Strong team gets CIMA through tough times (National HR Awards)

Winner, HR Challenge Award
By Sabrina Nanji
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/21/2015

Perhaps the most admirable quality of CIMA’s human resources function is its ability to morph to fit just about every scenario. 

The multidisciplinary consulting firm based in Laval, Que., specializes in engineering, urban planning, new technology, project management and the environment. And to understand its HR challenge, one must first understand its history.

Because the firm was made up through a series of mergers and integrations in 1990, its decentralized structure meant the human resources function was disseminated and handled by five junior employees in separate offices. Then the company more than doubled its workforce between 2007 and 2012 (from 1,000 employees to 2,300) and in 2010, a formal HR department was officially established and with it, a vice-president of human resources and seven new senior positions.

The firm enjoyed a honeymoon period — making top employer lists on multiple occasions — until 2013, when Quebec’s engineering sector experienced a major downturn. That meant lots of layoffs, and CIMA’s HR team was not spared; the team had to let five people go.

Before he was forced to slash his team, Eric Dumouchel, CIMA’s vice-president of human resources, says he had dedicated himself to putting together an ace group of specialists who were supposed to launch and implement a lucrative and innovative HR plan across the company. However, after the layoffs, he was left with a strong, albeit “bare-bones” group. 

It was the few who remained that helped implement the company’s plan, which would create a stimulating work environment for talented candidates and keep employees mobilized throughout the company. 

What they did 

As a result of the HR team’s effort, a number of initiatives have come to life since 2012. That included a plan to expand the ownership structure to all employees — today, about 57 per cent of the workforce have a stake in the company. An ethics committee was also formed, along with a confidential phone line managed by an external third party, and leaders made formal commitments to the revised and updated code of ethics.  

As well, the HR team helped to implement improved succession plans — a new classification was created that will give employees with a decade of experience greater management responsibilities. A one-year leadership development program was developed for the most promising talent. 

Since 2010, CIMA has also earmarked more funds for training employees — a necessity since much of the work in the field changes rapidly. 

The HR team also overhauled the company’s compensation and benefits package, including the creation of a complete job family matrix, including partners. A flexible benefits plan was also established, with varying levels of coverage so employees can customize based on need. 

Recruitment techniques were also streamlined, including a new automated hiring system. CIMA also boasts a lucrative internal mobility culture, internal job posting processes and a calculation tool was developed to assess the costs associated with mobility. 

Finally, the HR team helped to form CIMA’s Aboriginal policy, which promotes Aboriginal recruitment within the labour market. 

How they did it

The key to the successful creation and implementation of the company’s HR program, despite a serious lack of resources, boils down to the quality of people and their willingness to hitch up their bootstraps in tough times. 

“It wasn’t even a question of survival because now the lifeboat had come, and we just got in,” says Claude L’Archeveque, senior director of HR shared services in CIMA’s human resources department. 

The projects that had been theorized with a number of HR advisors and specialists benefited from expert opinion, she says. That meant working with people who were eager to deliver on a plan they were passionate about, regardless of the resources. 

As well, the company was able to work together across all departments to get the core tenets of the plan rolling. That might have something to do with the company’s history and its past practice of doling out the human resources duties across the main office functions. 

CIMA has always made a point to connect with employees on a one-on-one level — this year, the firm is bringing back a briefly defunct employee survey to gauge worker satisfaction, happiness, view of the company, relationship with management and other ways to create a better work culture. 

Having a great deal of freedom and independence was another way CIMA’s HR team could effectively roll out its plan, says L’Archeveque. 

“There’s not an administrative burden. People can make decisions themselves to move forward,” she says, adding that, of course, major decisions are made by the board of directors, but a speedy approval process was integral to her team’s success. 

“The decision-making ability is pretty much at every level of the organization, so we can make things move more fast than some other organizations,” says L’Archeveque. 

But being far apart and in decentralized offices — based mainly in northern and eastern Quebec and Alberta, but with a presence in eight provinces — was an added challenge because motivation tends to quickly fizzle out. Autonomy can inspire the right type of employee, says Dumouchel.

“The more rope that I’ve given them, the more they’ve done with it. The more I give them autonomy, the more they deliver,” he says. “And that’s really what CIMA fosters internally. They deliver more because they want to be proud of what they do.”

Being such a decentralized company to begin with, CIMA’s expert team — and letting them reach their full potential — is a major factor in determining whether the company would sink or swim in troubling times. 

“When we were faced with these cuts, I realized how important it is to have a strong team. If they’re stronger than you, it’s perfect,” says Dumouchel. “You need to have strong people surrounding you so when you do have hits like that, or you need to turn around and act, or need something to be done, they deliver.”

Not only did it take a talented and dedicated team, but putting together CIMA’s HR strategy required out-of-the-box thinking. They were forced to tackle such a daunting and exciting endeavour in an entirely different manner than they had initially planned, he says. That required them to go beyond just surviving and instead strive for creation. 

“We had to do things differently, we had to think about rendering our projects differently,” says Dumouchel. 

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