In October 2017, De Beers Canada senior management flew to the company’s remote Victor diamond mine near Attawapiskat, Ont., to tell its employees some tough but not unexpected news: the mine was slated to close in the first quarter of 2019.
When the fly-in, fly-out operation opened in 2008, the company forecasted it would last 10 to 11 years. Once De Beers reached the decision to shut down, its human resources department jumped into action to prepare employees for the transition.
The aim was to enable workers to do “what they intended to do with their careers,” says Eric Ingle, head of HR at De Beers Canada. “If they wanted to work in the industry, they could do that, and if they wanted to retire, they could do that as well.”
It was also important to the company to share the news with employees as soon as possible, being transparent along the way about any closure-related decisions that would affect them. “There’s some risk announcing a year and a half ahead of closure that you’ll experience a lot of attrition or stress out of your workforce, but our choice was to communicate well in advance,” says Ingle.
That ongoing communication gave employees the ability to make the choices that worked for them, he adds. “If there was another opportunity elsewhere in the industry, they have the information. They could decide to stay or [find] something that suited their lifestyle or career plans or family a little bit better.”
Amping up the EAP
Leading up to the May 2019 closure, De Beers enlisted the help of its employee assistance program, benefits and pension plan providers, and set up other initiatives to help workers prepare to leave the mine.
Though the EAP, provided by Morneau Shepell Ltd., was available for the entirety of the mine’s operations, Ingle says employees usually accessed counsellors virtually because the site was so remote. The program included a wide range of advisory services, such as financial counselling, career counselling, elder-care support and more.
In preparation for the closure, De Beers increased these offerings, bringing Morneau Shepell trauma counsellors onsite so employees could speak with someone about how the closure would affect them, as well as any financial concerns they might have had. The counsellors also hosted group sessions on topics such as dealing with change, handling stress and maintaining self-care.
Dora Newcombe, director of customer success for Western Canada at Morneau Shepell, says it’s important to adapt EAP supports to the specific needs of a workforce. At Victor, that meant counsellors were present at the mine’s daily “toolbox talks” to ensure they were more accessible to employees. “Just to be able to mingle is helpful, and it makes them more approachable,” she says.
However, she notes, since employees could be concerned about the optics of talking to a counsellor, space was also made available for private conversations.
In addition to providing employee support, Morneau Shepell offered seminars to the mine’s leaders to help them understand what employees would be going through and how to identify those who weren’t coping well with the changes.
Newcombe says the counsellors encouraged the mine’s employees to take the EAP information home with them. “Your spouse may also be starting to stress and worry, and they may not know these services are available.” Courtesy of De Beers Group
Retirement, training options
De Beers also brought in representatives from its benefits and pension providers to educate employees about the offerings available to them up until the closure, as well as their pension amount and when they could start receiving it if they chose to retire.
The company created a severance calculator for workers to input their current position and years of service, so they understood what would be available. “Employees want to know how they’d be treated on the way out,” says Ingle. “So they had that information, they knew the timing and they knew, if they stuck around, what the program would look like.”
As well, the company continued the training programs it’s been running with local colleges for the past decade, focusing on things like computer training. It brought in representatives from Service Canada to let employees know about the government programs they could access and, in the final year, hosted multiple interviewing and resume-writing workshops and seminars with financial planners. Many employees had worked at the mine since it opened, notes Ingle, which meant they hadn’t updated their resume or had a formal job interview for more than a decade.
While De Beers was able to move some of its Victor employees to its Gahcho Kué diamond mine in the Northwest Territories and keep 80 people for reclamation work post-closure, the majority of staff would be without a job when the mine closed. The company hosted job fairs with 13 industry partners, a combination of northern Ontario and Quebec mines and local service providers.
“Because [employees] had resume and interview workshops, they came with fresh resumes and were able to talk to a bunch of different mines and service providers, and it worked out fantastic,” says Ingle. “It was one of the biggest things they liked, and we had good feedback from our industry talent partners; they thought our folks were very well prepared.”
Communication is key
When facing a transition, employers should involve their EAP provider sooner rather than later, says Newcombe. “As soon as there’s news that this is going to be happening, start to be proactive and think about that people piece.”
Organizations should consider a multi-faceted approach, including offering relevant information and tip sheets, as well as hosting counsellors for training events, seminars or bite-sized information sessions, she says. “Not all employees are going to go to an hourlong seminar.”
But first, employers have to ask employees what they’d find most useful. “We can’t be sitting back saying, ‘This is what they need,’ because we might miss the mark,” says Newcombe. “From my experience working with a number of organizations, that communication is important all throughout the process.”
Chris Lee, vice-president of marketing and communications at Accompass Inc., agrees, noting employers have to communicate early and often during times of transition or change. “In general, employees respect organizations that provide the sense that there’s this transparency and level of trust.”
But he also suggests employers resist the urge to over-communicate by sharing too much at once and overwhelming employees. Instead, he says, they should share the most important points and allow workers to look into the granular details in other ways, at their own pace.
Workplace transitions, such as company downsizing or site closure events, offer opportunities for employers to signal they value the contributions of departing employees through additional programming, like De Beers did with its job fair, adds Lee.
“Strong brands and cultures recognize it’s important . . . that they treat employees with respect, with dignity and that they still care about them, their livelihoods, their welfare.
“Sometimes, there’s a reality that forces these types of changes on an organization and I think the employees departing and remaining would appreciate that efforts are being made to make the transition as smooth as possible.”
Kelsey Rolfe is an associate editor at Benefits Canada.