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John Cassaday of Corus
John Cassaday of Corus

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During turbulent times, talk isn't cheap Add to ...

Radio and television broadcasting is a brutally competitive industry known for eating its young when either ratings or the economy drops.

But when the economic crisis hit in 2008, John Cassaday, founding CEO of Corus Entertainment Inc., looked for an alternative to massive cuts that would abandon staff to a difficult job market. The company is one of Canada's largest broadcasters with 16 specialty channels, three TV stations and 50 radio stations across Canada, as well as Nelvana studio, a major producer of children's animated programming. Mr. Cassaday presented his plan to employees in a live webcast and town hall, outlining a number of proposed elements: A wage freeze, between two to five unpaid days off depending on salary level, a pension hiatus, a hiring freeze and no executive bonuses.

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"It was a really tough year for people selling advertising or selling anything in the economy that we had in Canada, the United States or the world," says Mr. Cassaday. "What we did was set a goal and say, 'We're not going to slide back, not by cutting people.'"

Staff had the opportunity to ask questions, Mr. Cassaday says. "They were all made aware of the macro economic conditions and appreciated the fact we had a plan to deal with it, and that they heard about it directly."

"I had a wage rollback and unpaid days just like everybody else in the organization," he says. "Once the organization knew what we were trying to do, and the fact that everybody was involved, [people]got behind it."

The move helped Corus employees maintain a sense of engagement and loyalty to the company in turbulent times. And Mr. Cassaday says he was amazed that even talent who were on contract all agreed to participate.

"We had the union in one of our operations say they wanted to be part of this," he says. "I'd never seen anything like it before. We achieved our goals and felt really good about it."

He believes the secret to their plan's success is that they talked to employees in advance about it, something he continues to do with regular town hall meetings held in the soaring atrium of Corus's new Toronto waterfront headquarters.

"I always say, 'This is your company, you're entitled to know,'" Mr. Cassaday says. "If you don't ask, then we don't know and we can't fix it for you. The message is: Keep your employees informed. You cannot communicate enough, particularly in a tough environment like the one we've been through."

While Mr. Cassaday maintains he didn't cut staff, except for performance reasons, prior to and during the economic downturn, he did downsize this year to operate more efficiently in the Corus's new facility and to offset the costs from the various austerity measures of the previous two years.

"It is never easy to reduce staff, but the environment in the latter half of 2010, when we made the moves, was certainly better from a job prospecting point of view than the prior two years," Mr. Cassaday says.

"People understand that there are difficult times and that companies have to be profitable to move forward," says Jeff Haltrecht, a personal business advisor in Oakville, Ont. "The act of cutting is not going to be argued upon if you've been honest and forthright all along the process."

Career coach Paul Copcutt, principal of Square Peg Solution in Hamilton, says opening lines of communication and listening to your employees are key to keeping them remain motivated when times are tough.

"Update the staff regularly as to how the organization is doing against its revised plans," Mr. Copcutt says. "But it's not enough to just keep employees informed. You need to share your vision for the future, and be positive about what's coming next. It's also important to recognize employees who contributed and celebrate successes. If there have been staff cuts, help employees see where they fit in, what the importance of their roles are for now and ask for their input on where the opportunities lie ahead and how that employee could help that happen."

According to Mr. Cassaday, the moves Corus tries to make are simple: Recruit the right people, hang on to those people to remain successful, and recognize their accomplishments. Mr. Cassaday also likes to get directly involved with recruiting, often seeing people before they're hired.

"We want to hire people for behavioural and not just technical characteristics, based on our belief that they can buy into our values," he says. "We [tell managers]that no one should be hired without being exposed to at least three or four Corus employees to make sure that we get the right fit. Hiring a bad employee can have a devastating impact on morale and our future. Nothing is more important than getting the right people in the door."

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