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Stephanie Teixeira, right, an employee with Castle Community Care, was congratulated by Kevin Roberts, president and chief executive of Castle Medical Center, in the facility's lobby on Wednesday after being named Castle's employee of the month for her new healthy lifestyle. Castle encourages employee recognitions in order to build a culture of ohana that it believes breeds loyalty.
Holding on to good help
Businesses are using recognition and reward programs, personality profiles and facility resources to keep workers happy
ON A recent afternoon, several dozen employees gathered in the lobby of Castle Medical Center in Kailua to pay tribute to Stephanie Teixeira, a home-care assistant at Castle's Kaneohe branch.
Having lost 150 pounds in the past year, Teixeira was named the company's employee of the month based on accomplishments in improving her appearance and adopting a healthier lifestyle. For Teixeira, who thought she was coming to Kailua to move furniture, the award was a total surprise.
"I thought I was coming here to do some lifting," said Teixeira, her neck laden with leis and her wallet fattened with a $200 check from Castle's president and chief executive, Kevin Roberts. "I'm in shock right now, in total shock."
Castle's employee-of-the-month program might seem little more than a quaint frivolity, but for Castle it's essential to building a family-like corporate culture. And, according to executives with several local companies across a spectrum of industries, having a strong culture -- one that employees will want to be a part of -- is a key to retaining workers.
As Hawaii continues to enjoy an extraordinary, prolonged economic boom that has left employers scrambling to fill positions, it has never been more critical for firms to keep good employees.
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Barbara Pence, Richards Street YWCA director of finance and administration, hit the weights Thursday during a workout at the facility's fitness center. When interviewing candidates, the nonprofit stresses benefits such as free gym memberships and its mission of community service.
"It's a challenge hiring qualified people and keeping them, not only in Hawaii but across the country," said Melissa Pavlicek, executive director of the Hawaii Chapter of the Society for Human Resources Management. "There are very well-documented costs associated with having to replace employees; definitely keeping a good employee is very important to companies' bottom lines."
In essence, it can be cheaper to coddle a good employee than to hire a replacement.
"We have parties and celebrations and events like this because it reinforces this ohana culture that's been here for decades," said Roberts, Castle's CEO. "It doesn't cost a lot to treat employees well and to treat employees right."
The problem, said local entrepreneurship expert Linda Harris, is that many companies don't have the time and money to figure out how to chart their course.
"They resist it because they're in the throes of operating on a daily basis, and they don't sit down and go through the thinking themselves," said Harris, an adjunct instructor at the University of Hawaii's College of Business Administration. "There's always a fire to be fought."
As some executives see it, the best way to retain employees is to hire those who fit into the culture the company is trying to create. In the hospitality industry, this can mean hiring people based on personality traits rather than skills.
Ari Johnson, a supervisor with Palomino Restaurant in Honolulu, said the eatery, which is owned by Seattle-based Restaurants Unlimited Inc., screens applicants according to a matrix that includes such traits as communication skills, image, energy and "hospitality," which involves how well the applicant creates rapport with the interviewer through eye contact and interpersonal skills. Experience might count less than these attributes, Johnson said.
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With surfing shots in the background, Jeff Buck, left, and Randy Wolfshagen look on as Mary Lu Kelley tests out a telescope next to a weather monitor in Oceanit's Kauai office. Oceanit retains its corps of highly skilled engineers and scientists in part by hiring employees who want to be in Hawaii for reasons beyond work.
Once hired, employees get such perks as 25 percent discounts for parties of up to four people at Palomino and its sister restaurants, which include Kincaid's Fish, Chop and Steakhouse in Honolulu. Plus, Palomino often accepts transfers from RUI restaurants in other cities, Johnson said.
All of this breeds substantial loyalty, she said. Although Johnson could not quantify Palomino's turnover rate, she said that 10 percent of Palomino's 90-person staff has been there 10 years or longer.
"We hire the best and take care of them," she said.
At Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, executives take an even more intense approach to hiring people with the right personalities.
"The big issue with Four Seasons is the environment," said Thomas Steinhauer, regional vice president for Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts in Hawaii and general manager of the 810-employee Four Seasons Resort Maui. "There isn't a magic bullet. There is a philosophical approach to how you deal with employees, the way you treat guests."
Although Steinhauer said the overarching principle is the Golden Rule, it's not a given that everyone will know intuitively how to apply that while serving guests in a fast-moving environment. The company conducts at least four interviews to make sure candidates are a good match.
"There might be some brilliant person out there on a technical basis who we don't hire," Steinhauer said.
Once hired, employees are brought into a company where a minimum of rigid policies encourages workers to take the initiative. That gives employees considerable power and responsibility. Although there are no limits on the amounts of money an employee can spend to solve a guest's problem, for example, workers are required to use common sense when exercising that power, Steinhauer said.
As a result of this culture, Four Seasons' annual turnover rate is less than 12 to 13 percent, compared with a national industry average of about 50 percent, Steinhauer said.
"You, as an employee, have to feel you are part of something, and you will automatically take ownership," Steinhauer said. "It all comes down to a sense of ownership and pride. And that's what drives retention."
Creativity, teamwork key
It's not just hospitality companies that look for the right soft skills.
Firms like resort architects Wimberly Allison Tong & Goo and Oceanit Laboratories Inc., an engineering and research and development firm, both need highly skilled workers who are at once enormously creative and capable of working in teams toward a common goal.
Managers at both of these creative mills described their corporate cultures as decidedly non-hierarchical. Oceanit employees, many of who have doctorates, are told to "check their egos and diplomas at the door," said Oceanit spokesman Ian Kitajima.
Meanwhile, at WATG's 70-person Honolulu office, architects and designers are divided into working groups called "families." The atmosphere is so collegial and democratic that when WATG's highly skilled renderers and illustrators go outside with their sketchbooks for impromptu drawing sessions, they typically invite along a secretary from the office who also likes to draw, said Howard Wolff, a WATG senior vice president.
Oceanit helps maintain a turnover rate of around 2 percent annually by hiring people who want to be in Hawaii, Kitajima said. The company's engineers and scientists are skilled enough to "work anywhere," including in more lucrative markets in the mainland. The key, he said, is to find people who have family ties to Hawaii or an interest in a hobby such as surfing to keep them in the islands.
"We don't want to prejudice things, but we want somebody who has a connection to Hawaii -- a reason to be in Hawaii other than the job," Kitajima said.
Bank gives $1,000 credit
Living by a corporation's stated values, vision and mission means much more than simply hanging a statement on a wall. Managers particularly have to live according to the tenets articulated, said Harris, the entrepreneurship expert.
"When that's happening consistently, that's what you call 'organizational integrity,' " she said.
For 1,450-employee American Savings Bank, organizational integrity leads to unique benefits for employees. To demonstrate the bank's "deep respect for learning," for instance, the company gives each employee a $1,000 credit every three years to spend on computer hardware, peripherals and software for their personal use. The bank also subsidizes high-speed Internet access at home. The idea is to encourage employees to stay abreast of the latest technology by incorporating it into their lives, said Sherri Aoyama, executive vice president for work-force excellence and support.
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Interior designer Trixie Ballesteros, left, project manager Dori Gusman, and architectural designer Sandra Vajcs sorted through canned goods Thursday at the offices of Wimberly Allison Tong & Goo in downtown Honolulu. At right is the start of a model of a lifesize wave made of canned pineapples. The service project, which eventually will be donated to feed needy people, embodies the creative, service-oriented spirit of the resort design firm.
Although hardly cheap, the technology program, Aoyama said, is "an investment in our future."
Castle Medical Center, likewise, takes concrete steps to demonstrate organizational integrity. It offers day care for children of workers, including infants. It continually recognizes employees for hard work and accomplishments. And as an affiliate of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Castle has a spiritual mission that appeals to people looking for something more than a purely secular occupation, said Jasmin Rodriguez, a hospital spokeswoman.
On a more worldly level, starting this fall, the hospital will begin sponsoring an on-site MBA program in health-care administration affiliated with Loma Linda University. That, said Kathy Raethel, vice president for patient care services, will enable employees to earn an advanced degree from an accredited university without having to leave the hospital.
"How do you retain employees?" Rodriguez said. "You retain by taking care of each other."
YWCA offers its resources
Although some policies clearly carry big costs, others do not. The YWCA of Oahu is a case in point. When Cheryl Kauhane Lupenui took over there as president and chief executive, she faced a dilemma. As a "social enterprise," the organization needed to operate like a business, generating revenue needed to pay for the social programs central to its mission. And that meant a need for people with MBAs and strong business knowledge.
At the same time, as a non-profit, the 130-employee YWCA couldn't pay those employees as much as many for-profit companies could pay them.
That led Kauhane Lupenui to approach highly attractive candidates with a defeatist attitude.
"I'd see really good resumes and say, 'We can't afford this person,'' she recalled. "And it really wasn't our decision to make. It was the applicant's decision to make."
After attending a series of workshops with management guru Rayona Sharpnack, Kauhane Lupenui changed her attitude, and began focusing on what the YWCA could offer beyond money: free gym memberships and on-site classes, a culture that encourages employees to balance work and family, and a mission to contribute to the community's social welfare. Since then, the organization has been able to attract and retain workers it never would have attempted to hire.
The key, she said, was to define and articulate the culture that the YMCA wanted to promote.
"It's hard to attract someone to your mission if you're not clear on what it means," she said.