Looking Inward at Bell Canada

By Joe Mullich

Mar. 1, 2005

Like many other large companies, Bell Canada knows all too well the consequences of downsizing: high severance costs, employee dissatisfaction and an eventual brain drain. The Montreal-based telecommunications company streamlined its workforce by almost 33 percent between 1995 and 1998, and has been downsizing by 4 percent to 5 percent a year ever since.

    Bell Canada, which now has 43,000 employees and is part of Bell Canada Enterprises, experienced a sudden wake-up call two years ago when someone asked: Why aren’t departments that need to fill new positions looking first at talent in danger of being let go by other parts of the company? That question prompted the creation of a wide-ranging initiative called Bell People First that has redeployed more than 1,500 workers at risk for downsizing and saved about $36 million in severance costs during the first two years alone.

    Maureen Bell, a consultant with Bell Canada’s human resources department, says the first step was addressing a pervasive belief in the company that hiring managers used an underground network to fill jobs and that the organization didn’t support employees’ personal development. “They felt it was easier to get a job at another company than here,” she says.

    The Bell People First program was promoted through the company’s intranet, focus groups and teleconferences led by the CEO. New policies were introduced to encourage internal career mobility. To prompt internal hiring, managers were required to seek approval from their business-unit presidents when they wanted to hire someone from the outside. And before managers could even make such a request, they had to search for internal candidates for at least 10 days.

    Managers were also encouraged to look inside through a new development fund, which provided up to $5,000 of training for any redeployed employee who was in danger of being laid off. The training must address an immediate gap in the employee’s technical skills rather than teach general leadership skills or ongoing development.

    “This encourages managers to broaden the scope of their search and be more creative when hiring,” Bell says. The training fund allocated $1 million in 2003 and about $2 million last year.

    Ted Sun, a business consultant and business coach, notes that the cross-training of staffs is a proven way to strengthen a company, and a program like Bell People First has the benefit of not only keeping the best workers on board but also encouraging knowledge transfer across departments.

    Another barrier to employee movement, Bell Canada found, was managers who didn’t want to permit their workers to move to other positions. “Many departments succeeded at developing talent, but some were not readily willing to transfer or release their talent to other departments,” Bell says. “We wanted to develop ‘Bell talent’ rather than ‘department talent.’ ”

    Bell People First created a policy that allowed most employees to move to other positions without the agreement of their managers if they had completed 18 months in the current job and had a satisfactory performance rating. But even with that policy, managers could drag their heels on the timing of the transfers. Bell declared that all eligible employees be released to new positions within 30 to 45 days, unless doing so would hurt customer service.

    For its intelligent redeployment plan, Bell Canada wins the 2005 Optimas Award for Managing Change.

Workforce Management, March 2005, pp. 50-51Subscribe Now!

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