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RBC's outgoing CHRO Helena Gottschling at the RBC office in downtown Toronto, on June 2.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

Helena Gottschling can be frank, which is rare for a chief human resources officer. In the middle of the most intense war for talent she’s ever seen, Royal Bank of Canada’s RY-T HR head was recently tasked with finding a way to keep the company’s pay competitive with its rivals, but without sending fixed expenses soaring. The solution came from her gut.

Last month, RBC rolled out a slew of new benefits for its 86,000 employees, including fertility benefits and increased contributions to employee pension plans. But when it came to direct compensation, RBC focused on lower-paid employees, who got raises of 3 per cent.

A key reason why: Ms. Gottschling strongly believed only employees that were disproportionately impacted by the rising cost of living should get a fixed raise. “We did not focus on employees who were earning a lot,” she told The Globe and Mail in an interview this week, which is her last before retiring from the bank after 37 years. “I don’t feel sorry for those people.” As a bank executive, that includes her.

In isolation, it may seem like a tough call. But it was just one of many made during a tumultuous period of social upheaval that thrust protests over systemic inequities from the streets to C-suites around the world.

Historically, heads of HR have not had prominent voices at executive tables. That has changed, however, as institutions have reconsidered their values and their roles in society.

Millions of Canadian workers are taking an inflation-driven pay cut, report says

HR leaders have also had to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, which required unprecedented corporate responses to twin health and economic crises that, in many ways, were beyond their control, from vaccine mandates and remote work to inflation and erratic public-health guidelines.

Addressing the shifting values was arguably even more imperative at Canada’s banks, because these institutions are deeply engrained in the country’s cultural fabric. And if the global financial crisis elevated the profile of these organizations’ chief risk officers, who were tasked with helping to restore confidence after the collapse, this epoch has posed an analogous test for chief HR officers, who have been called on to help guide institutions through a period of remarkable social change and turbulence.

“When I took on the CHRO role five years ago, the first thing that hit us was the #MeToo movement, and the next thing that hit us was the anti-racism movement. There is definitely a new expectation of companies to have a voice and help shape and change broader societal views,” Ms. Gottschling told The Globe.

She joined RBC in 1985, taking on progressively senior roles in personal and commercial banking in British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario, before eventually moving to a leadership role within the HR department. In a note to staff announcing her retirement, RBC chief executive officer Dave McKay said he had relied on Ms. Gottschling for “trusted counsel and candid advice” on many occasions.

Her direct approach with the C-suite came in handy after COVID-19 emerged. “It wasn’t easy for the senior team during the pandemic. There were so many changes. And so you sometimes have to remind them that they have to find a balance between their inside voice and outside voice,” she said.

When asked if and how the model and tone of leadership had evolved over the pandemic, Ms. Gottschling said empathy took on a more prevalent role. She recalled having to remind senior leaders they are not necessarily the average employee – executives often don’t take public transit and sit in cubicles in shared workspaces, and they can avoid public washrooms.

“I don’t know if the word empathy is prevalent enough in the leadership model,” she said.

Like many other large white-collar workplaces, RBC has adopted a flexible approach to returning to the office. Instead of mandating that all employees have to return for a specific number of days, the bank is largely leaving that decision up to individual departments.

Ms. Gottschling is a proponent of hybrid work, remarking that if she was in an earlier stage of her career and had decades left in the work force, she would have loved the flexibility of not coming into an office daily – something she benefited from when she had a young child.

“Flexibility is here to stay, however you define that,” she said.

That doesn’t mean all her colleagues feel the same. In the early days of the pandemic, Ms. Gottschling was often asked how RBC would be able to trust that employees were productive working from home. “I would respond saying: ‘Well, how do you know people were productive working from the office?’”

Looking ahead, she says, flexibility is a crucial way to retain talent. But she isn’t an advocate of employees working remotely all the time, partly because it erodes a sense of belonging to an organization. To Ms. Gottschling, switching employers becomes much easier when someone has not cultivated close relationships with colleagues.

“When a job becomes a job, when it is only about the work, it is much easier to leave a company. That’s not what we are working toward,” she said. In other words, relationships, and an organizational culture, can serve as a glue of sorts.

In the current war for talent, the tech industry is often singled out for poaching employees with lucrative pay, but RBC has endured this battle before. In Calgary, for instance, during oil booms, energy companies “would hire people with insane comp packages and we just couldn’t compete,” Ms. Gottschling said.

Cycles come and go, though, and that is already playing out in tech. “We’ve had employees leave us for tech companies, and they got paid a lot of money,” she said.

But many tech companies’ stock prices have dropped over the past six months, and deferred compensation tied to a young company’s share price can now be worth half what it was at the time of hiring.

The real struggle, Ms. Gottschling said, is retaining employees who often get overlooked: front-line workers. The service industry has reopened and that has made competition fierce.

“Front-line jobs like call-centre reps, client adviser roles … that is where we are seeing the most attrition now,” Ms. Gottschling said. ”So you gotta look at the structure of your bank and ask yourself, what can you do to make RBC’s call-centre job more appealing?”

As for Gen Z, the latest cohort of new graduates who have been branded as bolder, more outspoken, impervious to authority and often more progressive than older staff, Ms. Gottschling urges leaders to sit with these hires and find ways to incorporate their values. “In order to stay relevant, we have to listen and understand what is relevant to them,” she said.

She makes an analogy: “When we hire execs into the company who have never worked in a bank, you cannot expect these people to change completely and be like me,” she said. “We hired them because we are different, and the bank learns from them and changes.”

At 60, Ms. Gottschling is looking forward to a new chapter: retirement in her hometown of Kelowna, B.C. Despite rising to the top of the corporate hierarchy at Canada’s largest bank, she said she was never the kind of employee who wanted to make work her entire life focus.

“There are so many other things outside work. Friends and family. I’ve thought about that a lot in the pandemic and I think you can be a great worker without making work the centre of your life.”

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