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Employees get a say in which charity will be helped Add to ...

At least once a month at about 2:30 in the afternoon, half a dozen employees at Deeley Harley-Davidson log off their computers, grab their stuff and hit the road toward Yonge Street in downtown Toronto.

While a couple of them may be straddling the iconic motorcycle that the company distributes in Canada, this trip isn't about skipping work early to go easy riding into town. Instead, the employees drive straight to the Evergreen Centre, a youth refuge run by the Yonge Street Mission, where they'll spend the next several hours cooking and serving meals to the centre's young clients, many of whom are homeless.

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"It's a great way to help these kids and maybe try to point them in the right direction," explains Michael Harwood, director of human resources at Deeley Harley-Davidson, the exclusive Canadian distributor of Harley-Davidson and Buell motorcycles, parts and service. "It's very humbling and very rewarding."

Companies have long understood the importance of helping out in the community and many have, over the last decade, formalized corporate social responsibility programs. But for top employers like Deeley Harley-Davidson, being a good corporate citizen means more than just writing cheques for charities. It's also about getting employees involved in community programs and supporting the causes their people believe in, even if this means cutting into company time.

"More and more, HR and business leaders are hearing how important corporate social responsibility is to employees, especially those coming from the younger generations," says Bram Lowsky, senior vice-president and general manager for Right Management Canada, a Toronto-based career and talent management company. "Employees want to know if there's a charitable focus in the organization, a commitment to giving back, and if there are opportunities for employees as individuals to also make an impact in the community.

"It informs their decision about whether or not to work for a company and it's also part of why they stay, because they feel like they're working for a great company."

So how are top companies delivering on their commitment to be more socially responsible in a way that lines up with their employees' expectations?

Many of Canada's best employers recognize their workers' desire to lend a hand in the community and give them time off to volunteer, with at least one paid volunteer day each year. To further encourage their employees to help in the community, some companies also match volunteer hours with a monetary donation. For example, Toronto-based accounting and professional services firm KPMG LLP will donate $500 to an employee's chosen charity if that employee puts in 50 volunteer hours at the charity. The donation goes up to $800 for 100 hours of volunteer work.

Medtronic of Canada Ltd., part of a global company that makes medical devices and therapies, does something similar; employees who work 25 volunteer hours can apply for a $500 grant to their charity of choice. Medtronic gives four such grants each year.

At Stikeman Elliott LLP, a business law firm based in Toronto, each volunteer hour is assigned a value of about $40 and the firm matches employees' volunteer time with dollars, up to $600 a year.

Many top employers also try to find ways to put their workers' specialized skills to philanthropic use. Stikeman Elliott throws its support behind lawyers who want to provide pro bono services to local causes.

At GlaxoSmithKline Inc., a pharmaceutical company based in Mississauga, employees use their professional skills to improve living conditions in impoverished communities at home or abroad.

"Basically, for three to six months, they work with a non-profit organization while they continue to be paid through GSK," explains Amy Waters, who looks after corporate communications and community partnerships for GlaxoSmithKline. "It's a great opportunity for them to make a difference."

When it comes to choosing causes to support, Canada's top employers often turn to their employees for guidance. Medtronic surveys its employees once every three years to find out where they would like the company to focus its charitable efforts. Stikeman Elliott has a community involvement committee in each office that reviews employees' proposals for community work and figures out what resources are needed for each project.

"Our charitable initiatives are driven by our employees," says Jean McLeod, Stikeman Elliott's chief administrative officer. "The firm wants to make sure we support the causes that our people feel strongly about."

How do companies know their social responsibility programs are working?

"Success in this area can be measured by how people perceive your brand and also by how engaged your employees are, which you can quantify in an employee engagement survey," Mr. Lowsky says.

Employee survey results at GlaxoSmithKline confirm the success of the company's corporate social responsibility program, Waters says.

"We know based on yearly tracking of employees that our commitment to supporting charities is a key driver in employee engagement," she says. "It's one of the top reasons why our employees love working for GSK."

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