How seven companies ran into roadblocks and navigated around them

TPWChallenges
iSPIN’s CEO Kathy Brown-McHale speaks at a vigil organized by SPIN employees in 2016 after a colleague was beaten to death allegedly by her boyfriend.

In 2016, Joyce Quaweay, a 24-year-old employee at SPIN, Inc., was beaten to death.  Her boyfriend was charged with her murder and is awaiting trial, according to the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office.

The domestic violence incident rocked the company and its employees. Many felt guilty. Why hadn’t they known? What could they have done?

“We are a close-knit staff,” said Adam Hymans, director of strategic communications for the Northeast Philadelphia-based company. “She was very close with her co-workers. She was very much respected and loved.”

It was all the more unsettling because SPIN is in the caring industry. It provides support for people with autism and other intellectual disabilities. And many of its employees are African Americans or others who are statistically at a higher risk for domestic violence.

“We thought, what could we do beyond honoring Joyce’s memory?” Hymans recalled.  They wanted to do more than beef up communications about the employee assistance program or simply hand out a hotline number.

Coincidentally, CEO Kathy Brown-McHale had a connection with Women in Transition, a nonprofit that focuses, in part, on domestic violence. Women in Transition provided training to all SPIN managers and 70 additional employees who were willing to provide what Hymans called “confidential support.” They wear purple ribbons and are listed in the company directory.  Employees have already made “significant use” of them, he said.

“It’s one thing to be a caring organization, but it’s quite another to actually provide concrete resources and make it part of the everyday work experience,” Hymans said. “It’s about creating a sustained, organized effort. The instinct to do that has also translated to other things in the organization. We’re in the grips of the #MeToo movement. We put our money where our mouth is.”

What can other companies learn from SPIN’s experience? That domestic violence is “much more pervasive than people think,” Hymans said. “It’s important to play a leadership role in helping people to access resource.” And, above all, that “it’s important to truly care about your employees. Caring for and investing in employees can pay dividends across all sectors. They are your highest quality resource. Bar none.”

Top Workplaces have faced a variety of challenges in recent times. Here’s how some companies dealt with them and what they learned:

  • Skanska USA Building, Inc., which has a regional office in Blue Bell, faced a growing labor crisis – a shortage of skilled construction workers.

Fewer young people were going into the trades. So the company invested in recruiting and training young employees, starting an in-house apprenticeship program and adding 21 new hires, said Ed Szwarc, Skanska’s executive vice president and general manager of the Philadelphia region.

  • Isdaner & Co., a small Bala Cynwyd certified public accounting firm, faced a 28 percent increase in health insurance costs. 

“We were able to, at a minimum, have that increase cut in half if we agreed to stay with our provider.  That was for the exact same plan that we had offered to our employees for 2017,” said COO Michael Riesenbach.

But the company felt that a 14 percent increase was still too much. Eventually, they were able to offer an additional plan with much lower premiums and pretty much the same coverage, except that it added co-pays after the high-deductible amount was met.

“We chose what we thought made sense and what would be economical to the employee and the firm, but didn’t really change the coverage too much,” Riesenbach said. “That was important to us. We didn’t want to take the coverage away from people.”

What they learned is that “you always need to look at options.”

  • GMH Mortgage Services, a small company based in Conshohocken, realized that the way things have always been done just wasn’t working.

So they changed it.

Typically, the loan officer would talk to the customer and then hand off to the operations group, with its openers, processors, underwriters and closers. Openers sat with openers, processors with processors. If there was a hold-up or a deadline was missed, it was an us-versus-them situation.

GMH took one opener, one processor, one underwriter and one closer and made them a team.  “They sit together, work together, eat together. They win together and they lose together. It really streamlined the entire process,” said Todd Hennessy, a branch manager.

“We found all this unity.  Not this is where my job ends and yours starts,” Hennessy said. “There’s this high amount of cooperation.”

People weren’t waiting for a computer to give them a deadline; they took the initiative to do what needed to be done. “The really cool part is we’ve empowered each person to be accountable to their job,” Hennessy said. “We’re getting a significant amount  of work done in a shorter time with much happier employees.”

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Several companies were in the enviable position of having explosive growth in 2017.  The challenge there was maintaining their corporate culture.

  • Tyndale Company, which offers flame-resistant clothing, went from about 190 employees at the beginning of the year to 265 at the end.

“People describe the organization as their second family,” said Lynne Kester, vice president of human resources and organizational development for the Pipersville company. “We celebrate each other’s birthdays. We have an employee and family picnic once a year. It’s that open, friendly, collegial environment.  We were all concerned that with adding people that quickly … how do we preserve that special and unique Tyndale culture?”

They revamped the human resources department, adding staff.  They created what they called “core values training,” making it part of orientation for new hires. They instituted a “pal program” where a colleague would take a new hire to lunch on the first day and answer questions someone might not want to ask their manager. Where is the bathroom? Is it really OK to wear jeans?  On the day a new hire started, an email would go out to everyone in the company to welcome the new person.

Kester said Tyndale also was willing to hold out to make sure they got quality hires, not just hire for expediency’s sake. “When you have to do a lot of hiring, there’s a real temptation to cut corners and compromise. Hold your ground. Wait for the right candidate.”

  • The large real estate company, Keller Williams, also grew significantly.  But some office leaders were burning out.

The company, headquartered in Austin, Texas, but with 19 Delaware Valley locations, started seeing a worrisome turnover in key positions. So they launched a “growth initiative” that included both professional and personal growth for its employees.

A key part of it, said Michele McBride, director of organizational development, was “appreciative inquiry,” a method for focusing on what’s good in a company, not what’s bad.

At an initial leadership meeting, they asked employees, “what do you love about KW?  What is something that, when you look back over the past year, you are most proud of?”

“We had all of them share their peak moments form the prior year. It created this amazing energy.  Everyone was high-fiving.”

Then, “we kind of crowd-sourced the wisdom in the room,”  focusing on how people were overcoming challenges. “It was them deciding what was best, rather than us deciding.”

It built from there. Meetings weren’t just about the numbers. They were about progress, solutions, achievements. And not just at work.

“At the end of the day, we want them to hit their goals. If our people are hitting their goals, they’re going to be happy … but for a lot of people it’s not just about the money. It’s about the freedom to go to their kids’ soccer games and still be able to put their kids through college. It’s more looking at the whole person.”