Sunday, July 4, 2004

Trust makes for great jobs

The Daily Grind

John Eckberg

The Great Place to Work Institute Inc. of San Francisco charges $900 for any small or medium company that hopes to receive the institute's coveted annual designation as a top place to work.

At worst, the fee brings a company an assessment of employee attitudes that is generated from an anonymous and random poll of workers. This year, some 155 companies competed to be on the list.

At best, that stipend brings a company an accolade, as two local companies, Hixson Architecture Engineering Interiors of Mount Adams and Ohio National Financial Services of Montgomery, found out last week.

The institute offered highest honors to the two companies.

Both received ratings as companies that are exceedingly sensitive to worker needs.

When it comes to employee relations - jargon for that elusive and uncomfortable concept of "trust" at work - few companies in the running do it better than these two, the institute found.

"I've had people ask what's the secret," said Tony Esposito, vice president of corporate services and insurance administration for Ohio National.

"Frankly, I don't have a secret. You treat people in a fair and consistent way. You communicate the good and the bad messages. You let them know that we're all in this together."

Ohio National, which employs 780 people and was ranked 15th among the top 25 companies, expects a full report from the institute later this summer.

Esposito suspects the company will have the highest marks in trust, camaraderie and the absence of office politics from the survey of 250 workers.

"If all decent companies have pretty much the same compensation and benefits, then what differentiates good companies from great companies is the feeling that people have a say in what's happening," Esposito said.

The institute's model to determine great places to work has five dimensions, and three of the five have to do with trust.

"It is the crux of all great workplaces," said Katie Popp, team leader of the Best Companies Project.

"Employees appreciate having good salaries and benefits, but when it comes down to it, some companies don't have a lot of money and yet they create great workplaces.

"And there are companies out there that pay tons of money but they're hideous places to work," she said.

Since 1983, Hixson, ranked eighth, has offered a "continued employment commitment" - a euphemism for a no-layoff policy - to its employees, said chief executive Wick Ach.

"I have always had a hard time understanding how people get laid off and then get called back and still have their head and heart in the job," Ach said.

"To lay off people in what is traditionally a short-term lack of business would mean sending intellectual property out the door."

The company's approach pays dividends because workers always will respond to that attitude. You can't put a price tag on dedication.

"They put their blood, sweat and tears into their work because of it," Popp said.

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