Ask Rex Huppke: I Just Work Here
11:00 PM AKST, November 12, 2012
When I was young and naive (approximately 16 months ago), I believed all it took to create a happy workplace were big salaries and free doughnuts.
Turns out, it's a bit more involved. There's this thing called "culture," and the happiest workplaces create one that brings together like-minded folks to work in collaboration and find ways to succeed. I assume they occasionally have doughnuts as well, but that's not nearly as crucial as I'd hoped.
Clearly, the companies that land on the list of Chicago's Top Workplaces all have succeeded at creating effective cultures. (Otherwise they'd be on the far-less-popular Chicago's Most Dreadful Workplaces list.) And key to any positive office culture is the people who populate that office.
So I spoke with folks from a number of the top companies on the list to find out more about how they are hiring employees, training them and making sure their staffs operate in a way that keeps each company's culture thriving.
The bottom line is that a qualified candidate is no longer just a person who has the requisite skills for the job. That person also needs to show that he or she will fit in with the rest of the staff and function well under the ideals the company has established.
In some cases, the person who is a better cultural fit for a company is more desirable than someone who is a better fit in terms of qualifications. The ability to mesh has truly become that important.
The focus is no longer on grabbing bricks to build the wall higher, it's finding bricks that will best interlock and make the wall stronger. Culture is the mortar that holds those bricks together, and I have now used up my annual allotment of brick metaphors.
No. 3 midsize company
General manager Tom Snapp launched the Chicago office of Slalom Consulting in 2004, and he arrived here with a vision based on his experiences. He had left a job because the culture became stagnant — it stopped being fun or exciting.
When he joined Slalom, he "found this group that was doing consulting work and having a blast. People liked each other and they were friends and you could just feel it."
So when he was charged with opening a division in Chicago, his goal was clear: Create a culture that's fun and friendly.
"We work on that, we put a lot of time, energy and money into it, doing the things that help maintain a good culture," Snapp said. "And recruiting is a big part of that."
On a staff of about 300, Snapp has a seven-person recruiting team. And they are highly selective, requiring that candidates have skills, the necessary experience, and the personality and character to fit into a social and interactive workforce.
"Do they like to have fun or do they complain a lot? Do they find goodness within the things they've been doing? Do they laugh about the things they've been through? Are they someone you like who makes you smile when you're talking to them? Those are the people we advance through the process."
It can take weeks to months for the interview process to unfold, and candidates meet as many as 12 people along the way.
Snapp said if his employees are in a good state of mind, they bring a stronger blend of energy and creativity to their clients. And happy workers tend to stick around, a huge advantage for Slalom, given the work that goes into recruiting people in the first place.
Snapp said the rigorous evaluation of job candidates all but ensures that new hires will fit in well. And once on board, Slalom makes a concerted effort to bring its employees together to socialize — and have fun.
"We do a lot of events for our people," Snapp said. "We do six major events a year, and we don't take ourselves very seriously. Our holiday parties used to be costume parties just to set the tone that we're not going to stand around in suits and try to act proper. We're a bunch of people that like having fun together. I like to think the vast majority of people can find something in common with everyone here and strike up a conversation and enjoy that conversation."
No. 2 large company
Hotel giant Hyatt has a unique workforce, with jobs ranging from cleaning positions to restaurant workers to front desk managers.
Doug Patrick, senior vice president of human resources, said there are several key qualities looked for when hiring: an accommodating nature, a high resilience to a demanding job and a strong sense of follow-through.
But perhaps the most important characteristic to fit in with Hyatt's culture, he said, is the ability to be yourself: "We want people to be genuine; we don't want them to be robots. You have to find that person who is authentic and genuine first and foremost. If they are authentic, they will be that way on the job as well."
One way the company recruits is by paying close attention to internal referrals, believing that a good existing employee is likely to recommend someone similarly suited for the culture. Patrick said 25 percent of Hyatt's hires are people who were referred by an existing employee. (Despite a yearslong dispute with the hotel workers union, Hyatt is making a repeat appearance on the Top Workplaces list.)
The screening process is thorough. Patrick said they walk job candidates through the areas where they would be working and rely on peer-to-peer interviewing to gauge how well a person might mesh with others. Some employees receive training so they know how to listen to job candidates and ask them relevant questions.
"You get a pretty broad cross section of people looking at the candidate," he said. "Those people who are picked by their peers tend to stay with us longer."
Once hired, an employee has to go through a 90-day probationary period, an additional way Hyatt can make sure the cultural fit is strong.
"We obviously have a strong people brand," Patrick said. "And for our employees, from the moment somebody applies to the moment they decide to leave, we want to model our employment experience similar to the way we treat our guest. We want them, from end to end, to feel like they're treated as well as a guest."
RED FROG EVENTS
No. 3 small company
As an event production company that organizes all manner of races, it's not surprising that Red Frog's culture is high energy and competitive.
Consider this: The company receives about 2,000 resumes a month. It hires 40 to 100 intern event coordinators three times a year, but only a handful become full-time hires.
In other words, nobody gets in the door without going through an extended paid internship.
"They have three months to see how they fit in with Red Frog's culture," said chief innovation officer Greg Bostrom. "Culture is certainly a focus with everybody we bring in. You can do as many interviews as you want, but you get a real sense of a person's true mettle when they've been with you a few months."
The company's culture — the Red Frog way — is broken down in 25 principles, which include "living with passion," "appreciating our customers" and "being drama-free."
Every intern is paired with a mentor, and they meet once a week. That's where the culture is hammered home. If, for example, an event coordinator isn't meeting Red Frog's standard in terms of customer service, the mentor is expected to work with that person consistently to make sure he or she understands that the company's core values are a benchmark against which they'll be judged.
"If there are issues, it's continually coached at that level," Bostrom said. "And then at the end of the internship, they may just not be a good fit."
Again, it's "fit" that's key.
"Sometimes the highest performers aren't a great cultural fit," Bostrom said. "Other times there might be someone who is a slow starter but winds up being a great fit for the culture. That's who we want."
No. 1 large company
Abt prides itself on being a family-run business — there's almost always an Abt family member on the showroom floor — so it's fitting that the culture is less formal than at many large companies.
"It's very noncorporate here," said co-president Jon Abt. "It's a real family-centric environment. It's certainly not for everyone. But it's very similar to how it was run by my grandparents in the '30s and '40s."
Jennifer Guzman, the company's human resources director, said many job candidates come as word-of-mouth referrals from employees. And while Abt is looking for people with relevant job experience and a strong knowledge of the products the company sells, character is a key factor.
Each candidate has a "character group interview" with a small committee of managers.
"We're really looking for someone who is honestly just friendly," Guzman said. "A huge amount of our business is return business. No matter if it's sales, customer service, human resources — if we don't think they can provide the top level of customer service, then it's not a good fit for us."
She said the company looks for people who are self-starters and aren't afraid to innovate.
"We want people to have ideas and run with them," Guzman said. "We really don't micromanage. The people who are innovative and do have good ideas, we tend to notice that quickly, and those people tend to move up in the ranks."
Abt said the company maintains its collegial culture by closely monitoring staff performance and swiftly addressing any problems, particularly in the area of customer service. If someone ignores the needs of a customer or doesn't go above and beyond what's expected to help that customer, a manager will coach the employee on proper protocol, focusing on the company's motto: "The answer is yes to any reasonable request."
"We try to identify issues as quickly as possible," Abt said. "We're constantly monitoring calls and doing quality assurance on our employees. If there's an issue, we issue them a file letter and the manager will have a conversation with them. We try to fix the problem as best as we can. Unfortunately, in some circumstances, it isn't a fit and we have to part ways. But we try to fix the problems instead of just hammering away at them."
No. 1 midsize company
Jeff Silver's third-party logistics company has hired about 400 people this year. Business is booming, and Coyote has honed its corporate culture to a fine point.
"We have single-digit turnover," Silver said. "Us having to get rid of people doesn't happen very often. It's such a high-performance culture that when someone doesn't fit in or isn't bringing it, it's just incredibly transparent. The staff has become kind of self-selecting."
One of the company's principles is "tribal" — the goal is to function as a unit, and Coyote looks for people who have shown a hard-core dedication to something in their lives, whether it's a team sport or a social cause.
"We want people who were rabidly committed to something," Silver said.
Coyote fosters a work hard/play hard attitude that appeals to younger employees, and while the work can be intense, schedules are set up so most people are in at 7 a.m. and out by 4 or 5 p.m., with a later shift swooping in to handle any after-hours issues.
The company's interview process is, like the company, nontraditional. They don't want job candidates wearing suits or handing them canned answers. They want jeans and T-shirts and straight talk about goals and personalities.
"We try to get them to relax and find out who they are," Silver said. "We don't want them to try to feed us some BS they think we want to hear."
Most of Coyote's hires are straight out of college. The offices feature an expansive open space lined with row after row of young people, some in chairs, some seated on inflatable exercise balls, all wearing telephone headsets and toggling between dual computer monitors.
The place exudes energy. New hires go through rigorous group training classes to learn Coyote's software and cultural mores. Tribal. True. Tenacious. Smart. It's all driven home relentlessly, and employees buy into it or don't last long.
"If we can find people who fit well with those brand characteristics, we're doing well," Silver said. "We want to know who they are. That's the important thing for us."
ATI PHYSICAL THERAPY
No. 4 large company
When a job candidate comes to ATI Physical Therapy, the interviewer takes that person's resume and does something unexpected.
"We turn the resume over and just talk to people," said Dylan Bates, the company's chief operating officer. "We get to know what makes them tick. They're going to be working with patients. Can they communicate effectively? Can they be a team player?"
The company has a 10-person recruiting team, and Bates said ATI puts "a lot of resources into recruiting and really cherry-picking the right kind of people who we know are going to work."
Again, culture is king. The company has been growing, opening new clinics and acquiring existing ones, and the goal has been to staff each facility with people who embrace the same mission, a quest for a certain level of homogeneity.
Bates said they look for the requisite skills, along with a competitive spirit, a belief in teamwork and an outgoing personality.
The company tries to conduct initial interviews in a clinical setting.
"We want to see the applicant in the environment and see if they really have some of the qualities that we're looking for, see if they seem to pick up on and connect with the kind of environment we have going on," Bates said.
Hiring decisions on the clinical side of the business come down to a group of five people.
"I think we've got great consistency because we only have a handful of people making hiring decisions," Bates said. "We've kept a tighter funnel on ultimately deciding whose coming on board, and I think that's created better consistency."
Each person hired goes through a five-day orientation.
"In that time, we really spell out their expectations, we're reading body language, we're sensing whether the message we're delivering is sinking in and are they on board with that," Bates said.
New hires are assigned a mentor and are carefully monitored for the first 90 days to make sure they meet ATI's standards and are a good fit.
"Hiring right, that's where it's at," Bates said. "Opening the number of clinics we're opening, we have to stay ahead of the staffing curve."
Rex Huppke writes the "I Just Work Here" column for the Tribune.