Can. Food Inspection Agency: Harvesting a New HR Approach

The passage of the Safe Food for Canadians Act in November 2012 set the stage for important changes to Canada’s food safety system. The Act will come into force at the beginning of 2015, and over the next two years the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) will work with consumer groups and industry to develop new regulations to support the Act. During this period, the CFIA will launch a number of significant food safety enhancements including more effective inspection and a commitment to service.

The public is well aware of the CFIA and its role in safeguarding our food supply with highly regarded scientific and regulatory practices – a familiar example was the e.coli outbreak at XL Foods Inc. in the Fall of 2012.

Part of this change involves ensuring the right people are in the right place at the right time with good predictors of employee success.  This month, I open the can on one of the exciting changes to the CFIA’s HR model, the new Recruitment and Staffing Framework.  You’ll be surprised at just how much it is “harvesting” some new HR thinking to better support agency priorities – and no, it’s simply not because it’s outside the “core.”

I interviewed Mr. Sylvain Souligny, Director of Human Resources (Agency Transformation) for a deeper look.

Q. Sylvain, your team has been doing some really interesting work to redesign CFIA’s HR Management (HRM) model. This redesign has various components; could you outline the recruitment and staffing aspect and its objectives?

A. On April 1, 2013, the CFIA adopted a new Staffing and Recruitment Framework with the goal to significantly transform service delivery by shifting focus to recruitment, building greater predictive ability for quality of hire, reducing costs and time to staff, and clarifying accountabilities.  Taking talent-driven decisions to better position our people to deliver on the Agency’s mandate is the foundation of it all.

Q. Many deputies would agree to these same goals for their own HR shops. What were the drivers behind your project?

A. A number of drivers led to shifting to a new Framework:

  • Surveys on the quality of HR services identifying staffing as an area for improvement;
  • PSES results suggesting perception of bias in staffing decisions;
  • Former President, Mr. George DaPont, initiating a plan to address perceived issues and how staffing can better support business priorities;
  • A new HR management team, led by Mr. Gérard Etienne (VP-HR), presenting a case for an improved framework based on data, consultations, scientific HR research, and proven best practices (not limited to the federal public sector);
  • Two-thirds reduction of staffing personnel; and
  • HR initiatives re-empowering managers in addressing day-to-day management requirements, thus allowing complete HR focus on corporate, high gain priorities.

Q. Those drivers would certainly resonate across most public service organizations. What were some of your new or innovative changes?

A. The new framework moves away from traditional vacancy management staffing focused on technical skills and tasks by proposing recruitment and talent management-based staffing activities that are competency and values driven.

For example, for all entry level jobs, HR is taking ownership on recruitment activities designed to seek and target potential candidates with the right profiles. Furthermore, upon joining the Agency, candidates take part in a training program that focuses on key CFIA skills, knowledge and expected behaviours.

HR also now provides a specialized recruitment service. Senior managers identify critical roles that present recruitment and staffing challenges and the HR team has responsibility (using networks, social media, et cetera) for researching and seeking potential candidates that possess specific and sought-after skills.  HR provides them with information to develop and sustain a  relationship until potential opportunities arise.

For internal hiring, branch heads and their teams are empowered to proceed with talent management-driven processes and decisions that can lead to lateral movement or promotions.

Another key innovation for the Agency is the use of services from a third party that provides automated assessment tools (psychometric tests, situational judgement tests, organizational values tests) and conducts remote delivery. Assessment tools are developed after thorough research. Conditions for their use are: a) reliability (stability of results), b) absence of bias and c) allowance for prediction of effectiveness at work. Such a service costs approximately the equivalent of three working level FTE salaries over the period of one year. In considering costs the agency was incurring for HR staffing personnel, branch support personnel, management time and consultant services, this is quite minimal.

Lastly, the Agency created a 1-888 HR service centre with various responsibilities such as answering general enquiries, providing access to subject matter experts, monitoring service standard compliance rates and completing all staffing transactions. Employees and managers now have access to a service that can provide them with clarity on the recruitment and staffing calendar of activities, help guide them on job advertisement sites, give information on the new assessment tools and also provide managers with referrals of qualified candidates from pools.

Q. What have been some early successes so far?

  • The inspector process. Previously, it would take over six months to create a pool of qualified candidates (with support from dozens of HR employees, many consultants, the involvement of managers and their support staff across the country – all at great expense). By applying the new framework, it took only 17 working days to fully assess over 1,000 candidates and create a pool of candidates available for hire. This period even included preliminary consultations with management. Senior level inspection managers were involved in the process by providing feedback and confirming the validity of the suite of assessment tools (as this was a first test);
  • The agreement to use modern assessment tools, to move away from traditional assessment methodology that offer better predictive ability;
  • The ability to deliver assessment tools on-line, for candidates to be provided with results and a test report within 24 hours and for candidates’ personal information (including names) to remain confidential (therefore removing any bias);
  • Positive consultations with values and ethics committees as well as with unions having taken place which led to adjustments to on-going processes based on valuable input from employees; and
  • The 1-888 HR service centre having freed up significant capacity on the HR team to provide strategic advice and intel by having consolidated all administrative and transactions under its umbrella. After 10 months of existence, the 1-888 HR service centre reports 100 percent compliance with service standards and an 87 percent client satisfaction rating.

Q. Shifting tools away from measuring technical skills to more predictors of performance in a public service milieu is highly innovative. What was the role of your executive leadership?

A. Their role has been critical for a successful implementation. Initially, as much as we could notice a high level of enthusiasm as we discussed the framework and its intent, we also faced a certain level of skepticism. What solidified our position and set us up for success was the fact that from day one the deputy head was consulted and engaged and expressed interest in providing his input. He took the opportunity at his senior management committee to speak to the drivers behind the then proposed shift as well as to the desired outcomes. There was consensus and support from senior management. Branch heads have allowed time for HR to present the new framework and have openly supported the shift and expressed their intention to take measures and actions internal to their branch to support the framework.

Q. What management challenges did you face and how were they overcome?

A. The main challenge came at the middle management level where there was some pushback reported by HR managers. It quickly was understood that the challenges were not with the new framework itself but rather with how the transition period towards the full implementation would take place. This was addressed via presentations made by the HR branch, clarifications by branch heads and discussions around the intent and outcomes.

Q. Sylvain, the CFIA is “outside of the core”, so this made achieving your objectives, such as reducing staffing time of Inspectors and using predictive assessment tools, easier to accomplish when compared to “core”organizations, right?

A. The Agency is not bound by the Public Service Employment Act (PSEA). However there is nothing in the Agency’s new HR framework that could not be replicated by a core federal public service department. The Agency ensured its staffing values reflected those of the core administration and reinforces that staffing is based on merit. It is all a question of clearly articulating the plan, having the deputy head on board and being transparent.

Q. What are some key messages and lessons-learned for public service executives?

The HR regime has more flexibility than it may seem. It is not because staffing has been done a certain way for years that we need to continue. There is a significant amount of research out there that shows that there is great value in leveraging assessment tools that focus on competencies rather than technical skills; and that such tools are far better predictors of candidate success on the job.

We also need to challenge our own self-imposed staffing rules. Talent management is not an HR discipline; it should be the umbrella for all things HR, including recruitment and staffing. We should review our HR infrastructure and rules to ensure they are enablers for talent management based decisions, and be transparent about it.

Q. Those are important messages for all executives, particularly as HR shops re-examine their value proposition to make it more enabling of front-line service delivery. What’s planned overall for the future with HR at the CFIA?

A. With HR having a clear accountability for recruitment, there is a constant desire to improve our predictive ability and this will be done via different mechanisms – one being strengthened partnerships with academia. The Agency will seek to better leverage their capacity to provide specialized and contextual knowledge. This then allows us to focus our recruitment process on candidates’ values, behaviours, competencies and even, personality, yes personality tests!

*

As public service organizations complete transformations and workforce reductions to meet fiscal goals, the CFIA is redefining its model for staffing and recruitment to help meet the specific business objectives of the new Safe Food for Canadians Act. Implementing innovative HR practices, such as competency- and values-based assessment tools, all help to meet the objectives of more effective inspection and a commitment to service.


David LeBlancDavid M. LeBlanc works with individuals and organizations in the areas of strategic planning and developing current and future leaders. David contributes his time to the Telfer School of Management and the Sprott School of Business by guiding MBA students and grads in making a successful leap to the work world. David also acts as a career mentor to internationally educated professionals in Ottawa. You can connect with David at david.m.leblanc@dfo-mpo.gc.ca and on LinkedIn at http://www.linkedin.com/pub/david-m-leblanc/3/8b5/115.

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