The unemployment rate may be up, but some local hightech employers say creativity is still required to attract and retain top talent.
Bozeman Daily Chronicle
BY NICOLE ROSENLEAF RITTER
PHOTOGRAPHY BY THOMAS LEE
GOING TO THE DOGS SEEMS TO BE A WINNING STRATEGY. So do Fun Committees, charitable giving programs and the chance for continuous learning. An emphasis on family doesn't hurt either. Three of the area's leading "new economy" employers - Zoot Enterprises Inc., RightNow Technologies of Bozeman and PrintingForLess.com of Livingston - offer such unusual perks. Human resources staff at the three enterprises emphasize that the sometimes quirky benefits are necessary to find and keep employees - even in a local economy that is softening. "The kind of people we want to be a part of this organization have choices all over the world and in all kinds of different companies, and they're the most important ingredient to what we do," Kevin Boylan, director of human resources for RightNow Technologies, explains. "We want to be sure we're doing all we can to recruit and retain the best employees.
"These are not people who are going to be having trouble finding jobs," he adds.
While anecdotal evidence has indicated an easing in the employee shortage in the greater Bozeman area, statistics have only recently begun to back it up. In April 2008 - the latest month for which statistics were available - the Montana Department of Labor and Industry confirmed that unemployment has risen in Gallatin County. The 3.2 percent rate was lower than Montana's statewide average - 3.9 percent - but more than one percentage point higher than the rate just a year ago.
The rise should be good news for HR departments seeking to hire, but RightNow, PFL and Zoot all note that staffing is still hard work because of the caliber of employee they seek.
As Zoot Enterprises HR director Ruth Kronfuss notes, "It's always a challenge to find the right people. We are continually looking at our benefits and what we have to offer to make sure that we are attractive."
DOGS AND KIDS
Every day is a dog day afternoon at PFL and Zoot, where employees are allowed - even encouraged - to bring their (well-behaved) dogs to work. Suzie Lalich, PFL's benefit specialist, says that the company's dog policy helps draw potential employees to the company - and keep them there once hired. "When we're recruiting people, the dogs at work program is one of the main attractors," Lalich says.
The company recently celebrated Pet Sitters International's "Take Your Dog to Work Day," with dog contests and agility training. On regular work days dogs and their owners can take outdoor breaks on the company's campus on the outskirts of Livingston, and even the non-dog-owning employees often keep puppy treats at their desks.
PFL's founder and CEO Andrew Field is one of the policy's chief proponents. He noted in a recent press release that the policy "helps staff morale and builds camaraderie among employees." His own dog, Jesse, is a daily presence at PFL.
Field and his counterparts in management at Zoot have found that allowing dogs not only aids in recruitment and retention, but also contributes to the business's bottom line. A PFL press release indicates that having pooches around "aids in creating a more productive work environment, helps stimulate employee creativity, offers a great social catalyst for relationship development between coworkers and decreases employee absenteeism."
PFL took family inclusion one step further in 2003, when it founded Montana's first companysponsored onsite daycare for employees' children. Benefits specialist Lalich notes that the facility is another huge draw for potential employees and also contributes to lowering turnover rates.
"If you have your child in the childcare facility, you'll probably have to really think about whether you want to leave the company," she explains. She notes that since the daycare was founded, other Montana companies have contacted PFL wanting help setting up their own or similar facilities.
"In that way we also like to be trendsetters for Montana employers," Lalich says. "We want to help integrate progressive practices into Montana workplaces, which sometimes lag behind in benefits."
Zoot, too, offers its employees help with childcare. CEO and founder Chris Nelson provided money for the startup costs of a group of employees who wanted to start a daycare that would be convenient for Zoot workers. While it is maintained as a separate company from Zoot and is not technically sponsored by the organization, HR director Ruth Kronfuss explains that Zoot helps support it using some of the money it collects for below-ground parking fees.
"There's a lot of strong support from Zoot for the center," she adds.
Welcoming family - of both the human and canine variety - is one way that local high-tech employers compete for talent in the larger workplace. Empowering employees to be involved in the community and to keep learning is another.
At RightNow and Zoot, employees are eligible for matching funds to support the charitable causes of their choice, up to $250 per year. "It ends up being a big chunk of money," RightNow HR director Kevin Boylan says. "And that's decided entirely by employees, not by the company."
RightNow also makes it easy for employees to give their time, not just their money, to local charities and nonprofit organizations.
"We encourage all employees to donate 40 hours a year to community service," Boylan says. Popular causes include Big Brothers Big Sisters, Eagle Mount and Habitat for Humanity.
With more than 750 employees worldwide, RightNow can have a tremendous impact in their communities, he notes. "If all of our employees contribute 40 hours a year, that would be the equivalent of 30,000 hours per year or 14.5 full-time employees for the nonprofit sector," Boylan indicates. "And our employees feel proud that the company will pay them to work on causes that they care about."
These companies also support continuing education in the form of company training, professional development or even academic studies for their employees.
RightNow offers a $5,000-per-year tuition reimbursement for employees pursuing advanced degrees or additional training. Both PFL and Zoot have extensive in-house training programs for new employees. At PFL, most new employees go through a 10- to 12-week paid training program before they are integrated into the company.
"We want to invest in and develop our employees," PFL's Lalich says. "We find that it keeps them wanting to learn and grow with the company."
BRINGING THE FUN IN
One unquantifiable element - fun - represents an additional "benefit" that these companies offer their employees.
"We try to provide a fun, friendly work environment," Zoot's Kronfuss notes. "And our surveys find that one of the things people like most
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about working here is that environment." Both Zoot and PFL have employee-driven "Fun Committees" that organize on- and off-site activities such as picnics, athletic events, parties and work-time diversions.
"From summer golf outings to family pumpkin carving contests, the company comes together and enjoys being together, improving morale and employee relationships," Kronfuss explained in a follow-up brief. "Even small things, like ice cream socials to celebrate birthdays each month, make a big difference."
RightNow celebrated a successful first quarter this year by offering employees in all of its locations a day off from work. In Bozeman, the company sponsored a workday outing to Bridger Bowl, HR director Boylan says. "Everybody went up and skied for the day," he notes. "The lift tickets were paid and the lunch was paid, and everybody got to have a day off work."
While offering several hundred employees free skiing would represent a significant outlay for most businesses, PFL's Lalich notes that not all "fun" benefits have to be costly.
"You don't have to spend a lot of money to do some of these things that make employees happy," she insists, citing the examples of negotiated discounts for employees at local businesses.
Overall, making employees happy is an emphasis at all three enterprises.
"Happy, comfortable workers are productive workers," Zoot's Kronfuss noted in her brief. "Through fun, teamwork, respect, and an orientation to the importance of family, Zoot attracts the best and brightest - and keeps them."
It's a sentiment that her human resources colleagues at PFL and RightNow would no doubt echo as they go about their still-challenging job of trying to find and keep the talent that drives their businesses.
Editor's note: The author's husband is employed by PrintingForLess.com in Livingston.
Nicole Rosenleaf Ritter is the managing editor of Business to Business and At Home.