formal career planning and formal succession planning programs. “We’re seeing more often that people want to have conversations about what the last 10 or 15 years of their career looks like,” White says.

And while in a time not so long ago the goal for retirement may have been 55, that’s not the norm at Sodexo. “We have a ton of employees who would say, ‘The last thing I want to do is retire when I’m 55,’” says White. “But, in saying that I don’t want to retire when I’m 55, it doesn’t necessarily mean that I want to do what I’m doing at 40 when I’m 55, either. It’s really trying to focus on providing services to our employees and making it easy for them to manage the back half.”

Engagement also plays into Sodexo’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. It recently launched a Canadian Diversity and Inclusion Council, made up of varying levels of management and employees. And three years ago, it launched a Women’s Network Group, with almost 200 members from the get-go. It has won numerous awards in the diversity arena, including DiversityInc’s top diversity employer and the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business’s Progressive Aboriginal Relations award. “The 50-plus workers want to stay and work for us because they know that they add a diversity dimension to the organization and that diversity and inclusion is highly valued here.”

Employee engagement is even seen in the company’s mentoring program, which has been in place in Canada for three years. In matching up pairs for the program, generational differences are taken into account. “What we’re finding is, there’s a lot of reverse mentoring,” says White. “It’s not just always the older generation passing along the wisdom; we often see it’s the older generation gaining a lot of insights into what’s driving and engaging the younger generation, and that, in turn, reinvigorates that older generation.”

Recruitment Time

In terms of recruiting, work/life balance is a priority for Sodexo in its vacation policy and enhancements to potential employees. New hires get three weeks’ vacation in the first year and then move to four weeks after two years. “Often, when we’re recruiting older workers, if they’ve been somewhere else for a while, or even if they’re no longer with a company, they’ve become accustomed to a certain level of holiday,” White explains. In some cases, Sodexo has granted 10 weeks’ vacation to experienced new hires.

Sodexo also recognizes employees’ experience (for both salaried and hourly positions) from other companies in any offers it gives. “We would pay differently for an employee who’s coming [to us] with 10 years’ experience, versus someone with one year of experience—even if it is hiring into the same role,” says White.

And, when opening a new business, Sodexo tries to use seasoned managers. Other companies, White says, may hire someone new. “We’ve actually looked at past openings with a goal of determining the critical success factors for future openings.” The results identified that an experienced manager contributed greatly to the success of the new unit when compared to a business opened by a manager new to the company.

And finding these 50-plus employees is not difficult. A lot of older workers are now actually keeping up with technology, says White. “We’re constantly exploring through social media ways to connect with older workers. Some of the trends [Facebook, LinkedIn] that are working with younger workers in terms of recruitment are actually very similar to some of the things that are helping us attract older workers and retain them.”

Indeed, 32% of Sodexo’s new hires in the past year were over age 40, and 63 employees were over age 60, which included three employees over 70. The voluntary turnover rate is 12% for the 50-plus group, compared with 31% for those under 50.

Sage Advice

While some employers might argue about keeping the experience of the older generation at the expense of being innovative, White says that’s not the case. “A lot of times employers think that it’s got to be a choice between keeping experience or being fresh and innovative,” she says. “We are a good example of a company that values the older worker and the experience they bring. We need to use that and lead these employees through the change we need to grow as a company. And I think we come out stronger in the end for that.”

But while companies strive to grow and change, a more ominous issue lurks in the shadows: the exodus of the baby boomers from the workforce and the labour shortage it will leave behind. “If you look at the traditional retirement age of 65,” White explains, “if we can do things that keep people working an extra two or three years beyond that, this helps us through that labour crisis that everyone’s worrying about.” For Sodexo, its holistic approach to hiring older workers and managing an employee’s lifecycle is working. “Other companies do a good job at managing aspects of someone’s career,” says White. “But I’ve noticed this just as an employee [myself], there’s a real commitment to wanting to see the employee’s lifecycle or career lifecycle be a long one.”

Q&A: Valerie White talks about keeping employees engaged through mobility

How else do you keep employees engaged?
We have an international mobility program. We greatly support mobility not just within Canada but globally. What I find is, when you expand the network of career opportunities beyond the borders of your city, your province and then your country, the ability for people to manage their careers longer just expands. For a company that doesn’t support that type of behaviour it’s hard to keep people engaged for a long time because, inevitably, people get tired in roles. Through our international mobility program, and even just within Canada, our mobility offer is really good and does allow people to be flexible and pursue career options that they might not normally pursue.

Do you offer a service award program?
We have a fairly robust long-service award program. We make a big deal about service. And, culturally, it becomes a real pride thing. So often here—and I really noticed it when I joined Sodexo a few years ago—when people are introducing themselves, they’ll introduce themselves, ‘I’m so-and-so and I’ve worked here for X number of years.’

On a recent visit to a food service unit, one of the ladies working at the lunch counter said, ‘Hi, I’m so-and-so and I’ve worked here 25 years. And this is a good company to work for.’ She was so proud, and you could see that she felt valued by her team.

What awards has Sodexo won?
We’ve been Niagara’s top employer. Last year, we won a Catalyst Award in North America for initiatives advancing women in the workplace. And we were recently named one of the world’s most ethical companies. We’re a really well-kept secret, I think.

Brooke Smith is managing editor of Benefits Canada. brooke.smith@rci.rogers.com

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© Copyright 2014 Rogers Publishing Ltd. This article first appeared in Benefits Canada.

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