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1996 Vision Optimas Award Profile Rhino Foods Inc.

You are a mad scientist, trying to create the perfect employee of the future. As lightning crackles outside, you labor furiously in your laboratory. There must be no mistakes — it’s a very delicate experiment. To start with, this perfect employee must be independent and empowered, be able to strike out on its own, not hover at the skirts of its employer. Then again, it must be involved and interested in the workplace, eager to interact with co-workers and make an impact on the business. Finally, your creation must be positive and proactive, the kind of employee who sees challenges rather than problems and who enjoys work.

You are a mad scientist, and you are frustrated. The experiment proves not just delicate but downright difficult. It may be impossible. As lightning again shocks the sky, you pour another cup of coffee and sulk.

Don’t wave the white flag quite yet. There’s a tiny company up in Burlington, Vermont, that just may have the workforce of the future. Its employees create solutions to problems on their own. They go after what they want. They offer up innovations without even being asked. They work in cohesive teams, competing (in a friendly way) for leadership. They actually have a fair amount of fun at work.

Besides being a rarity, why is this such a big deal? Because if the competitive advantage of tomorrow’s companies truly rests in their workforces, then the quicker- and smarter- and bolder-thinking a company’s workforce is, the more likely that company is to slam the competition.

So meet the competition — a firm with the foresight to build a futuristic workforce from the start while the rest of us were still puttering with the blueprint. Thanks to a menu of progressive HR programs, it boasts a dream team of employees who look impressively ready to tackle the 21st century — now. Welcome to Rhino Foods Inc.

Independent, empowered employees aren’t afraid of doing for themselves.
These days, employees can’t be spoon-fed, pampered and attended to like so many jittery kindergartners. They must be able to do for themselves, to act on their own. Over-attachment to one’s employer is deadly. Yet with the recurring downsizings of the past few years, it’s tempting for many employees to cling all the more tightly to their company, like castaways grasping their rafts in a stormy sea.

That’s what makes the way Rhino employees handled a potential layoff all the more impressive. In 1993, Rhino hit a slowdown period. For a firm of about 40 employees, this was potentially devastating — the company had a temporary overload of 10 production jobs, one-fourth of the workforce. But, in a refreshing turn of events, the higher-ups at the company didn’t whisper behind closed doors about who would stay and who would go. Instead, they called a company meeting and let the workers in on the problem. A group of 26 employees — more than half the workforce — took on the challenge: Find a way to keep a paycheck coming outside of Rhino job descriptions.

A lot of workforces would have been determined to keep a foot in the door of their company. Rhino’s employees decided on a better idea — they pushed away from their company. With the help of Marlene Dailey, director of HR, they hooked up with local businesses that needed extra hands for a time.

Ted Castle, president and owner, called a second meeting to ask for volunteers — pioneers — for the program. “He said that no one had tried this before and that we as a company would be sticking our neck out,” remembers quality assurance technician Stephen Mayo, a four-year employee. To offer a little security, Castle guaranteed the volunteers would have their jobs upon return as long as they fulfilled their duties at their “temporary employers.”

In the summer of 1993, six workers headed over to Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Inc., a major customer of Rhino (Rhino, a specialty-dessert manufacturer, makes the chocolate-chip cookie dough that goes in a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream). Another four volunteers went to jobs at Gardener’s Supply Company, a catalog firm of gardening products. Mayo was one of those employees. Why volunteer? “Basically it was to impress Rhino and make me more of an asset, make the company proud of me, show executives I’ll go the extra mile for the company,” he says.

For two months that summer, Mayo worked as a picker/packer, collecting the catalog items on a customer’s order and then shipping them off. He worked out in the sun, met a few new friends, even implemented a few changes around the warehouse to make gathering items easier. Even better, the whole time he was clocking in at Gardener’s, Mayo, just as all the other volunteers in the employee-exchange program, kept his seniority, his benefits and accrued vacation. The starting wage at Gardener’s was a little below his Rhino paycheck, so Gardener paid its share and Rhino made up the extra. “People ask me if I’d do it again,” says Mayo. “In a heartbeat. It’s like a vacation: You go somewhere a few months knowing you’ll be secure here. You know you’re eventually coming home. And it’s nice to get back home.”

Mayo isn’t the only one who would do it again. Dailey says the company enjoyed a much higher level of morale and trust from the exchange program than if they’d just gone through a round of layoffs. “If we got to an area where we’d have to downsize again, we’d absolutely consider that,” she says. “It was a really effective [initiative] during a potentially devastating time. It turned out to be scary and tense, but it really ended up cementing the team.”

Employees who challenge themselves personally see a difference professionally too.
Scary and tense situations are usually carefully avoided by employees, right? Obviously, not at Rhino. For the past few years, a special program has helped employees challenge themselves even more. They’re encouraged to set and achieve goals — no matter how intimidating they may be. It’s called the wants program, and it works like this: A group of eight employees — from all areas and levels in the company — are trained as wants coordinators and are available one-on-one to any Rhino worker. Employees, on company time, meet with their wants coordinator once every quarter for an hour to set goals and work on achieving those goals.

Wants don’t have to be work-related. Although some employees might choose to focus on winning a promotion, others might set their sights on dreams as diverse as reuniting with a family member, writing a book or learning to skydive. The point is to empower employees to set goals and make things happen — on their own. To that end, Dailey carefully trains her wants coordinators on coaching employees, not just giving them the answers. For instance, if an employee were working toward buying a house, a wants coordinator wouldn’t say, “Oh, I’ve bought three houses, here’s how you do it.” Instead, the person would ask about what steps the employee was taking, the challenges he or she faced and what the employee would do about it. “There’s a difference between a want and a fantasy,” explains Dailey. “A want is something you’re willing to take action on.”

Between the training for the coordinators (about 90 minutes every two weeks for three months) and the actual meeting time (one hour four times a year for any employee who wants it) the program doesn’t come cheap. But Rhino feels it has gained a lot in return. For one thing, the company acknowledges the strong synergy between work life and personal life. If an employee achieves goals on a personal level, he or she can focus that much more on work. In addition, empowered employees are simply better employees. “The more they understand that they create their own world, whether it’s here or at home, the more confidence they have in their abilities,” says Dailey. “They’re more likely to speak up and offer their ideas.”

Troy Tsounis, a shipping and receiving worker, agrees. He has been a wants coordinator since the program’s inception and says he’s seen his skills grow because of his role. “The communications skills it [teaches] are superb,” he says. “I know how to talk to people and how to listen. I use the skills at work and at home also.”

Because Rhino has nearly doubled its staff in the past 16 months — it currently has more than 80 employees — Dailey and the wants coordinators have put the program temporarily on hold. They want to see how it can evolve to better meet the needs of a growing workforce. One incarnation under consideration would be a life-skills program that would emphasize goal-setting and communication skills, just as the wants program.

The main difference of the considered program is that it would be less intensely one-on-one and more peer-oriented, with employees using each other as a support system. “We were finding that after a while people are able to do this on their own and the need for a wants coordinator goes away, ” says Dailey. “Some people like the discipline of seeing someone and having deadlines, but for others, it’s ‘Thanks, this has been great, but I can go off on my own now’ — which is what we’re looking for anyway.”

Just as Rhino attests, empowered employees are proven value-adders. A study conducted this year by Los Angeles-based University of Southern California’s Center for Business Effectiveness found that companies with “high use of power-sharing programs” had a 10.3% return on sales compared to 6.3% among low-use organizations. In addition, in a 1995 Personnel Journal reader survey, 81% said they thought an empowered workforce is “worth the time and energy it takes to create,” and 81% also said it will be an “integral part of workplaces in the future.”

Rhino keeps employees involved in their workplace.
Another integral part of the future workplace: teams, teams and more teams. This clarion call echoes throughout the country today; we’re on a never-ending search for that perfect mixture of people to make that perfect team. Just as a group of Rhino employees was involved in avoiding that 1993 layoff, so are teams involved in nearly every aspect of the company.

For many projects, teams are created by enlisting people from all different parts of the business through opportunity postings. Similar to job postings, opportunity postings alert employees to project openings throughout the company. The posting will describe the nature of the opportunity as well as the necessary level of commitment.

When Dailey wanted to form a hiring committee using production workers, she posted the opportunity and asked for one year’s commitment. A daunting proposition at some companies, but Dailey had no problem finding four interested employees. For training, these volunteers sat in on interviews conducted by the incumbents of the hiring team — two HR people (including Dailey) and two supervisors. Afterward, the incumbents would offer a self-critique of the interview — what went right and what could be improved. The production volunteers also underwent training on the legalities, technique and etiquette of interviewing.

The four employees are now qualified to assist in hiring all entry-level jobs. They have a checklist that flags questions that are important to ask all candidates. And guess what? Several of those questions revolve around… teamwork. “We’ll ask questions like, ‘Can you tell us in the past what was the most team-oriented job you had?’ Or ‘Tell us the three words your teammates would use to describe you as a member,'” says Dailey.

These questions are important for finding good team members — and leaders. In the past year, Rhino has tinkered a bit with its approach to identifying team leaders. Used to be that employees on a production team rotated so that everyone had a chance to be both a leader and a member. Now that the company has expanded, and switched to skill-based pay, team leaders have to really show they deserve their position. So employees work their way up the team ladder until they can become a leader assistant. Before anyone can apply for a team-leader position (there are only four among the 40 production bakers), they must have first demonstrated their skills as an assistant. The director of operations, a trainer, two production supervisors and Dailey decide which applicant is awarded the team-leader role.

But most want to be team leaders or, at the very least, involved in a team. Dailey says that’s a common thread whenever she talks to employees about their appreciation for Rhino — being part of a team that really impacts the company.

Perhaps that’s the reason Rhino employees stay so involved — because Rhino makes their involvement mean something. For instance, despite a grueling production schedule, the company shuts down nearly every other week for at least 30 minutes for companywide meetings. “It really makes a difference — in people getting to know each other, in people knowing what’s going on in the company and really feeling connected to it,” says Dailey. In these meetings, the company addresses issues that affect everyone and invites employees to comment or question. For instance, when Rhino decided to introduce a 401(k), the company didn’t just slap down a plan and explain how it worked. Instead, it let the workforce in early on the process. Because the 401(k) is self-directed, Rhino wanted employees to feel comfortable with their vendor. So the three 401(k) contenders came into a company meeting and each made presentations on their services. The employees then voted on the winner. Is the participation level in the 401(k) high? Of course.

As the company profits, so do employees.
Just as Rhino shares information with employees, it shares success. In fact, the company has not one, not two, but three profit-sharing programs. They’re designed to recognize the workforce as a whole for performance, the workforce as a whole by seniority, as well as employees for individual performance.

The first program, around for the past six years, is playfully called The Game. Every day Rhino posts key information that shows where the company stands financially — its “score” for the day. For instance, on Tuesday, the score may indicate that if operations continue smoothly, each employee will receive $26 at month’s end. On Wednesday, the score may be down to $10 or $1. But all the information is posted to inform employees what happened on Tuesday to cause the drop — maybe a lot of product had to be scrapped. The point is, employees always know where they stand and what they have to do to keep their bonuses, which are given once a month in equal amounts to all employees.

To also acknowledge employees’ contributions to the company over time, a six-month profit sharing is distributed to people based on seniority. “If we make money, the people here for one year would get a small amount,” says Dailey. “The people who participated in the growth of the company over a longer period of time would get a lot. It doesn’t matter if they’re making $8 an hour, they’ll get a heck of a lot more than I will [Dailey’s been at Rhino four years].”

Finally, a pool of extra profits can be distributed to individuals based on their performance. “These programs keep employees tuned into the bottom line,” says Dailey. Castle himself names the profit-sharing initiatives among Rhino’s proudest accomplishments.

Positive, proactive employees like coming to work.
At some organizations, you can always spy the employee who has goofed up. The poor, errant worker is generally huddled in a corner of the cubicle, waiting for the boom to drop. Rhino is not one of those organizations. It’s not a blame-based type of company. It’s a “let’s identify the problem and figure out the solution together” kind of company.

For instance, instead of higher-ups giving orders and doling out punishments if those orders aren’t met, the company uses terminology called “requests and promises.” Both the request and the promise must be clearly understood, ensuring neither side can blame the other for miscommunication. If, for example, a new employee is starting at Rhino, Dailey may contact a trainer and request the trainer conduct an orientation. The trainer then makes the promise of performing the orientation or explains why he or she can’t make that promise. “We have to be good at making clear requests and keeping promises,” says Dailey. “Here, we say business is a series of conversations. The conversations can’t fall apart on either end.”

And what if the trainer makes the promise and then forgets about it? “We’ll say that having a bad memory isn’t an excuse,” says Dailey. “They have to find the tools to help them have a better memory.” In the past, Dailey has kept a supply of date books around for just such occasions — she’ll have a talk about time management and then suggest penciling in commitments.

A blunder such as forgetting a promise might fall under the Rhino rubric, breakdowns to breakthroughs: “We look at problems as breakdowns,” says Castle. “They’re really not problems; they’re opportunities for breakthroughs. They’re challenges to make things better.” The point, however, isn’t just how well the problem is solved, but the fact that it’s considered an opportunity, not an evil.

This positive spin is never more evident than in Rhino’s fun committee, a small team whose mission is simple: Dream up fun things for employees to do. For instance, after one company meeting, the workforce embarked on an ice-cream sculpture competition. Teams were supplied with big blocks of ice cream and candy decorations like rainbow-colored gummy worms, sprinkles and chocolate drops. One team glopped together a sculpture of “Champ,” the mythical serpent creature that’s nearby Lake Champlain’s answer to the Loch Ness monster.

But the fun committee also will put together projects to diffuse tension in the workplace. One year, Rhino was having huge ups and downs in production for a particular specialty product. After a series of trials, the employees finally made their goal — nine truckloads of the goody. For their catharsis, the director of operations slipped into his hockey outfit — gloves, face guard and all — and headed outside. There, employees got to have a high noon showdown with him, wielding piles of leftover frosted cheesecake at the man. “We work pretty hard and have a lot of pressure to grow the company,” says Dailey. “Increasing sales and product requires a ton of teamwork. So the fun committee does little things that make a big difference.”

Keeping its special culture intact.
The fun committee and open communication in general are going to be important through the rest of 1996: The company is still having some growing pains. Rhino has worked long and hard to establish its special brand of culture, and Castle worries about it being diluted with so many new employees coming on board. “You hire 10 people and then 10 more, and pretty soon you have a critical mass of people who don’t know what you’re talking about,” he says. “The challenge for us is to be able to continue with the programs while our workforce is changing and growing.”

Castle believes the continual companywide meetings and his open-door policy will help Rhino fight the good fight. And it’s the openness of Rhino that many employees say they appreciate the most. Just ask Tsounis, the wants coordinator: “If you speak your mind proactively, people will definitely listen. It’s a very comfortable atmosphere.”

Mayo, the employee-exchange volunteer, echoes the appreciation. “I can be honest, I’m not wild about working.” he says. “But working at Rhino, I can get out of bed, and I don’t have the work knots. I look forward to being here the time I need to be here. It’s unlike any company I’ve ever worked for. And Ted [Castle] knows I’ll be here until I retire. As long as the company needs what I’m giving it and it’s giving me what I need, I’ll be here without a doubt.”

So, with Rhino employees boasting so many attributes, what does Dailey appreciate most? Her answer gives insight to the special interdependence between employer and employee that makes Rhino so unique. “The workers care about what happens here,” she says. “We feel it’s up to the company to make sure that they care. They’re a responsible, creative workforce. It’s definitely a shared success for this company.”

So, you’re a mad scientist, trying to create the perfect employee of the future. As the lightning crackles in the background, you’re poring over your notebooks and mixing together volatile potions. You’re slurping down more coffee and cursing under your breath. Save yourself the headache. You may just want to head for a visit to Rhino Foods and watch the experiment in action.

Workforce, July 1996, Vol. 75, No.7, pp. 36-43.