Great Places, Inspired Employees

By Ann Pomeroy Jul 1, 2004

HR Magazine, July 2004​“All happy families are alike,” wrote Leo Tolstoy in Anna Karenina. And the same appears to be true of the companies on this year’s list of the Best Small & Medium Companies to Work for in America: While each company on the list is different and possesses its own unique business needs and issues, many have in common a certain special quality.

Like happy families, they are alike in a significant way: Employees seem to feel they belong. They feel respected, appreciated. They even use words like “family” to describe their work environment. As a result, many give more of themselves to the job. They stay on board longer and become more involved in running the business and in suggesting improvements.

In other words, these companies inspire employees to actively participate in the operation of the business.

Many companies offer good benefits, competitive pay, a comfortable workplace and competent management. But great companies create strong, positive company cultures that foster happy, engaged employees who feel empowered to make decisions in their daily work. And here’s how they do it.

The Johnsonville Way

Johnsonville Sausage LLC, a 60-year-old, family-owned company headquartered in Kohler, Wis., has a clearly defined culture that emphasizes employee involvement in the business.

It’s a culture that is immediately evident, starting with the company’s terminology: Johnsonville Sausage hires “members,” not employees; supervisors are called coaches or team leaders; and the company is organized into teams rather than departments.

But the company does more than use friendly words. It makes sure that all Johnsonville members get to know all aspects of the organization. Within their first six months on the job, new members attend a series of four, four-hour classes at Johnsonville University, beginning with an overview of “the Johnsonville way.” Subsequent classes cover such topics as teamwork, diversity and “Apples and Oranges,” which reviews financial information about cash flow and profits.

And employee involvement doesn’t end when training does.

The company has a “culture of empowerment,” says Kelly Siegel, a production member and training coordinator at Countryside, Johnsonville’s largest manufacturing facility. Production members hold meetings before each of the three daily shifts to discuss how things are going and address any problems.

All members are authorized to shut down the production line at any time if they see something that isn’t right.

As one worker wrote in response to a survey by the Great Place to Work‚ Institute (the survey helps determine the companies on this year’s list of Best Small & Medium Companies to Work for in America): “People here at Johnsonville are given the responsibility to run the company.”

Johnsonville reinforces its culture of involvement by paying monthly bonuses that are tied to profits. Each team has a monthly production goal, and if that goal is not met—as occasionally happens— members gather to discuss improvements they can make.

Ann Mitchell, a team leader at the company’s Riverside facility, says problems are addressed immediately and members’ ideas are given serious consideration. Mitchell, who started working for the company 17 years ago while in high school, says she can’t imagine working anywhere else.

Johnsonville’s willingness to consider employees’ ideas and suggestions helped Debbie McFarlane, SPHR, land a job as co-director of member services nine years ago. At the time, Leah Glaub, SPHR, held the position of director of member services alone, but wanted to cut back her hours after the birth of her first son. She proposed that the company hire another part-timer and allow them both to share the human resource position.

The company wanted to keep Glaub, so it agreed to her proposal. The opportunity to job share suited McFarlane, who also had small children and was looking for more flexibility than her job offered. She saw the ad, applied, and she and Glaub have happily job shared ever since. Each works three days a week, with one “overlap” day. The company benefits because it gets “two SPHRs, years of experience and two very different styles,” says Glaub.

The company also benefits more broadly from its willingness to involve employees in the business. While the average turnover in the meat industry is close to 20 percent, McFarlane reports that turnover at Johnsonville is about 8 percent.

‘More a Mission Than a Job’ Another organization with highly engaged employees is the Hospice of Marion County (Ocala, Fla.) Healthcare Alliance. Because the work can be extremely stressful—CEO Alice Privett says working at a hospice is “more a mission than a job”—the hospice works diligently to respond to employee needs.

For example, when the annual organizational effectiveness survey revealed that employees wanted senior management to be more visible, the organization established the Adopt a Senior Manager program. Alec White, SPHR, director of human resources and volunteer services, says about 50 employees have participated in the voluntary program since its inception in 2001. Participants can “shadow” as many senior managers as they like, and be shadowed in turn.

Sandy Parr, now a hospital liaison, took advantage of the program when she worked as an admissions nurse. At the time, the hospice was making an effort to significantly increase the number of patients who could be admitted each day. Parr, who thought the initiative was problematic, invited Privett to shadow her.

“I’m not afraid to speak up,” says Parr. “I said, ‘Alice, you need to come and see how things work.’ ” Privett spent time shadowing Parr and another admissions nurse, Mary Miller. After that, says Parr, “the pressure was reduced.”

Perhaps more important, the shadowing experience ensured a healthy mutual respect. Privett says she was impressed by “how very, very good they are at their jobs.” And Parr calls Privett a “user-friendly CEO” who is “not afraid to get her hands dirty.”

Parr says shadowing also is available to new employees, who shadow workers in all disciplines when they first arrive at the hospice and then shadow workers in different segments of their own department. New workers also pass through an orientation program that Parr describes as “phenomenal.” Newcomers spend their first month to six weeks learning and working with a mentor. At many companies, she says, “they need you badly, so you are thrown in right away.”

The turnover rate at this company of about 400 employees is 12 percent—below the average for the industry, which ranges from the teens to 20 percent, says White.

The reason employees stay here probably has little to do with pay or benefits. Although Parr says both are good, she adds that nurses can earn more money working in a hospital.

For Parr, and others, the allure of this particular organization is a combination of the work they do and how they are allowed to do it. While working with patients at the end of their lives is not for everyone, it is the right type of work for Parr and Miller.

Working at the Hospice of Marion County allows Miller to do “what I went into nursing to do,” which is to work with patients. “Hospitals are not patient-oriented,” she says.

Parr, who keeps an eye on hospices throughout the country, says the Hospice of Marion County is a “shining star” among such institutions and has the best team environment she has seen in 25 years of nursing.

Tapping Individuals In a Team Environment 

At Mitretek Systems—a Falls Church, Va., nonprofit organization that conducts scientific research in such weighty areas as counterterrorism, criminal justice and the environment—tapping the collective insights of employees through effective teamwork is a key part of the business.

“The atmosphere,” wrote one employee in response to the Great Place to Work‚ survey, “is very conducive to creative thinking and team brainstorming.” Jim Ackermann agrees with this assessment. Ackermann, who is director of the company’s information technology services in the Center for Information and Telecommunications Technologies, says an entrepreneurial spirit prevails at the company.

Tawaba Abawi, an associate in the business and economic analysis center, says that at Mitretek all team members contribute—and are treated—equally. Discussing a team he currently works on, he says: “There’s a team leader, but it doesn’t feel that way. We all put in the same amount of work; there’s no dictatorship.” And team members aren’t shy about sharing information and ideas, he adds.

When you work on teams at Mitretek, says Abawi, “you get help from everybody else, you get other people’s points of view, other people’s experiences.” Brion Ferratt, a senior contract administrator and negotiator, says that he is surrounded by talented and experienced professionals, which makes it easier to brainstorm and collaborate. “We’re able to bounce ideas off of one another, and I enjoy that very much,” he says. Ferratt recalls a recent meeting where employees brainstormed ways to improve the contracting process. “I like that,” he says, “because there are always areas for improvement in any organization.” And he appreciates it “when management essentially humbles themselves, as it were, to say, ‘Hey, we can do things better—how can I help you do your job?’ ”

The result of such interaction, of course, benefits the business. Says Ferratt: “When we sat down as a department and put forth those areas where processes could be improved, where there are redundancies, and how we could speed up the general administration of contracts for Mitretek, we know that we can improve the way Mitretek deals with its customers.”

The ‘Flexibility To Innovate’ 

Genencor International, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based biotechnology company with three U.S. sites, has a nonhierarchical culture that plays to employee strengths, says Jim Sjoerdsma, SPHR, the company’s director of human resources.

For Mike Felton, a director of operations at the company’s Cedar Rapids, Iowa, facility, the culture is the best thing about the company. Felton’s work with industrial enzymes used in detergents and cleaning products involves a 24/7 fermentation process that is constantly being refined and improved. Having the “flexibility to innovate” allows employees to come up with process innovations that can be implemented quickly, he says.

The time it takes for an idea to become reality may be as little as two or three months, Felton says. “One person runs it by the team; maybe they say, ‘Yes, that sounds good, but have you thought about this?’ The team refines the idea, and then we say, ‘Let’s get it down on paper.’”

If implementing the idea requires a capital expenditure, says Felton, the necessary funds are requested, and, if approved, the idea is implemented. Felton recalls a time when the Cedar Rapids plant was experiencing “more variability in our fermentation process than we liked.” The fermentation team of engineers and technicians was challenged to look at the root causes, examine the process parameters and improve productivity. The team met that challenge and received a group award that amounted to about $200 per person.

Employee rewards are handed out frequently, encouraging employees to share their ideas. Rewards range from relatively inexpensive options, such as dinner certificates or small items that can be given immediately by employees at any level, to cash bonuses of up to $2,500 or more for ideas that result in large savings for the company. For ideas that save the company a great deal of money, employees may receive a percentage of the amount saved.

In addition, employees are encouraged to “walk in each other’s shoes” through the company’s Knowledge Exchange program. For Felton, who has degrees in industrial technology and business management, this meant an opportunity to spend a year and a half at the Palo Alto headquarters to learn more about the company’s operations. “When they asked me if I’d like to go to Palo Alto and work in a different department,” he says, “I was surprised. I said, ‘But I’m not a chemical engineer.’ ” The company’s response was, “That’s exactly why we picked you.”

This kind of “cross-pollination” means that employees are exposed to many different ways of thinking, Felton says, “and that adds strength to our team.” He adds that having a diverse group of employees from many different countries and backgrounds fosters a team environment, and he appreciates Genencor’s willingness to “spend the time and money to help people [at all the company’s sites] get to know each other.”

Felton gets calls from head-hunters now and then, but “the thing that keeps my head from turning is the freedom and flexibility I have to do a good job and to do what is right.” Genencor is doing important work that excites people, he says, and “we share everything, including the pain. “We’re a close family. Competition here is from the outside, not the inside. It’s definitely not a stress-free environment,” says Felton, “but the stress is healthy stress, because it’s self-induced.”

Feedback Keeps Employees in the Loop 

Encouraging employees to be actively involved in your business brings with it the responsibility of providing timely, honest feedback so they can tell if their efforts are meeting expectations. A company that asks employees to give suggestions and extra effort, but then fails to acknowledge that effort or help guide it to meet the needs of the business, is following a recipe for discouragement.

Northeast Delta Dental—a Concord, N.H., firm that provides dental benefits plans to employers and individuals in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont— seeks to avoid that pitfall by providing lots of opportunities for feedback.

Employees, for example, are encouraged to keep “me” files—copies of work they have accomplished, praise they have received, and learning and growth experiences they’ve had. Claims analyst Martha Pereira, who joined the company in 2001, says her file is so big that it’s “a ‘me’ book.”

The “me” file is used as a learning tool and is part of a larger process of feedback and performance review. Rounding out the process: Employees do self-appraisals, rate their managers (anonymously) and undergo 360-degree assessments. And managers receive training on how to give and receive feedback.

For employees who have trouble confronting others about a problem, the reviews provide a forum to address issues and resolve conflicts. They also can provide an opportunity to hand out praise. The reviews “are not a negative thing,” says Pereira.

Executive administrator Barbara McLaughlin agrees. McLaughlin, who has been with Delta Dental since 1987, says the company has a “blameless” culture that focuses on solving problems rather than assessing blame.

That openness to consider new options seems to manifest itself in employees’ willingness to offer ideas on ways to better the business. The company’s Bright Ideas program encourages employees to come up with suggestions for improvements. In 2003, 153 ideas were submitted, and more than 40 percent of those ideas were implemented, according to Vice President of Human Resources Connie Roy-Czyzowski, SPHR.

“We are encouraged to try new things, and we are able to be ourselves,” says Pereira. As a result, “I want to come to work and give 110 percent every day.” Roy-Czyzowski adds that CEO Tom Raffio encourages frequent employee and manager reviews and is fond of saying that “feedback is a gift.” If so, then it is a gift that employees receive in abundance—and that pays dividends back to the business.

What the Best Have in Common 

A common element among many of the companies on this year’s list of Best Small & Medium Companies to Work for in America is a responsiveness to the needs of their own particular employees. Look closely and you’ll find that these companies include their employees in the loop. They communicate well. They value an entrepreneurial spirit. They encourage input from employees. And they treat employees as equals. As a result, their employees feel good about the company and themselves, and they care about their work—which translates into a boost to the bottom line.

If there is a lesson here for employers, it is that being a great place to work is not about bricks and mortar, or massages and meditation rooms, appreciated though these may be.

Employers that want to create a great workplace need to treat employees with evenhanded respect. Ask for their input, then listen to it. It’s not necessary to agree with everything that’s offered, but it is critical to listen and respond fairly, accurately, honestly and in a timely manner.

Being a great employer means ensuring that if employees feel stress, it’s good stress—the kind that comes when workers have the opportunity to stretch, grow and develop.

Will that make employees happy and push your business into new successes? Just ask the companies on this year’s list.

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How the Best Are Selected

The Best Small & Medium Companies to Work for in America are selected and ranked by the Great Place to Work Institute Inc., a workplace research and consulting firm headquartered in San Francisco. Each company participating in the ranking process earns a score based on two primary factors.

Two-thirds of the score is based on the answers given by employees to a special survey instrument designed by the Great Place to Work Institute. A total of 18,690 employees filled out this survey instrument.

The remaining one-third of the score is based on responses from employers to a second instrument designed by the institute.

The list is broken into two categories: small and medium companies. Small companies must employ between 50 and 250 U.S.-based full- and part-time employees throughout the selection process. Medium companies must employ between 251 and 999 employees.

To learn more about the eligibility requirements and nomination information for the 2005 list of Best Small & Medium Companies to Work for in America, visit


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