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More than 8,900 Wal-Mart Canada employees resigned voluntarily last year, giving the big-box retailer a 22% staff turnover rate. At McDonald's Restaurants of Canada, part-time employees outnumber full-timers by almost 5 to 1. Cintas Canada, a launderer and corporate uniform supplier that has expanded into building maintenance and document management, finished No. 1 in our ranking among large employers. Yet it's a target in one of the most bitterly contested union drives in North America, with allegations of poor wages and working conditions being levelled against the company's U.S.-based parent, and countercharges of union intimidation from management.

High turnover? Part-timers? Low wages? How can these organizations be preferred employers? All three have ranked among our 50 Best in previous years, raising questions every time they do. They demonstrate that you can't have preconceived notions about what type of organization will score well.

No employer on this year's list ranked as consistently high as Cintas Canada in Hewitt Associates' 15 subcategories of workplace excellence. Cintas finished among the Top 3 employers in 14 out of the 15, including pay practices and physical work environment. The one subcategory in which it finished out of the Top 10 was corporate citizenship.

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That last score is the only one that doesn't disturb Alex Dagg, Canadian director of UNITE HERE (an amalgamation of two U.S.-headquartered unions, one for garment and textile workers, one for hotel and restaurant employees), which is trying to organize Cintas staff. "It makes me angry," she says. "When I talk to the employees who are working in the laundries, they don't feel the company is looking out for them." Neil Crawford, leader of the Best Employers study at Hewitt, acknowledges that some firms don't look like "workplace nirvana" to outsiders, but employees may have a very different perspective. "People make choices every day about what fits well into their lives," says Crawford. Choosing an employer can be like choosing a place to eat out. Restaurants with very different menus can all offer quality food and excellent service, but some people have gourmet tastes, while others are happy with a cheeseburger.

Employers make choices as well. Top-ranked employers tend to have a very clear idea of what kinds of people will fit in their organization. They tailor their hiring and workplace practices to attract and retain those employees. For Wal-Mart, that may initially result in a 22% turnover rate, but for the staff who remain, the "fit" can translate into long-term opportunities. To wit: Roughly half of Wal-Mart's managers in Canada started out as hourly employees.

There is no simple formula that produces happy, engaged workers, however. Crawford says that people practices extend beyond HR practices: "You still need inspiring, future-focused leaders who can describe where the organization is going and how to get there--in language that front-line managers and employees can understand and relate to their day-to-day work."

Organizations like Wal-Mart and Cintas clearly define expectations for all managers and employees, and apply people practices consistently. At Cintas, newly hired managers are offered a course in "corporate culture" that is reinforced through weekly meetings, newsletters, videos and visits from senior leaders. "Trust and respect--we don't just talk about these things," says regional human resources director Angela Aubry. "We apply them to everything we do." "Being people-driven needs to be indigenous to the entire business," says Andrew Pelletier, director of corporate affairs at Wal-Mart Canada. The company recently began organizing "listening sessions," in which top executives tour stores to hear from its "associates," as the company calls its front-line employees. There is also Canadian president and CEO Mario Pilozzi's on-line message board, "Tell Mario." "Our entire organization revolves around the associate," says Pelletier. "We believe there is a position for everyone with the right attitude in our company."

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