From Marriott to Ernst & Young to General Mills, why some companies excel

From personalized development plans to comprehensive wellness programs, some of America's top companies excel through treating their employees excellently.

By , Correspondent

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    Dianne Paskievich, lead banquet server, clears plates during a private lunch event at the Boston Marriott Long Wharf hotel in Boston on Nov. 17. Ms. Paskievich has worked with Marriott for fifteen years. She says it's great working with Marriott: "They take care of you and make sure their employees are happy...They're very family friendly and have accommodated my lifestyle. I never mind coming to work."
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There are good reasons that some companies are consistently rated among the best employers to work for. Consider:

•Vegetable cutters at General Mills’ plant in Irapuato, Mexico, can stretch with 10 minutes of salsa dancing per shift – in addition to normal breaks.

Marriott International in partnership with Rosetta Stone pays for any staffer to learn a foreign language. Since the hotel chain announced a new phase of globalization earlier this year, the program has grown 40 to 50 percent.

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Accenture employees can put money away to fund a sabbatical of up to three months.

Ernst & Young is so eager to help its employees progress that each one – and there are 144,000 worldwide – gets a customized “learning map” that shows what skills and training they need to move up in the ranks.

Although these employers represent different industries, their corporate cultures share key traits. To see if your company measures up, ask yourself: Does it go out of its way to care for your needs, develop your skills, and foster a sense that your work – and everyone’s job – matters? If it does, there’s a corporate payoff: Happy workers tend to be productive employees. The payoff may be doubly important today.

As the economy flickers back to life, many workers are itching for change. Some 45 percent said they planned to seek a new employer, career, or industry when the economy revives, according to a recent survey by CareerBuilder and Robert Half International. Such wholesale flight could trigger alarm bells in much of corporate America. That’s because finding and training a replacement manager or professional employee can cost at least as much as a new hire’s annual salary, says James Dulebohn, a management professor at Michigan State University in East Lansing.

But employers that excel in motivating employees don’t appear too worried. “We have very low employee turnover – always less than half of conventional turnover,” says Mike Davis, senior vice president of global human resources for General Mills.

By offering a slew of programs for employees, from comprehensive healthcare and wellness programs, to career development, child care, and other offerings, the Minneapolis-based food giant ranks quite high in employee satisfaction. Just ask Diane Hughes and Laurie Brown, mothers who in 2005 were senior finance managers at General Mills.

“Laurie and I had wanted to balance career-advancement opportunities with family needs,” Ms. Hughes says. “We put together a one-pager on a career-sharing idea and very quickly got the company’s commitment. General Mills was very supportive of our proposal.” The two women shared their position, which worked so well that within a year, they got promoted to a shared position as finance director. That lasted until this past September, when the women chose to take full-time positions with the company.

General Mills’ reputation “boils down to the leadership of CEO Ken Powell, who instills deep confidence in people, the company’s ability to attract amazing talent, and its sincere belief in the importance of work-life balance,” says Robert Hohman, cofounder and CEO of Glassdoor.com, a career website promoting workplace transparency. The Sausalito, Calif., company ranked General Mills No. 1 in its survey of the 50 best places to work in 2009. In November, a survey of the world’s best firms for producing leaders ranked General Mills No. 3.

The best employers also find creative ways to reward achievement by workers – even in far-flung locations.

For several days each year, Marriott International fetes 10 or so of its stellar employees by bringing them to company headquarters in Bethesda, Md., where they’re greeted and cheered by employees. The hoopla includes a tour of Washington, D.C., and a gala night “that resembles the Oscars,” says David Rodriguez, executive vice president of global human resources for the hotel chain. Honorees could be any of Marriott’s 146,000 employees from around the world. The celebration “is the highlight of the year,” Mr. Rodriguez says.

“This is just one of the ways Marriott recognizes employees’ contributions and is a positive example of their caring culture,” says Amy Lyman, co-founder of Great Place to Work Institute, a research and management consultancy based in San Francisco. “Marriott goes to great lengths to let employees know their good work is recognized and valued,” she says.

Another theme among best employers: career development. Among its offerings, Ernst & Young provides a “developmental framework” – called Ernst & Young and You or EYU – customized for each employee. Over the course of their careers, employees get a learning map that includes a set of experiences they’ll need in order to grow and advance at the company. For some, training portions of the program may address technical accounting and licensing issues. “But a lot involves executive presentations on managing people and providing effective feedback,” among other topics, says Nancy Altobello, vice chair of people at Ernst & Young’s US headquarters in New York, part of the London-based professional-services company.

Employees arrange their schedules to ensure they apply what they’ve learned to their job. All the while, they’re being coached. “Everybody, from administrative assistant through partner, participates in EYU,” says Ms. Altobello. “We want everyone to achieve their potential.”

For the 11th year in a row, Fortune magazine has rated Ernst & Young among its 100 best places to work, noting the high number of managers who come back to work for the company and get credit for their previous tenure in calculating retirement benefits. Marriott, General Mills, and Accenture also made Fortune’s list (see chart).

Of course, no company has an unblemished name. In early 2007, Marriott and plaintiffs negotiated a $1.35 million settlement, including upping affected workers’ wages, in a class action lawsuit involving some workers at three Marriott hotels in San Francisco. Marriott had been accused of failing to abide by San Francisco’s minimum-wage law and not posting notices of the legal minimum wage.

In addition, companies sometimes have to make hard decisions, especially in a weak global economy. In April, Ernst & Young urged its 8,500 workers in Hong Kong, Macau, and mainland China to take 40 days of low-paid leave by June 2010. Participants get 20 percent of their pay but keep all their benefits. The same month, General Mills announced it was closing its pasta and bread factory in Contagem, Brazil, and making other restructuring moves, affecting some 500 employees.

“Being a great company doesn’t completely insulate you from the unfortunate realities of the world,” says Jeff Wittenberg, chief leadership officer at Kaye/Bassman International Corp., an executive search firm in Plano, Texas.

Some companies also expect staffers to put in long hours and travel extensively. The best employers try to mitigate those effects, says Ms. Lyman of Great Place to Work Institute. “Organizations first need to have a commitment to work-life balance. But by using technology, companies find it easier to provide such offerings as job-sharing and telecommuting.”

Such programs can also be a lifeline in a personal crisis, as Accenture senior manager Jeremy Began found out.

Two years ago, his family’s printing business was ailing, due to the economy and the illness of the company’s general manager. Even though he didn’t want to quit Accenture, a global management consulting firm, “there was no other family member available to help address the company’s problems,” he recalls.
Then he heard of Accenture’s new offering, called “future leave.” It allows employees to put some of their salary into a direct deposit account to fund a future unpaid sabbatical lasting up to three months – four, if combined with other leave. Mr. Began seized the opportunity and took a four-month sabbatical to help the printing company (although he opted for an unpaid sabbatical because he lacked the time to fund a future leave account).

Today, the family business is financially “back on track,” says Began, who’s back at Accenture, where he’s worked since graduating from college. Now, he says, he’s “even more committed to Accenture and to our clients.”

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