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To attract the cream of the crop, dairy manufacturer Gay Lea Foods Co-operative Ltd. knows it must butter its bread well.

Gay Lea was ranked in the financial group within the Canada's Top 100 Employers survey. Its compensation packages are typically in the top 25 per cent in the industry, president and chief executive officer Andrew MacGillivray said.

"We pride ourselves in paying competitive salaries ... it represents where we want to be in the marketplace," he said, adding that all employees participate in a profit-sharing program that amounts to an average of 10 per cent of salary.

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"If you are going to set targets, stretch targets and really reach targets, your employees must share in that success," Mr. MacGillivray said, adding that it is wrong to tell an employee, "It's okay for me to get a bonus, and for you to not get one."

Another factor in Gay Lea's inclusion on the list was its subsidization of tuition fees for employees. It also matches retirement savings plan contributions, and offers paid health coverage once they retire, with no age limit.

Employees also have alternative work options, including flexible scheduling, fewer summer hours, telecommuting and a 35-hour work week with full pay. Employees on maternity leave receive a top-up to their employment insurance benefits so that they receive their full salary during this often financially challenging time, Mr. MacGillivray added.

"It helps us attract the right people. We're family oriented, and our customers and consumers are mainly families," he said. "If someone wants to start a family, we don't think you should have to sacrifice to do that. Family comes before business."

Financial compensation is above average, and employees are, in turn, encouraged to get involved in charities. "We would like to give people an opportunity to give back to communities - take paid days off to contribute in the community," Mr. MacGillivray said.

The culture of community co-operation at Gay Lea may be due in part to its structure; it is owned and operated by Ontario dairy farmers. Gay Lea processes products that include butter, Lacteeze milk and Nordica cottage cheese. About 350 of Gay Lea's 486 employees work in five Ontario factories; an additional 100 or so work in the head office, with about 50 more in sales and distribution.

Gay Lea also has committed to international projects through the Co-operative Development Foundation of Canada. Through fundraising efforts - including potlucks, bingo, bring-$2-to-wear-jeans days and donations from the company - Gay Lea has powered a number of large-scale projects. Funds raised are matched three-to-one by the Canadian International Development Agency.

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The first projects funded the building and furnishing of three classrooms in a school in Nepal. A similar commitment was made to a co-operative in El Salvador that focuses on technical and financial assistance for youth in the agricultural sector.

Gay Lea also supported an agricultural project in Ghana, and though the amount of money donated is serious - in the tens of thousands so far - some of the events to support it by Gay Lea were fun for employees to watch.

Namely, Mr. MacGillivray and chairman Ralph Dietrich wore women's dresses to the March delegates meeting, according to the company website, which reports, "Rumour has it that they looked lovely!"

How to improve morale

Paying employees a higher-than-average wage and gearing policies toward a healthy work-life balance can improve morale, inhibit turnover and reduce recurrent training costs. Extra pay also tends to make employees more likely to contribute to corporate charitable efforts that, in turn, can make them more engaged at work.

To build a close-knit volunteer culture, a committee can be struck to pitch ideas on how employees can get involved. Global aid agencies can assist with overseas efforts.

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In Canada, 71 per cent of businesses support or accommodate employee volunteering, but of these, only about one-third give employees time off with pay to do so, according to a 2006 study by Imagine Canada, a charitable organization. A study by Imagine the following year gave Canadian businesses a number of reasons to support community charities, including "improved the ability to recruit and retain employees."

Websites of charity co-ordination organizations, such as http://www.volunteer.ca or http://www.imaginecanada.ca, serve as starting-off point.

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