When did you REALLY last check in with your team?

When did you REALLY last check in with your team?

This time last year, all eyes and ears in HR were focused on employee mental health. We were in the midst of a difficult pandemic with no clear end in sight. Employees in all industries were thrust into work-from-home (“WFH”) scenarios with little advance warning, and into setups that simply were not conducive to a functioning home office environment. Worse still, school closures and virtual schooling meant most working parents were left doing double duty, suddenly forced to teach grade school curriculum as well as maintaining their standard job duties.

Employers were broadly understanding and sympathetic. While government subsidies helped businesses to keep paying rent on the physical premises that were now suddenly vacant, employers made great strides in accommodating employees. Allowances were made for flexible hours to allow for midday parenting and household necessities without any penalties for interrupted workflow. Managers would smile politely if a toddler or pet wandered into a videoconference, understanding full well that their employee was likely pulling double or triple duty. Most importantly, employers recognized that their employees’ mental health was perilous due to the multiple stressors they now faced, and employers had no hesitation checking in and offering to help.

Fast forward one year later.

man in yellow protective suit
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While an end may now be in sight, the pandemic is still not over. Working parents have dealt with another year of on and off school closures, with working while teaching now becoming the new normal. Employees everywhere are suffering from ‘Zoom fatigue,’ physically exhausted from having to appear bright and chipper on video conferences day after day to maintain the appearance of good health. They have been burdened by the stress of worrying about variants, procuring vaccines, caring for relatives, and attempting to slowly navigate what a post pandemic world might look like.

So when was the last time that you really checked in with your employees, and asked about how they are coping with the pandemic after 15 grueling months?

While external stressors such as the now-known ‘pandemic fatigue’ may be outside of managerial control, employers and managers are still responsible for how it impacts their employees’ health.

It’s in your best interests to do so. Companies that have a more engaged workforce are likely to be 78% more profitable, 40% more productive, and even have a higher valuation than their competitors who are not making those same efforts. It is unquestionably more challenging to keep a workforce engaged when you are all physically separated and undergoing significant stress, but that is all the more reason to try. 

Despite the pandemic, maintaining employees’ overall health and wellbeing is still an employer’s responsibility. While external stressors such as the now-known ‘pandemic fatigue’ may be outside of managerial control, employers and managers are still responsible for how it impacts their employees’ health. 

Under the law, employers have a ‘duty to inquire’ if they suspect that a mental health issue may be impacting performance. Taking automatic disciplinary action without stopping to question the situation first and if it may be related to disability (including mental health and addiction, all fall under protected human rights grounds) may have serious consequences. If an employer terminates a poorly performing employee who was later found to be suffering from a mental health issue, that employer could be on the hook for significant human rights damages depending on the circumstances. 

But the conversation about mental health doesn’t need to be all doom and gloom. There are solutions available that can promote a positive and healthy work environment, and can address small issues before they become chronic problems in your workplace.

woman holding a magnifying glass

First: Open your eyes

Recognize the signs of burnout in your employees, and learn to catch the warning signs before burnout becomes chronic and habitual. Encourage your employees setting boundaries, especially in precarious WFH setups that offer little physical separation between a makeshift home office and a larger home life. Remember, not every employee will have the physical space to work in a separate room from where they cook/eat/relax/sleep. 

Make sure that your expectations of working hours are clear, and encourage employees to walk away and recharge during those non-working hours. If you do start to notice unhealthy habits or patterns in your employees’ work hours or work spaces, make sure that you speak with them to figure out a solution. Addressing the problem early can help avoid serious negative impacts on mental health and productivity. 

crop faceless woman showing small gift box on palms

Second: Give a little bit

Remember that just because we are over a year into the pandemic, your employees’ home lives and personal needs may have changed over the last 15 months. Babies have been born and children have grown up who now have different care needs than they did last March, as have relatives who may be ill, or other personal circumstances that have arisen. While you can largely expect your employees to stay working during working hours, remember that employees are simultaneously juggling complex home needs throughout their work day. A bit of compassion and creative flexibility will likely encourage them to remain productive, and avoid employees burning out from unrealistic expectations. 

Have honest conversations with your employees, not just a cursory ‘are you okay,’ but ask them what you can do to improve their mental health. Take a look at your employee benefits package, and consider revising to make sure that it incorporates their suggestions. Increased days off or flex time, sponsored gym memberships, and benefits for counselling can all be helpful. Even a low-cost solution such as sponsored memberships to mental health apps such as Calm or Headspace can be helpful. 

black man explaining problem to female psychologist

Third: Promote good mental health

Make no mistake, this goes a step beyond simply opening up the dialogue. While you may not be a mental health professional, there are plenty of low-cost or no-cost resources available where you can direct all employees, so that they have the right tools when in need. Check in with employees regularly, and be genuine when you do. Ask them if they need more support to manage or balance their workload; the question alone may offer them a sense of relief knowing that they are supported. 

Take a hard look at your company culture. Are your values being respected, or do they need to be revamped to meet new accommodations? Do you promote and value the connections formed between coworkers? Is it a culture where expectations are made clear, and resources are promoted if anyone begins to feel burnout? If strained mental health is a common problem then a cultural shift may be in order. Remember that good mental health should be seen as a priority alongside any other in the business, and not just a waste of time or pleasant afterthought. Participation is key.   

At Castle HR we are passionate about workplace mental health because we’ve been there ourselves. We have worked in environments in the past that promoted high performance over wellness and balance, and we remember what it’s like when adequate supports are not in place. Our team of fractional HR professionals understand how much good workplace mental health can mean to a small organization, and we’re experienced in building and implementing solutions that help your team thrive. Contact us today to learn more about our services. 

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4 Really Clever Employee Referral Programs

4 Really Clever Employee Referral Programs

How have you found your top talent? Have you gone the traditional job board route, and sifted through countless resumes from a handful of job sites before finding that diamond in the rough? Were you introduced to a friend of a friend of a friend at a time when you weren’t looking to hire, only to realize that they would be a perfect fit for your team? Hiring the right individuals while in growth mode is always challenging, but as your team continues to scale you may want to look at a different approach.

Employee referral programs are not a new invention. Large organizations have for years offered their employees some sort of nominal employee bonus for helping to refer a friend who then lands the job. While the approach is a cost saving measure – LinkedIn for example found that each referral saved them roughly $7,500 per hire – the cash does not act as a significant incentive. Instead, several of our colleagues in the tech space have gotten creative with their employee referral programs, and the results have been as stellar as the new hires that they’ve found.

[Some] companies have found new methods of offering monetary rewards, such as a diversity bonus … or a tiered bonus for each successful stage of the hiring process.

ethnic female psychotherapist listening to black clients explanation
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4 Really Clever Employee Referral Programs


The Indian multinational mobile advertising company sought to design a rewards system that worked for their employees no matter where they were in the world. They displayed a new bicycle, a universal method of transportation, at the entrance of each of their offices to keep employees incentivized. For successful referrals, employees were given a choice. They could have a new bicycle, or a trip to Bali, Indonesia. Bali may be more enticing for those of us in colder climates, but employees in warmer countries may have certainly appreciated the bike.

Fiverr Team


The Israel-based online marketplace for freelancers turned their employee referral program into a game. Employees were allowed to collect points for each referral, and cash in those points on a quarterly and yearly basis for rewards or prizes of their choosing. If an employee was seeking a specific reward, the company could then help them achieve it. It effectively turned the company’s employee referral program into a continuous indoor arcade. 

4 Really Clever Employee Referral Programs


San Francisco’s consumer data platform company is still growing, but they have done so partially by using their referral system as an internal competition system. They’ve created a leaderboard, and the person to successfully refer the most candidates winds up naturally on top of the leaderboard. The company states that they are planning on introducing other incentives soon, but even without any monetary rewards Segment has found 40% of their newest hires through this system.

Salesforce Team


The tech giant offers its employees a traditional monetary rewards system for successful referrals, but they have added an extra element. Instead of receiving cold applications where it can be difficult to get a feel for a candidate on paper, the company has introduced Recruitment Happy Hours. Employees can bring potential candidates into the office, where they can meet directly with hiring managers in a less formal setting. Not only does this put both parties more at ease, but it offers hiring managers an early opportunity to see how a potential employee engages with their company culture. 

As more and more companies in the digital space look for unique solutions to age-old problems, they continue to invent new hiring solutions as well. Other companies have found new methods of offering monetary rewards, such as an additional diversity bonus for candidates hired from diverse backgrounds, or a tiered bonus for each successful stage of the hiring process. This way employees do not need to feel like referring a candidate into a seemingly large talent pool is an ‘all or nothing’ approach.

Referral bonus programs can be a huge credit to your organization, and can make you a more attractive workplace for future candidates. A recent survey by Career Builder showed that these programs have the strongest return on investment for employers, which is no surprise. Yet no two programs are identical, and no single structure has a one-size-fits-all approach. When designing your referral program, here are a couple tips to keep in mind:

  • Ask questions. Consider surveying your employees to see what may be of value to them, and consider your corporate culture as well. If your team is generally incentivized by earnings, then a monetary reward may be fruitful. Otherwise, see where else their priorities lie.
  • Set your budget. The average successful employee referral bonus is about $2,500, but some companies can go even 10 times that amount for the right hire. Find an amount, whether cash or some other reward of equal value which will motivate your team to support growth while still making the system a cost-effective endeavour. 
  • Be clear about your expectations. Your team needs to clearly understand your expectations for an ideal candidate if they have any hope of successfully finding that person. You would not hire a recruiter and then give them a vague notion of who you were looking for – do not treat your employees that way either.
  • Make the program interactive. A rewards program needs to be user-friendly in order for it to remain successful. Make your employees aware of exactly how the program works, and what needs to happen for them to qualify for a reward. Designate a person to answer any questions that they may have about the position so that they can narrow down their search. Also, provide feedback throughout the referral process so that employees can have an even clearer idea of your expectations in a candidate.
  • Celebrate the wins! Remember InMobi keeping a bicycle at the front of the office as a visible reminder, or Segment creating a very public leaderboard? A successful candidate referred by an employee is a win all-around. The business benefits from a great hire, and the employee is engaged by their resulting reward. Celebrate these wins publicly – it shows your team just how much you appreciate their involvement in your overall growth. 

We work regularly with our clients to design employee referral systems that align with their corporate culture and motivate their existing employees to take part. Our fractional HR consultants learn your corporate culture, and work with you to design a program that will incentivize employees without breaking your budget. Contact us today to learn more about our services, and how we can find unique and innovative ways to help your team grow.

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HR Termination Checklist: How to Terminate an Employee

Termination Planning: What You Need to Know

Terminating an employee can be like playing with fire. Whether an employee’s role has become redundant, or whether the employee is no longer meeting expectations (or even committing serious policy violations), sometimes employment relationships need to end. Just as in the end of a romantic break-up, termination is not a fun or pleasant process, but can definitely be the healthier choice for both parties.

Yet terminating employees has something else in common with playing with fire – taking advanced care and precaution can skillfully avoid a tremendous amount of pain. Otherwise, much like fire, a poorly-planned, or poorly-conducted termination meeting can go horribly awry. Most large employers have an arsenal of horror stories of employees becoming overly emotional, disruptive, or in horrible cases even violent. Even if an employee appears to take the news relatively well, employers must always be cautious that they are not met with a legal claim for wrongful dismissal soon after. 

“[T]aking advanced care and precaution can skillfully avoid a tremendous amount of pain. Otherwise…a poorly-planned or poorly-conducted termination meeting can go horribly awry.”

There are, however, right ways to conduct an employee’s termination meeting, and as HR professionals we are experts in doing so. We have a longer termination checklist available for those interested, but we wanted to take this opportunity to share some of our wisdom that we have collected over the years. 

Two Woman Dressed in Black Learn About Employee Termination | Castle HR
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Books on a Table With Other Office Clutter | Castle HR

Do your homework before the termination meeting

The worst thing you can do prior to terminating an employee is fail to do your homework. Gather and review all of the relevant documents pertaining to that employee, including their performance reviews, attendance records, and any other key documents that you may have on file. Calculate what sort of payment they will be owed, both at law and under the terms of their employment agreement. If they have no written employment agreement, remember that they are owed at least their legal minimums including any termination, severance, and outstanding vacation pay.

If their contract entitles them to more, then ensure that those terms are met. These are tricky calculations to make, and there is no precise formula for amounts above the minimum legal entitlements. Remember, if you are only offering their minimum amounts, nothing is in place to prevent them from suing for more money. Similarly, if you are offering more money than the employee is entitled to under their contract, remember that that can come in exchange for a release preventing them from making a legal claim.

Person Writing a Termination Letter on a Laptop | Castle HR

Write a thorough termination letter

One benefit of having policies is that you do not have to do the heavy lifting at every turn. Policies can assign duties and responsibilities to other managers within your team, especially when it comes to reporting or enforcement. Vacation requests, for example, can become the responsibility of a direct manager. As the team grows, other managers can take on additional responsibilities under these policies, taking some of the weight off of the C-Suite’s shoulders.

Your termination letter does not have to list the cause for their dismissal, as most dismissals in Ontario are without cause, and cause only matters in the most serious of cases. It should, though, outline exactly what you expect from the employee, and exactly what they should expect from you.

This includes items such as what date the employee can expect to receive their final payments, how long their benefits will continue to run, how they can submit any final expenses, when their Record of Employment will be completed, and any other items that they should know in writing. The termination letter can also include the employee’s responsibilities in this process, such as informing you when they become re-employed (if they are being paid out on a salary continuance option), and their responsibility in returning any company property. Remember, this is the letter that sets out your official position, and once it is provided to the employee there is no turning back. 

Listen, Think, Answer Scrabble Tiles | Castle HR

Handle the meeting with care

Termination meetings should be handled with extreme caution to avoid that risk of proverbial broken glass. There are varying schools of thought for the best time of day/day of the week to conduct a meeting, but there is no perfect time. They should though be done discretely, in a private room away from the prying eyes of colleagues. Be sure to have a second person present whenever possible. Stick to your planned agenda for the meeting, and take the time to go through the termination letter with the employee even though you will send them a copy via email or post.

Do not let them sign anything during the meeting – they should be reminded both verbally and in writing that they have the opportunity to review the situation with a lawyer before agreeing to your terms. 

Most importantly though, even though this is a business meeting, remember it might also be the worst day of someone’s life. Do not hesitate to bring kleenex, give the employee a few minutes to collect themselves, and if meeting in person ensure that they have a safe ride home.  

Man and Woman Inside Building After Successfully Terminating an Employee | Castle HR

Follow through on next steps

The termination process does not end as soon as the employee leaves the meeting. The Record of Employment must be completed 5 days after the last day of work and sent to Service Canada for processing. If there is an imposed deadline for an employee to respond to a termination offer, make sure that a line of communication (not through the business’ internal network) remains open until the end of that deadline. Lastly, remain tactful and professional when informing colleagues of the departure. Hurt feelings are often the motivator for claims of wrongful dismissal, and may be easily avoidable by keeping the employee’s dignity intact wherever possible.

This is just some of the wisdom that we have amassed over the years. There are several more technical aspects of termination meetings in our work, such as determining how to best structure an appropriate exit package to avoid litigation, or how to carefully draft a release that protects your business in exchange for an enhanced exit package. These are often challenging questions, and require both knowledge and skill to resolve with minimal noise. 

Our team of fractional HR professionals is only a phone call away. We are well-equipped to provide outsourced HR services such as termination strategy and planning so that you do not have to stumble through this process alone. Mistakes in this process can be costly, such as overpaying for termination pay, or setting yourself up for unwanted legal exposure. We provide our clients materials to educate them on their requirements, their risks, and the best practices that will help ensure success moving forward. Contact us today for a copy of our termination checklist and to learn more about our services. 

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How to keep your team’s spirits high over the 2020 winter season

2020 has been like looking both ways before crossing the street, and then getting hit by an airplane!

We are now in the middle of the second wave of COVID-19, many of us feeling the effects of shut downs, and winter is coming.

We all know the next few months will be different; starting with no Halloween parties and questions about whether or not to Trick-or-Treat this year…

The holiday season is going to be different too. You might not be able to meet with loved ones over the holidays. I’m not even sure about my own plans, as my parents are in a high risk situation. It hurts me to think about not spending Christmas day with everyone in the kitchen cooking and laughing, trying to tune out my dad’s horrible singing, and then eating so much that we need a nap.

After the holidays, I usually start dreaming about being on a beach. I’m drinking a colourful beverage and smelling jerk chicken in the air (yes, my dream beach is in Jamaica!). Sadly, this year it doesn’t look like I’ll be living that dream. 

Inability (or the inadvisability!) to travel is one of the big changes that we need to keep on our radar. Having a week or two circled on the calendar helps you get through the days when you’re shovelling a driveway or bundling up again to go outside.

Fortunately, there are ways that employers can help their teams still have some fun and human connection to lighten the mood over the next few months. Here are some ideas we’ve collected and that our clients have suggested (with a careful eye to avoid going too heavy on Zoom-based activities!):

We’d love to hear from you on what your team is up to and we will keep updating this document with your great ideas!

As we’ve been saying this whole time… we can get through this together!

We got this!

How to keep your team’s spirits high on winter seasons


Halloween Costume Party

You can still hold an annual Halloween Contest….this time with a virtual twist!

Imagine doing a company specific theme or small teams/department doing team costumes. Just have your team send in their Halloween costume photos or videos and hold a vote for the best in any number of categories: scariest, funniest, best use of technology, best pet costume, etc. 

Prizes are a great chance to get creative too. Anything goes, from the traditional gift cards and trophies to naming a Slack channel or choosing a costume category for next year…

How to keep your team’s spirits high on winter seasons

Holiday / Year End Party

Holding the annual holiday party will be a little different this year, as you likely won’t be able to celebrate all that you have accomplished as a team in person.

It is important for leaders to still make an effort to show appreciation to the team and here is one great idea that we’re loving:

The Great Gift Swap:

Granted, this one is done over Zoom, but so fun that the usual Zoom fatigue of meetings doesn’t really enter into it. 

Let’s say you have 20 employees. You buy 20 gifts of roughly equal value and label them 1-20. Each employee generates a random number from 1-20 and that is the order in which they will pick an item. 

One person will host this and have all the gifts there, or can have envelopes with the gifts to be purchased and shipped directly.

The first person chooses an item from the list, then the second person can either choose one of the remaining items or take the first person’s item. 

Going down the line, each person gets a turn to choose anew or take someone else’s item – repeating the order as many times as needed. The game ends (and everyone keeps what they have) when 1) each person has a gift and 2) someone chooses to keep rather than swap – locking in the choices for everyone.

It’s great fun!

Fun and Team Engagement

Here are a few ideas, apps and companies that can help bring some engagement and energy to your team.

How to keep your team’s spirits high on winter seasons

Recharge Your Batteries

Headspace – Meditation App

MasterClass – What would YOU want to learn?

The Great Courses – More amazing educational opportunities

How to keep your team’s spirits high on winter seasons

Shared Food Experiences

Wavy – Team building activities done virtually
(Think: Cooking classes or Trivia Nights)

Thriver – Team Meal Delivery and other experiences
(Great for Team Lunches)

How to keep your team’s spirits high on winter seasons

Focus on Fitness

Strava – Running Challenge 

Count.It – App for overall fitness challenges

Glo – Home Yoga 

How to keep your team’s spirits high on winter seasons

Shared Food Experiences

Wavy – Team building activities done virtually
(Think: Cooking classes or Trivia Nights)

Thriver – Team Meal Delivery and other experiences
(Great for Team Lunches)

How to keep your team’s spirits high on winter seasons

Other Ideas

Synervoz’s Switchboard – Watch a live sports games
or other events together with their app

Weekly Zoom-Free Days –
Choose a day where your entire team goes fully dark on Zoom.
No calls or meetings, so everyone can enjoy some focus time