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Ensuring pay equity and HR consistency for First Nations

Stratford Group helps the Assembly of First Nations modernize job evaluation, compensation

Mike D'Amico
Mike D'Amico

From clean drinking water to the welfare of children, from housing to the environmental challenges that concern us all – no issue is to too large or too small for the Assembly of First Nations (AFN).

As a national advocacy organization, the AFN represents the more than 900,000 First Nations citizens who live in 636 First Nations communities across the country.

“We are working to really turn things around for our First Nations,” said Jonathan Thompson, AFN’s VP of operations and administration. “The AFN could even be considered their public service.”

This “public service” includes more than 160 people from diverse disciplines that include law, engineering, health care and public policy. They work closely with, and sometimes in opposition to, their counterparts in Canada’s federal, provincial and territorial governments.

Competing with government employers

In fact, a recurring challenge for the AFN had been losing talented individuals to well-paying government jobs and the perks that come with them. Years of ad hoc practices had left AFN’s senior leadership asking itself hard questions about how jobs were classed and rated across the organization. Considerations around pay equity and preventing gender bias went hand in hand with ensuring the salary for any role was competitive with market rates.

“We operate in a very political world,” Thompson said. “Working at AFN is not for everyone. It’s enormously challenging and rewarding at the same time. The pressures are many and varied. We wanted to make sure we are supporting and compensating our people appropriately.”

Recognizing the need for an objective, outside perspective, AFN was referred to Stratford Group and its People and Culture team under president Mike D’Amico.

The starting point of the engagement, as it is with any client engagement for Stratford, was to just sit down and listen.

Embedding consistency and fairness

“Everything we do is always customized to the client,” D’Amico said. “With AFN, that meant understanding the Indigenous issues and the history that has led us all to where we are today, the nuances of First Nations’ cultures, and seeking and respecting the views of elders and other respected leaders.”

This process of stakeholder engagement was key for the Stratford team to develop and apply the factors that should be used to measure and score each job role at AFN. This process yielded a set of tools to identify and rate all the skills and qualities required for success in any one role.

This then allowed Stratford to put in place a systematic approach to setting job levels at AFN. The result is a job evaluation system that’s consistently fair and equitable – with competitive pay scales that will ensure AFN can attract and retain the people it needs.

With this structure in hand, Stratford guided AFN through the process of leveling all its job roles, benchmarking salary levels, and transitioning all employees onto their new salary ranges, and conducting an analysis to make sure each individual is positioned fairly and appropriately.

“I have seen throughout this project that AFN cares about its people and it wanted to get this right,” D’Amico said.

‘Where we want to be’

Roughly a year after the process began, “we are where we want to be,” Thompson said. “It is an ongoing process – new people and new roles are always appearing, and we have to go through the appropriate HR processes with each one. But now we have up and running a system that makes sure we are always being fair and consistent.”

“Recognizing the incredible work our employees do was at the heart of this process,” said Janice Ciavaglia, CEO of AFN. “Making sure that each person knows how much they’re valued has really driven us forward as an organization. I’m happy about how this positions us for the future.” 

Stratford’s work with AFN has led to similar engagements with other Indigenous organizations. D’Amico emphasized that what his team has done for AFN is by no means a cookie-cutter template for others. Each client engagement always starts with a clean slate and no preconceptions, relying on that upfront stakeholder engagement to define the best path forward.

“We always work to truly understand our clients and to create a relationship that can achieve a trusted partner role. It is never just an in and out transaction,” D’Amico said.