Ever since she was a child, Melanie Laflamme has wanted to help people. But sometimes she’s had to blaze her own path to do it. While in high school, she tried to volunteer at a distress centre, answering phones, but she was told that the organization didn’t take teenagers.
“I’ve always been the type of person that other people talk to about their problems,” says Laflamme. “And I believed teens needed to talk to other teens.”
Not allowing an age policy to stop her, she started her own 24-hour drug crisis centre, which she named Youth Helping Youth. A few years later, having graduated from York University in Toronto and poised to start her professional career, it seemed only natural that Laflamme would help more people by going into social work. And she did—but she found a new path in the process.
“At the time, human resources was a newly evolved field,” she says. “I found that I could help more people by creating great workplaces. It was a unique opportunity to bring out the potential that was inside people.”
Laflamme has spent her 34-year career in the HR department of organizations. She says she chose the nonprofit sector so she could align her values with the organization’s values. Over the course of her career, she has been instrumental in developing the HR programs for such entities as the Ontario Government, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, the Ontario Arts Council, and Canada’s National Ballet School.
In 2001, she was hired to be HR manager of the YMCA of Greater Toronto, a charity dedicated to increasing the health and wellness of individuals in the community by offering help and services in employment skills; fitness, sports, and aquatics; education; newcomer programs; youth outreach and intervention; international programs; child care; and camps.
Today, as senior vice president of human resources and organizational development, Laflamme is responsible for the HR function and strategy for a staff of nearly 4,100 who serve members at more than 300 program sites. She also oversees the organization’s career-planning services, accessibility implementation, and leadership institute, and focuses on a commitment to diversity and social inclusion (minority staff members comprise 44 percent of the organization).
“It’s part of my belief system that individuals spend time at work to get meaning out of what they do,” says Laflamme. “I focus on HR practices and policies that create workplaces that bring out best in people.”
Through its 10-year strategic plan called Strong Start, Great Future, the YMCA is working to ensure that its communities are home to the healthiest children, teens, and young adults. Ultimately, strong, healthy children create strong, healthy communities. Because of this outreach, Laflamme says the relationships the YMCA fosters with employees are often long-term.
“Many started as students in our programs or as volunteers,” she says. “We’re fortunate that we’re able to attract people who want to give back and make a difference in society. Because of that, we really want to ensure that our HR approach is in line with our overall vision of creating healthy communities for children, teens, and young adults. We must mirror that in our HR strategy with a healthy workplace. And so we give back to employees.”
Under Laflamme’s watch, the YMCA of Greater Toronto has introduced a variety of benefits and policies that support employees through various life cycles. For example, unemployment insurance is topped up to 80 percent for maternity and parental leave for 26 weeks. Critical illness insurance is offered with a $10,000 payout for expenses. Employees are eligible to receive counselling during challenging times, including legal help. Staff members who are adopting a child receive a package that can help support them. Sick leave is offered for six months. And a benefits package is offered to part-time employees, as well.
“We make staff a priority, even during the recession,” says Laflamme. “That’s because they are key in the services we provide to those using our programs. We can’t do what we do without the dedication and commitment of our staff. And we care about their health and well-being.”
As a result, turnover has continued to decrease over the past 10 years. The average turnover rate for nonprofits in Canada is 17 percent. When Laflamme joined the YMCA in 2001, turnover there was at 16 percent; in 2012, the rate was 5.88. And 36 percent of employees have more than 10 years of service.
Under her leadership, the YMCA of Greater Toronto has become one of the most recognized and acclaimed in Canada. Awards include: Top Employer in the Greater Toronto Area in four consecutive years in a row; Top Employer in Canada for Young People in 2010; Canada’s Best Diversity Employers in 2012; and Canada’s Greenest Employers in 2011 and 2012. Additionally, in November 2010, Laflamme received the Top HR Leader Award as part of the Toronto Business Excellence Awards from the Toronto Human Resources Professional Association. And in January 2012, she was one of three finalists for the HR Summit Award with the Human Resources Professional Association of Ontario for Employment Branding.
But those accolades didn’t come easy. Her role is not without its share of hurdles and obstacles. Laflamme says her biggest challenge from an HR point of view is striving for balance.
“We’re an organization focused on increasing the health of our community,” she says. “There are so many needs in the community. For us, that translates to creating more programs and services to meet the needs. We’re very fortunate to have dedicated and engaged employees who contribute 120 percent of their heart and soul in their work. As an HR practitioner, I worry about that. We have a responsibility to make sure that we’re creating healthy workplace balance. Some private-sector organizations struggle to get employees engaged … We have engaged employees. We struggle with ensuring their emotional energy isn’t overextended.”
One of the ways Laflamme says the YMCA does this is by coaching supervisors on how to deal with staff. She says guidelines, tools, and resources are available that build on philosophy and practices used with YMCA members. One of those would be taking a strength-based approach, especially since 44 percent of employees are under the age of 28.
“We are often a first employer,” she says. “We help young people adapt to their first job through supportive practices. It’s also how we work with youth. We try to look at strengths and not deficits. Some young employees can make poor decisions. Instead of approaching it from a discipline approach, we look at it from a learning point of view. We take the same principles we use with our clients and use them with our staff.
The YMCA of Greater Toronto focuses on being a charity and employer of choice. “This will enable us to do more for the community,” Laflamme says. “There are many charities out there doing good work. It is our goal that, when people and organizations are making donating decisions, we are at the top of their minds. It’s also important for us to be an employer of choice. We want people to consciously decide to work for the YMCA because their values and interests in making a difference in society are aligned with what we aim to achieve.”
“We really believe that people search for meaning in their work,” she says. “We aim to create a work environment that honours the human spirit to achieve and celebrate together and where mission and purpose drive our work. We are in the process of applying the same concepts and understandings of what contributes to individual health to creating a healthy organization and a great workplace.”