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Feature - Choosing the right employer

There are businesses in Whistler you can’t work for, because their employees never want to leave

By Kara-Leah Grant

We’ve all worked for people who embody the Peter Principle, the theory that employees within an organization will advance to their highest level of competence and then be promoted to and remain at a level at which they are incompetent.

Beyond the Peter Principle, there are employers who just don’t get it; employers who ignore the labour laws, abuse the staff, care only about the bottom line and lack compassion and integrity. Employees may recognize that they aren’t being treated fairly, that the boss is wrong, perhaps their rights are even being abused. But, confronting a bad employer and going to the labour board is a time-consuming stressful step – especially in the Whistler labour market. Our resort town is flush with a constant incoming tide of young Australians, Kiwis, English and Canadian workers, guaranteeing someone can fill your shoes tomorrow.

But employees are not powerless. There is something you can do, and all it takes is a little research. Before you commit your body, mind and soul to a new employer, find out if you really want to work for this person and this company.

That’s exactly what Laurie Cooper did before she accepted a position with the new Four Seasons, and what she discovered impressed her. Of the big hotels that crowd Whistler, the Four Seasons is the only Canadian company on the Fortune Magazine’s Top 100 companies to work for. The company gains much ink in publications around the world because of its treatment of employees.

Cooper has now been with the hotel for a couple of months, and she has discovered her initial research was correct and the articles had it right. "The other day, all I could hear was laughter bouncing around the building, all day long. Everybody wants to be here, everybody wants to have a good time," says Cooper. "It already feels like a family, even though we’ve just started here. I was very impressed when I realized the Four Seasons’ attitude is to treat all staff in the same manner as they treat guests. In fact, the company term for staff is ‘internal guests’."

The impressive employee experience at the Four Seasons is no accident, but a carefully cultivated corporate culture that started with the company’s founder and CEO, Isadore Sharp. It’s a culture maintained with precision hiring and careful training of new staff. Even a dishwasher goes through four or five interviews, the last one with the hotel’s general manager, to ensure that the company and the employee are a great fit. But that’s what’s different at the Four Seasons. There is no "just a dishwasher". Every employee is accorded the same value, and it’s a value reflected in company perks.

"The benefits at the Four Seasons are great. All staff get a certain number of complimentary room nights, and it’s the same number, no matter what your position – from the general manager to the cleaning staff," says Cooper. "Everybody is on the same team and recognized the same way – we’re all treated equally."

Reena Verma, director of human resources, says the opening of a new hotel is a most important time for her. Before she came out to Whistler, Isadore Sharp called her into his office and gave her one piece of advice.

"I thought he’d say something like ‘work hard’ or ‘do this well’," says Verma. "But he didn’t. He told me to ‘make sure you take your time and hire the right people’. This was his advice and it reflects the attitude at Four Seasons. We don’t want people getting into the job and finding out they don’t like it and leaving, so we work very hard through the interview process to ensure we are the right company for the candidate and they are the right person for us. It helps us maintain our very low staff turnover."

The Four Seasons is starting the interview process with a career fair March 24-25 at the Telus Conference Centre.

A low staff turnover is a key indicator of a great company to work for and it should be the very first question a job hunter asks. Due to its transient workforce, Whistler has a reputation for high staff turnover, but there are still companies in this town that never have to advertise for staff. There are even companies that never have to hire. These are the people you want to work for.

It’s 4 p.m., après at Buffalo Bills. A group of skiers and boarders are enjoying a beer, while raving about the bluebird day they’ve just enjoyed in the Whistler backcountry. Whistler Heli-Skiing guides stand out in their logo wear clothing, but even without the labels, it’s easy to distinguish the guides from the tourists. The guides have that ageless yet weathered look common to those in Whistler who have soaked up the outdoor lifestyle for many years. Guide Doug O’Mara glides from group to group, ensuring everyone has a beer and everyone’s included. More than a guide, O’Mara is also one of the four owners of Whistler Heli-Skiing. He says he hasn’t had to interview or hire any field staff in nine years. That’s right – nine years. Staff turnover for Whistler Heli-Skiing field staff is zero, despite the hundred-odd resumes the company receives every year from people desperate to work them.

"We have a very stable work environment, even though a lot of staff are seasonal. Obviously it’s a fun job and of course, a staff perk is getting to go heli skiing," says O’Mara.

"But we pay special attention to the work environment we create. It’s structured so employees know exactly what to expect, but flexible enough to change if there is a problem.

"Having our staff return year after year creates an experience and builds a relationship with our clients," O’Mara continues. "We also believe in investing in our employees and we do training for at least a week every year. This builds a more and more cohesive unit, which is what it is really all about."

Rob Burgess, part-time guide and also a physician, confides that he’s actually good friends with the owners, which is how he came to work for Whistler Heli-Skiing – that and his qualifications, training, guiding experience and easy-going manner. He proves that working for friends can be the best job in the world.

"The owners are really good friends of mine, which is why I am working for them, they are great guys and it’s a great place to work," explains Burgess. "Their employees never leave because they are just so great to work for."

It’s a sentiment echoed by the other guides and office workers. They point to the family atmosphere, the trust placed in staff by the owners, the perks of the work and the low turnover as proof Whistler Heli-Skiing is one of the best companies in Whistler to work for.

"When you do things that are on the edge a little and you share those things with people who are your backup, you develop a bond with those people, it’s closer than family," says guide Vlad Lamoureaux. "You get hurt together, you go through ups and downs and you see a side of people you may not see with other jobs and it’s a stronger bond, that’s what we have here."

It’s almost cruel to share the joy, because it is virtually impossible to get a job with Whistler Heli-Skiing. If you want a field job, your best bet is to follow Daryl Brennan’s lead. He started in the office over six years ago because he couldn’t get hired in the field. Now, after putting in his time, he has one of those coveted field jobs and life could not be better.

"The atmosphere is so amazing, everybody is having fun and in a good mood," says Brennan. "The owners treat us great, and everyone is returning staff. I couldn’t ask for anything more, I spent six years working my way into it and I love it."

Staff believe that one key to the healthy work environment is that all four Whistler Heli-Skiing owners work in the business on a day-to-day basis.

"We like to say our staff work with us, not for us," says O’Mara.

It’s an important consideration. An owner who works the frontline with his staff on a day-to-day basis has a better understanding of the challenges facing staff. That owner can relate to his staff better and make better decisions.

Andy Flynn, one of the owners of Moe Joe’s, is such a man.

"I’ve worked in the industry for years so I understand what it’s like," explains Flynn. "I like to treat people the way I want to be treated myself. I don’t want to be yelled at, especially in front of customers or other staff. If someone screws up, you can talk to them later by themselves, but in the end, what they did probably isn’t the end of the world."

Flynn’s laid back attitude and understanding of the industry are not the only reasons his staff enjoy working for him. He also talks about listening to staff, because they brim with good ideas that owners can use to improve their business. He talks about respecting staff; about leading by example – being the person you want your staff to be.

"You need to have trustworthy people and you need to look after them," says Flynn. "This is especially important in the bar industry because you’re dealing with cash in every transaction, and there is the possibility of getting burned at every corner. But if you don’t act like a shyster, then your staff won’t be shysters back to you."

John Cunningham has worked the door at Moe Joe’s for the last two years and says unequivocally it is the best job he has ever had in Whistler.

"Andy is the best boss I have ever had. He’s there for you 100 per cent, he’s always in a good mood and he always has a ‘good feeling about tonight’. He’s one of the nicest guys and hardest working guys you’ll ever meet, I can’t say enough things about the guy," says Cunningham.

"I know they’ve got my back and I have no worries about a call I might have to make on the door because the owners have full confidence in my ability to make the right decision. At Moe Joe’s I just enjoy going to work everyday – it’s a fun place to be."

While asking current and past employees can be the best way to get the inside lead on whether or not a company is great to work for, don’t rely on the testimonies of just one or two people. It takes two people to create an experience and one person’s warning can be another person’s recommendation.

No company illustrates this better than Whistler-Blackcomb. Employing close to 4,000 people at the height of the winter season, it offers more perks than any other business in town, including (but not limited to) a season’s pass, food and beverage discounts, retail discounts, subsidized employee housing, training programs, staff functions, staff sale nights, Club Shred and full benefits for fulltime and returning seasonal staff. Yet, people who’ve worked for Whistler-Blackcomb give it mixed reviews.

"As the largest employer in town, we’re an easy target, plus people’s expectations are extraordinarily high. There are disgruntled people out here who got fired, and it doesn’t take many people to create a bad impression," says Kirby Brown, director of Employee Experience.

"But frankly, we do screw stuff up sometimes. We were two companies not that long ago, we slammed together and we’ve been trying to become better and better every year. We are expected to be the number 1 employer and we’re working toward that, but I don’t think we’re there yet."

Brown’s candor is refreshing and it’s comforting to know Whistler-Blackcomb feels it can still improve its employees’ experience. The company believes that its employees are the most important aspect of its business and the number one reason why Whistler-Blackcomb wins so many industry awards.

"If we weren’t a big part of the community and if the community wasn’t a big part of us, we wouldn’t have been number one year after year. We just need to continue to foster that relationship," says Brown. "We have hundreds of staff who have been here longer than 10 years and dozens that have been here for 20 years. There’s something that attracts them and keeps them coming back year after year. Ideally, I’d like to see even more locals work for Whistler-Blackcomb because it makes us a stronger company with a better product."

Whistler-Blackcomb wants to hear from its employees because it is only through honest feedback that it can respond to concerns. This willingness to listen to its employees and change with the times is an indication that the company values the people who work for it.

"We have an employee experience officer in each division that is available to everyone as an employee advocate. We’re really open to people making mistakes and helping people work through problems. We also have anonymous employee opinion surveys that are incredibly valuable," says Brown.

"I think there have been a lot of areas of improvement and areas where we’ve been challenged. Whistler-Blackcomb is like a family and the culture of the company is changing, employees are staying around long term, having families, and their needs and wants are changing. We’re trying to keep up with that."

There are many wonderful companies to work for in Whistler, and there are companies to avoid. The trick is to discover the difference before you get the job. Ask other employees, find out what the staff turnover is, and ask as many questions in the job interview as you can.

But, if and when you find yourself working for a bad employer, remember you still have a choice. You can stay and put up with the crap. Or you can walk. And while it’s expensive to live in Whistler, money is no excuse. There is always another job – just check the back pages of the Pique.




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