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Stephen Foster is enjoying his in-house fame as a poster boy for Canadian Tire’s new employee engagement program.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Stephen Foster is a celebrity of sorts.

He can't go anywhere at Canadian Tire Corp.'s head office in midtown Toronto without being gawked at by people he doesn't know.

But the 43-year-old field support manager, who helps the retailer's outlets implement programs, doesn't mind. He's proud to be a poster boy for Canadian Tire's new employee engagement program billed as "Life in Canada depends on us."

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Mr. Foster is not only one among a handful of employees featured on posters at corporate headquarters trumpeting how their jobs contribute to the well-being of Canadians, he is also part of a growing swell of workers participating in a hot-button management strategy: employee engagement programs.

"We all have a part to play in our company's success," said Mr. Foster. He appears on posters displayed around the office holding up a picture of a couple in a canoe with a caption that reads: "I help make our stores the destination of choice for the great Canadian canoe trip."

Since launching the program in January, Canadian Tire's human resources department has been deluged with nominations for brand ambassadors and questions from employees about how they can participate. More importantly, it has inspired talk around the water cooler about the ways in which employees' work touches the lives of ordinary Canadians – whether it's selling running shoes that keep kids healthy, stocking shelves with the camping gear that will make for happy summer vacations, or the cashier who sells a dad his son's first hockey stick.

By all accounts, the program is achieving what it set out to do: engage employees so that they will pull out the stops to ensure their company succeeds.

The initiative is a recognition that Canadian Tire needs to have a fully committed work force to compete in an increasingly competitive retail landscape, said Doug Nathanson, Canadian Tire's senior vice-president and chief human resources officer.

"Ultimately it's about attracting and retaining employees, and improving customer services so that will really drive results," he said.

A growing body of evidence shows that successful employee engagement programs do contribute to the bottom line.

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A study by human resources consulting firm Aon Hewitt of more than 7,000 organizations found that each disengaged employee costs an organization an average of $10,000 in profit annually.

That's because engaged employees have a lower rate of absenteeism, less turnover, and are more likely to work efficiently and with a greater customer focus – all of which can add up to better consumer loyalty, higher sales and, ultimately, bigger profits, according to Gerard Seijts, associate professor of organizational behaviour at the University of Western Ontario's Ivey School of Business.

That explains why so many companies have jumped on the bandwagon. There's just one big problem: recent studies show nearly half of the world's employees aren't engaged. Aon Hewitt's 2012 report on trends in global employee engagement show that while employee engagement levels stabilized at 58 per cent in 2011, they are still far off pre-recession levels. In 2010, engagement levels presented the largest decline recorded in the previous 15 years.

And despite the attention paid to employee engagement programs, the problem appears getting worse, not better, Mr. Seijts says. "Many organizations talk a good game but don't actually walk the talk," Mr. Seijts says. "To actually live it is very, very challenging."

But employers do succeed.

What makes an employee engagement initiative stick? Mr. Seijts looks for clues at companies like WestJet Airlines and Lululemon Athletica which are renowned for being great places to work.

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Not only do they celebrate employee successes, they actively listen to employees and implement their suggestions.

It's one of the critical factors that pushed Toronto-Dominion Bank's employee engagement scores up in recent years, adds Neil Crawford, partner at Aon Hewitt human resources consulting firm.

TD turned things around, first, by creating an internal website where employees could make suggestions. A big complaint was that technology was outdated and made the workplace inefficient. But TD didn't just listen, they prioritized suggestions, implemented them, and finally communicated their efforts back to employees.

These days, TD is a leader in employee engagement. It's gone beyond technology to focus on broader social issues of importance to its employees.

When a group of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people at the bank decided they wanted to participate in the viral video project, "It Gets Better," encouraging others to help "make it better" for LGBT people, TD's chief executive officer jumped on board.

"It meant a lot that Ed Clark really wanted to get involved," explains Ryan Kaufman, a member of TD's LGTB community and a communications manager for wealth management at the bank. "There is a real investment on the part of the bank to keep people engaged. And I'm proud to be part of TD."

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In the coming war for talent, having high employee engagement scores will be an important metric.

"Employee engagement is here to stay," says Aon Hewitt's Mr. Crawford. "Maybe it will evolve and we'll call it something else, but it is here to stay because it gives companies a competitive advantage."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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