Harrah’s Bets on Employee Engagement

By Kathy Gurchiek Mar 24, 2009
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Carla Major, SPHR

DJ Fridays. Child care fairs with day care and summer camp information. Bingo in the Bistro. A celebration planned to recognize employees marking their 10-year anniversary in 2009.

Harrah’s New Orleans Casino & Hotel puts its money on engaging and retaining its 2,400 employees to create a winning workplace environment. Harrah’s consistently has ranked among large companies on City Business Magazine’s New Orleans Best Places to Work list. It was No. 1 in 2008.

“You don’t let down on the fact that you’ve got to be a great company,” said Carla Major, PHR, vice president of HR and community relations at Harrah’s.

Eighty percent of Harrah’s employees work at the casino, located two blocks from the Ernest Morial Convention Center where the Society for Human Resource Management is hosting its 61st Annual Conference and Exposition June 28-July 1, 2009.

Because of the entertainment nature of the business, Major says there is a lot of customer service training and an emphasis on upbeat attitudes. The heavy focus on employee engagement includes a companywide Fun Committee that plans activities, such as Bingo in the company dining area where winners receive prizes such as microwaves and plasma TVs.

“At Harrah’s we’re not just looking for people who are just looking for a job. If you’re having fun, you can’t wait to repeat it.”

Job applicants go before an American Idol-like panel of Harrah’s executives, Major says.

“We’ll say ‘tell us about a time when you had a lot of fun on a previous job; tell us about a time when you surprised or delighted a customer,’” she explained.

“Our employees always deal with customers … and we have the challenge of making sure our employees are upbeat and positive every day.”

Major says 450 employees, including herself, will mark their 10th anniversary in 2009. Twelve will have 15 years and 125 will have five years with the company in 2009. Retention strategies include half-price transportation passes; relocation assistance; a day care stipend for those showing receipts from a state-certified provider; a convenience store inside the employee dining room where workers can pick up staples such as bread; and an on-site health center.

Opened after Katrina, the center has a physician, registered nurse and nurse practitioner; employees may obtain certain generic prescription drugs there. Employees pay $10 per visit.

Other employee programs include brown bag Dollar Stretcher sessions. At one, a local utility representative talked about ways to reduce home utility bills.

“We want [employees] to want to come to work,” says Major. “We love the concept of surprising and delighting our employees.”

After Katrina hit the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005, employees suffered from three main issues, Major said: housing, transportation and child care. For a while Harrah’s had a housing coordinator to help employees find homes.

While housing remains a challenge, Major says—the SHRM member’s Gentilly neighborhood is the site of a preconference volunteer project June 27 and 28—Harrah’s housing coordinator has been phased out.

Instead, there is a home-buying seminar at least twice yearly and a $2,500 stipend to first-time home buyers who are full-time employees with at least a 90-day tenure. The money goes toward helping workers with closing costs.

“We have managed to help a large number of our employees to get their homes, settle in their homes … but the needs of the employees have changed so we don’t have that need today to help [them] find a place to live.”

If the various programs sound pricey, Major stressed the importance of measuring the return on investment for retention vs. recruiting and hiring new people.

“What would it cost you to lose good employees? What would it cost you to attract good employees?” she asked.

The organization looks for other places in its budget for potential savings and rewards cost-cutting measures.

“We always look at what we can save,” such as buying generic paper clips vs. pricier brands and recycling office supplies from the desks of employees who leave, Major told SHRM Online.

“If we can save on those things, we can continue to give our employees some of the engagement [activities],” she noted. “All those little things, when you think about 2,400 employees, [it] makes a difference,” she said.

That includes a companywide “green” practice of turning off lights and computers regularly.

“And that’s everybody, including our general manager. If he leaves to go to lunch, he cuts out his lights,” Major said. “We’ve just made more employees aware of it because of the economy; they’re aware of [the need to be smarter consumers] just because of their own environment at home,” she said.

Navigating the Recession

Louisiana is in a more enviable economic position than most states. In December, it added 3,000 jobs; New Orleans and its suburbs added 400 jobs.

Conducting monthly HR one-on-one meetings with each operating department, and conducting data analysis of each department, is one tactic Major suggests to colleagues looking to help their leadership navigate the current choppy economic waters.

“We created a scorecard for each department,” she said. Among items the HR scorecard looks at are:

  • A department’s turnover for the month.
  • The reasons for the turnover.
  • Training and development scheduled for that month.
  • Performance ratings of employees coming up.
  • At-risk employee performance, attendance and behavioral patterns.

The monthly meetings include discussions about people a department might be losing, based on data such as attendance records and performance, whether the positions can be backfilled, and if so, who is available.

In addition, HR created “The Year of the Supervisor” for 2009.

The focus on supervisors involves supervisor-specific training classes, lunch with the general manager and assistant general manager once a week, and creation of a Supervisors Council to share issues and best practices, according to Major.

Harrah’s was partnering with the University of New Orleans prior to the recession to enhance and develop employee skills, and it continues to do so, Major said.

“Our goal,” she said, “is to improve our employees professionally and personally.”

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at kathy.gurchiek@shrm.org.

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