Creating an employee-friendly environment

While many people in today's society feel somewhat overworked and underpaid, it's bearable if you have a boss who appreciates and respects you. And if you add a comfortable and friendly work environment, often that is enough to keep employees happy and content. After all, money can't buy respect and happiness on the job. Even if you are in the enviable position of being able to pay your employees well, who wants a staff full of grumpy fat cats?

When you treat your employees well, salary no longer becomes the most important issue to them. "Money talks," acknowledges Paula Potter, club manager of the Airport Health Club, in Santa Rosa, Calif. "However appreciation and recognition are tops. And if an employee feels both of these, money becomes number three."

Monetary rewards aside, how can you create an employee-friendly environment? Here's some advice:

* Hire smart. "In our company, an employee-friendly environment starts with our recruiting process," says Patricia Harder, human resource director for Healthtrax, in Glastonbury, Conn. "Our mission statement has a phrase: 'People are our most important asset.' We support that by making sure that the managers we hire are responsible managers. We go through a process of at least two or three interviews and styles of interviews to determine an individual's compatibility with us." At the Airport Health Club, the manager of the department interviews potential hires, but depending upon the size of the staff so does one more staffer.

* Look for people who will complement and get along with your existing staff. "We don't necessarily look at technical skills so much as the qualities a person has, things you can't train a person to have," says Potter. "We focus on that and ask questions to find out whether or not this person thinks on her feet and is a team player. There are set questions we ask in every department so a supervisor isn't interviewing on the fly, but in an organized fashion."

* Get employees off to the right start. Healthtrax puts employees through an orientation to "reiterate what we talked about during the hiring process and give them the opportunity to understand their job from the beginning," says Harder. "It sends a message that we care, that the employee is an important asset because we are going to take the time to sit down and help the employee understand what his job is. It's a way to set expectations."

* Have an open-door policy. At Healthtrax, people "can go to any manager or to our president, and voice their concerns or share ideas," says Harder. "It's a very open communication culture. It shows employees that they're important and that what they say matters."

* Emphasize communication. "Create an environment where people feel they're informed and have the information they need to do their jobs," says Harder. At Healthtrax, weekly manager meetings and monthly staff meetings are routine. Also, quarterly company-wide meetings are held for department managers. Jobs are posted and newsletters distributed. "We make sure the employees know where the company is going and that they're informed of new resources and expectations," says Harder, "so they're supported not only by their managers but other colleagues." Communication also means opening up financial information and business goals so that everyone understands their profit and loss statements, adds Harder.

* Do regular performance reviews. "Anytime someone needs to get feedback when something isn't going right, that's not the most pleasant situation," says Harder. But since it has to be done, make it constructive and provide employees with concrete examples. "I encourage managers to use this script," says Harder. "'When I see this (not you did this), I get a feeling that you're not interested in hitting this objective. Help me understand this. Are you in agreement with this?' This way you give the employee an opportunity to explain her behavior. She may have misinterpreted what is expected. It may not be a disciplinary matter, but a correction of expectations."

* Invest in positive feedback recognition. At the Airport Health Club, managers of each department are given an "appreciation fund." Every four months each manager receives a stipend that she can spend "just in appreciating staff," says Potter. The money goes toward movie tickets, lottery tickets, parties, whatever the manager decides is the best way to appreciate her staff. "When a manager sees a staffer who has gone above and beyond the call of duty, she may write him a note and stick in two movie tickets," explains Potter.

Another way staffers are encouraged to express appreciation for one another is through the use of the bulletin board in the staff room. Blank cards are near the board and staffers are encouraged to write notes telling other staffers why they appreciate them. "We are trying to train people to give positive feedback whenever they can," says Potter.

Finally, staffers receive a little note with each paycheck thanking them for "whatever," says Potter. It can be as simple as "I saw you had a lot of people in your class this week," she adds. "Staffers love it."

* Empower your staff. The Airport Health Club provides each department with an emergency response kit. Within the kit are things such as cans of tennis balls, guest passes, gift certificates, water bottles and socks.

"When a situation arises, staffers are empowered to deal with the matter on their own, using an item from the kit as needed," says Potter. "The employee doesn't build up stress because he can fix the problem. He doesn't get all flustered with a member because he can't say anything. If a staff member can deal with something from start to finish and be the good guy and wow that customer, he ends up feeling great about himself.

"Once the matter has been resolved, the staff member completes a form, describing the situation and the solution. We may in reviewing the form suggest that the next time the staffer might try a different approach, but he knows that whatever he does is fine."

* Encourage teamwork. "Our employees are made to feel that they're respected, that they're part of this team and they're important no matter what they do," says Potter. Once a year, the Airport Health Club takes staffers out for some team-building exercises. (A few remain behind to keep the club open.)

"Staffers are divided into teams and must solve problems physically," explains Potter. "You have to get your whole team over this wall and across this field into this cargo net and over a beam. You learn everyone's strengths and weaknesses. You really have to depend upon each person for very different things. You learn to trust."

* Rethink the way you discipline. "We train department managers in coaching-being the coach as opposed to the disciplinarian," says Potter. "Catch things early enough and you can coach the employee in what's right and what's wrong without being critical, and without getting personal or emotional. Deal with the behavior you're seeing that is not appropriate. Look at solutions and agree on what you are going to do to change that behavior so that the employee can meet your expectations."

For example, if an employee is chronically late, say something to the effect: "Let's figure out why you're late and together we can help you take the appropriate action to be on time," advises Potter.

* Give people the opportunity to grow and expand their careers. At Healthtrax employees can "create their own job by wearing a multitude of hats," explains Harder. If someone has certain aspirations, he can take on other responsibilities and create his own job. For example, someone who is a trainer who also does group exercise may assume some duties in the fitness department. Someone else might do a few hours of childcare. Employees are compensated accordingly for taking on extra duties. The opportunity to tackle new tasks helps employees "feel a level of self-esteem and confidence," says Harder. "They feel more involved in the company."