The wave of pink slips, changes in health care and general economic malaise have left many people -- myself included -- with the feeling that companies just don't care about their workers anymore.
But of course that's not true. In fact, I would say the majority of companies out there are still doing what they can to keep employees content, inspired and excited to come into work every day. But there are also companies that are working even harder to become top-notch employers that will attract people from all over and make employees want to stick around.
The smartest employers are those that ask their employees what life at work is like and what might make that world better. Companies that don't do that now, despite that it's still an employer's market, will be sorry later, says Richard Federico, vice president of worklife at the Segal Company, a benefits, compensation and human resource consulting firm headquartered in New York. Making sure a company has the best benefits it can afford, and the best programs it can create, is important "especially during a time of low morale," he said. "The strategic human resource leader is the one who [tells] the CEO, 'We have to be thinking of our workforce plan for the future, and part of that has to be creating this culture that tells people we're a good place to work.' "
When Tripp Welch, head of human resources at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., needs to recruit workers, it's not that hard a sell. "Life's pretty easy here. People don't have the long commutes or long lines at the grocery store," he said.
And, of course, it doesn't hurt that the organization made its way this year onto Fortune magazine's 100 Best Companies to Work For list -- a sort of corporate Academy Awards. With that, employees are reminded just how lucky they are to be at Mayo, Welch said. The company applied to the list because it was "looking to build pride among employees and get that recognition," Welch said. "A lot of things we take for granted are extraordinary in other organizations."
Like the Rodin sculpture and Andy Warhol paintings on the Rochester campus.
But companies find it's hard to get on such a list -- of which there are a growing number these days -- or to win a reputation as a stellar employer without flooding employees with surveys and questionnaires about what they want out of their workplace.
Since 1999, the Mayo Clinic has surveyed employees to find out what they want. And the company has listened. It started an emergency backup child care center and offers care for sick children and elder-care referrals as a result of the surveys.
The company finds an area that employees say they are struggling with, such as work/life balance, then gathers employees to create a focus group. That helps the company begin to create an environment that makes employees more productive because they are better able to handle their work.
And what goes around comes around. Happy employees translate into better service, which increases the number of patients who head to Mayo, Welch said. "We do absolutely no advertising for patients. . . . Our strongest way to get patients here is through word of mouth."
Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey, based in Newark, is working on becoming a top-notch employer. To do that, the company also surveyed employees to find out what they wanted in their benefits packages, said Deborah Gingher, a human resource practice leader. Horizon has also had employee focus groups and one-on-one discussions with executives about what the company does not have and what the employees would like to have.
"New Jersey has a pretty low unemployment rate, so we wanted to attract and retain the best talent we can find," Gingher said. She thinks the make-employees-happy strategy will come together by year's end.
For one thing, the company is considering an on-site employee health center, lab and pharmacy. "That would be not only employer-of-choice strategy, it would integrate our business strategy," she said.
Nvidia Corp. of Santa Clara, Calif., has also focused many of its efforts on making employees happy, and it was named to Fortune's list this year as well.
Stephanie Luck, human resources manager, said the company's perks are designed "to make the employees' lives a little easier. . . . They're here putting in all their time at work."
And thus many of the perks, such as oil changes, carwashes and haircuts available on-site (but not free), are designed to free up employees' weekends and make the usual errand running a little less tedious.
The benefits are reminiscent of the seemingly long-ago dot-com days. But as many of those companies and the benefits that went with them faded away, Nvidia, a technology company best known for its sophisticated computer game graphics, kept going.
"Since it doesn't cost the company anything, as long as the employees are happy with it, and we encourage them to let us know what they need, we set these programs up for them," Luck said.
Luck said a company-wide survey sent every 18 months or so was done before the company applied to the Fortune 100 list. But it doesn't hurt to be recognized nationally. The company sent out a press release in January, when it was named to the list for the first time.
Nvidia also offers free lunch and dinner to employees on the premises. "We've done that since the beginning of the company. If everyone gets together, such as a family gets together, the communication between the groups remains in constant flow," Luck said.
"Whatever we can do to build a productive environment is part of our strategy," said Calisa Cole, company spokeswoman.
And then Cole said it:
"Nvidia realizes its greatest asset is its people."
Those words typically have no meaning for me, I hear them so often. But when a company backs those words up with some action, I think we all take notice.
Join Amy Joyce to discuss your life at work at www.washingtonpost.com from 11 a.m. to noon Tuesday. Have an idea for a column? E-mail her at email@example.com.