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1993 Quality of Life Optimas Award Profile Stride Rite Corp.

July 1, 1993
Related Topics: Work/Life Balance, Featured Article
Finger paintings. Walking canes. Toy trucks. Crochet hooks. Sandboxes. Trifocal glasses. This curious mixture of artwork and artifact isn't found in most workplaces. At The Stride Rite Corp., however, it is.

These intergenerational objects are on-site for a good reason—they're items that belong to people who are enrolled in Stride Rite's Intergenerational Center—the first of its kind in Corporate America. The center, a day-care facility for children and elder dependents, is just one example of Stride Rite's corporate commitment to building a better quality of life for its workers and the communities of which it's a part.

For more than 20 years, Stride Rite has maintained a commitment to being a good corporate citizen, both internally and externally—beginning long before it was en vogue to do so. Because of its extraordinary commitment to creating, supporting and maintaining high standards of excellence in the quality of life it provides for its employees, The Stride Rite Corp. has won the 1993 Personnel Journal Optimas Award in the Quality of Life category.

Annually, Personnel Journal gives the Optimas Award in the Quality of Life category to an HR department that has taken a proactive approach to improving the quality of life for its employees. Efforts designed to address such concerns as the growing demand for child and elder care, employee pursuit of higher education, community involvement, and so on, are reflected in this award.

Stride Rite meets all of these criteria and more. However, the list of quality-of-life initiatives at Stride Rite starts with child care. The organization has the distinction of having been the first U.S. corporation to provide on-site day care for its employees and for community children. The company opened a day-care program at its former Boston headquarters in 1971.

The organization now provides employees with on-site child care at its corporate headquarters and at its nearby distribution center in Boston. It added elder care to its Cambridge day-care facility in 1990—another first for a U.S. corporation. The center currently serves a total of 55 young children and 30 elders.

At business operations where it doesn't provide on-site day care for employees, the company provides child-and elder-care resource-and-referral services. In addition to day care, the company incorporates other progressive work structures into its operations, such as job-sharing, part-time hours and flex time. The company not only encourages workers to get involved in their communities, but it also pays for them to do so, either through one of the many programs with which it's involved, or through programs of the employees' choosing (see "Stride Rite's Benefits Mirror Its Commitment to Individual, Family and Community-service Goals,").

To back up its commitment to the community, the company contributes 5% of its pretax profits to The Stride Rite Charitable Foundation—which equals nearly $5 million annually. This figure excludes the in-kind contributions that Stride Rite makes to organizations like CARE. Its donations to charity totaled more than $698,000 in fiscal 1991. The foundation funds all of the corporation's public-service activities, except for its employee-benefit programs.

Stride Rite manufactures footwear products under the labels of Stride Rite™, Keds™, Sperry Top-Sider™ and Grasshoppers™. It continues to perform well as an organization. Since 1985, earnings have risen every year, with net sales more than doubling to $574 million in 1991 and return on equity climbing to 31.3%.

Initiatives were created to support the community.
Although assistance in meeting employees' child-care needs has become an increasingly important issue to both employees and employers during the past decade, most U.S. companies still aren't making it their first priority. Slowly, attitudes are changing.

Working Woman magazine reported in its June 1993 issue that only one-tenth of 1% of all U.S. companies—an estimated 5,600 businesses—have formal programs to assist employees with their child-care needs. Although that may seem like a small number, it's significant to note that work-and-family programs have grown tenfold during the past decade, Working Woman reports.

Increasingly, child-and elder-care services have become part of the corporate world's commitment to aid working Americans, even during an economic slump. According to a survey that was published in January by The Conference Board, only 5% of employers have curtailed their work-and-family programs during the past two years. Furthermore, the study revealed that work-and-family programs sometimes have been part of a conscious strategy by employers to deal with the effects of lean times and company reorganizations.

Stride Rite is one organization that continues to make day care a priority, both at the corporate, decision-making level and at the practice level. Former Stride Rite Chairman Arnold Hiatt first made on-site child care a priority more than 20 years ago.

"A community group in Boston approached Stride Rite to help with some funding through The Stride Rite Charitable Foundation to start a community-based child-care program," says Karen Leibold, director of Stride Rite's work & family programs. "Stride Rite decided that rather than [contributing money to another program], it would start an on-site facility that would be available to the community as well as to its own employees." Under Hiatt's direction, the first corporate on-site child-care center opened at Stride Rite's former headquarters in Boston's Roxbury district.

Later, when the company moved its headquarters offices to Cambridge, it opened a day-care center there, too. It left a child-care center in nearby Boston, so that associates (Stride Rite's term for employees) and community parents could continue to purchase quality day care for their children at an affordable price. The center in Boston has served more than 500 children and their families since it opened.

"Arnold's original impetus behind all of this wasn't business," says Robert Lambert, Stride Rite's vice president of human resources. "It just seemed like the right thing to do." Hiatt's original vision was embraced and expanded by Ervin Shames when he took over the position of president and CEO in 1990, and then as Chairman of the Board in 1992. Lambert and Shames have a vision of a public corporation that successfully balances on four pillars, which are:

  1. Responsibility to shareholders.
  2. Responsibility to employees.
  3. Responsibility to the community.
  4. Responsibility to customers.

The company seeks to create a workplace that's more than just a place to get a paycheck. It should be a place where people can achieve their aspirations. It also should remove systems, policies and procedures that are barriers to employees being all they can be.

"Where there's congruence around how people feel about working, you're going to have a more-effective and a more-efficient work force. That yields better products, better customer focus and just better business," Lambert says.

Stride Rite's motives toward social responsibility inside and outside the organization aren't business-driven in the traditional sense. The company's community-service actions have resulted in some real business benefits, however.

Stride Rite now sees all of these activities as a business imperative, including the day-care center, according to Lambert. Issues relating to workers are given a top priority at Stride Rite. "If we have employee issues on the agenda, they're viewed as part of the business issues. They're woven into the thought process along with the more hard-core, tactical business problems," says Lambert.

According to Lambert, social responsibility starts with having an enlightened management team. "Nobody's telling me not to do these things. In fact, my chairman's telling me to do them," he says.

Lambert relates a recent incident that reflects top management's commitment to helping employees balance work and family—even within its own ranks. During an executive committee meeting, President Shames realized that it was 5:30 p.m., which is the time the day-care center closes. He ended the meeting, knowing that one of the executives needed to pick up his daughter from the center. "Either we believe in the quality of life, or we don't," says Lambert. "We can't do it halfway."

Stride Rite's human resources department, however, just completed a climate survey to determine worker attitudes about the company, and its policies and practices. "We got a lot of positive reinforcement about our approach to quality of life at Stride Rite. It's something that there's a huge expectation level around. It's why some people work here," says Lambert.

Lambert and Leibold agree that the company's progressive work-and-family initiatives and socially responsible commitments positively impact the business in the areas of recruitment and retention. "For more than 20 years, Stride Rite has been an employer of choice in New England," says Lambert. "It creates an environment that people want to work in. What you end up doing, almost in a magnetic sense, is attracting people who share your values."

This means that the company really can recruit from a more-qualified pool of people, according to Leibold. On the retention side, Leibold tells of one worker whose four children all have attended the day-care center during her tenure there. She has stayed with the firm, although her children have graduated from the program. "It really creates a family environment," Leibold explains. "People stay here even after they don't need the child-care program anymore. They know that Stride Rite was there for them when they needed something, and they're willing to give something back."

Leibold notes another benefit to Stride Rite from its operating an on-site, day-care center: It helps lower absenteeism. Because employees can count on consistent, quality care for an elder or child dependent, they can focus on their work better. Take Connie Wentworth, for example. She's a marketing administrator in the company's Sperry Top-Sider™ division at the Cambridge office. Currently, Wentworth has her 5-year-old daughter, Whitney, enrolled in the child-care program. Her other children are 7-year-old Kristopher (an alumnus of the center) and 16-year-old Thomas.

"My biggest issue [in combining work and family] was day care," says Wentworth. "Being able to come to work and bring my child with me is really wonderful. Overall, it makes my performance a lot better." She adds, "Between the day care and the perks that we get, as well as our other benefits, I don't think I could work anyplace else."

For the most part, the organization delivers what it has promised in the way of social responsibility to employees and to the community. Lambert admits that there still are areas in which the company needs to improve. He says: "We haven't figured all this out. We've got a long way to go." Although it's a good place in which to work, he adds: "It isn't nirvana. Our external reputation sometimes exceeds internal reality."

One issue with which the company struggles is being unable to provide the same benefits, such as on-site day care, for its workers in every location. The company has three distinct employee populations:

  1. corporate headquarters staff.
  2. manufacturing, distribution center and production-line personnel.
  3. store sales and support workers.

"We definitely struggle with it," says Lambert. Where the company can't provide direct on-site benefits like an intergenerational center, it does provide such options as resource-and-referral services, education and training, and counseling. Stride Rite sometimes subsidizes local day-care programs near satellite offices, rather than operating its own center.

Stride Rite currently faces a dilemma. On January 7, 1993, Stride Rite announced its plans to build a new distribution center in Louisville, Kentucky, and close its Boston and New Bedford facilities. Combined, the two facilities employ a total of 500 associates who all will be offered jobs in Louisville when the new plant opens sometime in 1994. How Stride Rite addresses the work-and-family needs in the new center will depend on what's needed and the funds that are available to channel into these programs.

Meanwhile, back in Boston, Stride Rite already has committed not to leave the area high-and-dry by removing the child-care services that are now offered. "Just because we're closing the Boston facility doesn't mean that our commitment to the community is ending," says Leibold. Stride Rite intends to continue funding a community-based child-care center with a Stride Rite capital grant. "We'll be [awarding] a capital grant [to a child-care center] for expansion or upgrading of its physical space. We'll also award an additional three-year grant to [help the facility] implement development or training programs for staff members or parent-involvement activities," Leibold says.

Elder-care services benefit employees in the sandwich generation.
Before Stride Rite decided to add the elder-care component to its child-care center, Leibold conducted a feasibility study with the assistance of Boston's Wheelock College. The study started with a needs assessment that was a little different from most. Rather than asking employees if they needed elder-care services, the assessment asked if employees would consider using on-site elder-care services at Stride Rite if they were available, and if they had a need for them. Overwhelmingly, employees said yes, they would use them if they were available.

"Our needs assessment was really different [from most], in that it wasn't open-ended," Leibold says. "Instead, we said, 'This is what we're thinking about doing; what do you think about it?' We used the needs assessment to confirm what we already thought we wanted to do."

Stride Rite designed the intergenerational facility, which opened in 1990, as a national model for intergenerational care. The center seeks to help people face a growing national concern more easily—taking care of children and elderly dependents while having to work full-time. People having responsibility for both generations of dependents at the same time have become known as the sandwich generation.

Leibold, whose work-and-family de-partment comes under the HR umbrella, first came to Stride Rite more than 10 years ago as the director of the company's child-care center. Leibold now oversees the Intergenerational Center in addition to the wellness center, the employee-assistance program and the child-care resource-and-referral service. She also is involved in any research-and-development activities relating to work-and-family programs.

Leibold oversees the 27 professionals who staff Stride Rite's Intergenerational Center. Coordinators come from backgrounds in both the elder-and child-care fields. For example, in the elder program, coordinators have training in such areas as gerontology, rehabilitation, social service and recreational therapy.

The intergenerational facility initially cost $600,000. The Stride Rite Charitable Foundation provided the funding for the facility and continues to pay all of its operating costs. The center houses both the Elder Care Program and the Child Care Program.

The Stride Rite Children's Center, Inc. operates day-care centers in Cambridge and Boston that are available both to employees and to the community. The Cambridge center accepts children from the age of 15 months until 6 years. The Boston center accepts children from ages 2 years, 9 months to 6 years.

Originally, the child-care programs were meant to serve a 50-50 mixture of community kids and employees' kids. The Cambridge child-care center has the capacity to care for 55 children. Currently the center is full. More than half of the kids enrolled are employees' children.

At the Boston child-care facility, however, nearly all of the 55 children are from families in the community. The employee population at the Boston distribution center has changed over the years. "We have a lot of employees who have been there for a long time who no longer need the center," says Leibold. She says that the center also employs a young employee group that doesn't yet need dependent-care services. "So most of the people who are using the Boston center are community families," she says.

Fees for the child-care centers are set in three ways:

  1. Full pay for community children (employees pay at a discounted rate on a sliding scale, based on income).
  2. State-subsidized care for low-income families.
  3. Full or partial Stride Rite funding through a scholarship program for low-income families.

In response to state funding cuts in child care, Stride Rite established a community scholarship program for both the Children's Center and the Intergenerational Center. Funds are used to help lessen the impact of reductions in state subsidies to low-income families.

In some ways, Stride Rite's elder care is a matter of the cart before the horse. None of the 30 elders currently in the program are dependents of Stride Rite employees. Although employees have placed elder dependents in the program from time to time, utilization of the elder program by employees has remained relatively low, according to Leibold. She cites three reasons:

First, the company's headquarters employee population generally is young. "There may not be as much need for it now as [there will be] five years from now," Leibold says.

Second, because elder care is a relatively new option for employees, they may not be aware of how to determine when elder care may be appropriate for their elder dependents. "We have to do a better job of educating our employees about when to take advantage of it, and, finally," she adds, "we just have to grow with it."

Stride Rite currently offers elder care in the Cambridge facility only. Elders must be 60 years of age or older to be eligible for enrollment in the program. Once accepted, they must attend the center for a minimum of two days a week, six hours a day. An average of 23 elders are cared for each day. The capacity for elder care in the center is limited to 24 elders a day.

There are three fee scales (much like the child-care fee schedule) for the elder program:

  1. Full pay at the center's set fee (the company discounts the employee rate).
  2. Fully state-subsidized care for low-income elders.
  3. Fully Stride-Rite-subsidized care for low-income families who don't qualify for state funding.

Activities for the elders address their individual developmental needs, including social, physical and emotional needs. To be accepted for enrollment at the center, seniors must be able to take care of their own personal needs with a minimum of assistance.

The elders enrolled in the center can participate in many group activities, such as armchair aerobics, art projects or discussion groups that are based on current events. Recently, the group discussed David Koresh's standoff in Waco, Texas, and its impact on society.

Seniors also may participate in activities with the children at the center, but never are required to do so. Many elders enjoy interacting with children and look forward to spending time with them, according to the program staff.

Leibold and her staff don't track the population of child-care-center users demographically. Leibold says, however, that the center is used equally by both moms and dads, and by single and married associates.

Employee requests result in additional services and flexible work options.
Stride Rite expanded its commitment to child care based on em-ployees' needs. For example, two years ago, Stride Rite started a vacation-week program, which is run by the Cambridge child-care center.

In Massachusetts, public schools always close during the third weeks in February and April. The vacation-week program is an off-site program for employees' school-age kids. During their vacation time, kids arrive at Stride Rite with their parents, have breakfast and engage in a fun activity. The children then go on an off-site field trip from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. The program's capacity is 24 kids and is staffed by the child-care center.

Parents began asking about extending the vacation program during the summer—a particularly tough time for parents needing to find child care for their older kids. As a result, Stride Rite started a summer program for school-age kids, which it modeled after John Hancock's Kids-To-Go program. "[The program] really happened as a result of parents' being very direct about what their needs were," Leibold says. "Sometimes relatively small things really can make a difference in people's lives," she adds.

Employees expressed the need for summer child-care services through informal channels. However, Stride Rite has conducted formal employee surveys for years. These surveys have brought to light other issues, such as flexible work schedules and carrying over vacation time from one year to the next, according to Leibold. "One of the things we're working on is [the problem of] work schedules," she says.

One problem they have is determining the difference between a policy and a guideline. "One of the things that we've talked about a lot, particularly around flexible work options, is where having policies doesn't work," Leibold says.

For example, some business units need to work around the clock, such as in the shoe factories. Other business units are primarily administrative, such as the headquarters in Cambridge. Implementing a comprehensive policy, for instance, that requires all employees to work core hours from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. doesn't necessarily work for some divisions. "As companies go more multinational, you're going to be seeing [companies needing to have employees there more] hours during the day. It gets really difficult," Leibold says.

"What we're really moving toward is [being] supportive of flexibility in the workplace. We work it out so that managers and employees can work together to come up with a schedule or with work options that meet the needs of the business and of the individuals," Leibold says. Flexible scheduling becomes particularly difficult because it can change from year to year.

In the area of part-time workers, Lambert estimates that at the company's headquarters, there are 40 or fewer employees who work part time. The company rolled out a new part-time benefits plan on June 1, 1993. Lambert considers this to be part of the company's evolution toward providing a more flexible work environment. "We've examined almost all of our policies," he says. "One policy was a clear barrier to a true part-time work environment. We had a traditional cutoff of 20 [work] hours [per week for employees] to qualify for benefits." The new plan allows employees to receive benefits prorated on a sliding scale based on the number of hours that they work.

Stride Rite plans to run four concurrent pilot programs this year to explore alternative work options. Four departments within the corporation have been chartered as teams to decide which flexible work options would work best for them. They then have the opportunity to put their choices into practice. "We think that by 1994, we'll be into a [corporate-wide] rollout," Lambert says.

For years, Stride Rite has had a flex-time option in place: its summer-hours policy. The summer-hours policy allows associates to come to work half an hour early and stay half an hour later in the evening, so that on Friday they can leave at noon.

Lambert describes Stride Rite's attitude change in its approach to flex time. "The old approach was: Everybody had to adjust their schedules if they wanted to take advantage of [flex time]," he says.

Lambert tells about one nonexempt work team that got rid of the seniority-approach to work hours. The group had some team members who had been working for Stride Rite for many years. Others in the group had been there only a short time. The senior members usually got advantages that newer team members didn't—such as Friday afternoons off. "It wasn't fair in their collective mind, so they reworked the summer-hours schedule to be more equitable," Lambert says.

"Now we're saying, as long as you come up with the same net hours for all employees, we don't really care how you (as a department) work it out," he adds.

Lambert concurs that generally in Corporate America—and even in progressive companies like Stride Rite—there's still a tendency for managers to have a traditional [business-management] mentality about employees' taking time off from work for family-care reasons. Stride Rite's HR staff doesn't train managers [specifically] to deal with work-and-family issues. HR recently published a separate manager's guide that lists every policy or program that falls under the work-and-family umbrella.

HR also is involved in assisting managers in the area of performance management, which deals with job design, measurement systems, compensation, rewards, and recognition and incentives.

According to Lambert, the best way to deal with managers' negative attitudes about flexible work scheduling is to model positive practices and to talk about positive examples. He even practices what he preaches. Instead of having one full-time assistant, his two HR assistants job-share (see "Job-sharing in the HR Department,").

In many companies, employees experience fewer job promotions when they return from family leave than employees receive who don't take family leave. This isn't happening at Stride Rite, according to Lambert. "Employees know that as part of our company values they wouldn't be held back [if they took a family leave]."

Although Stride Rite management tries to address employee concerns in all areas of work life, it clearly can't change to accommodate every problem that wor-kers have. "It's human nature that the more you give, the more employees want. The way that you manage that and prevent it from becoming a potential negative is through good employee communication. You talk about what the work force should expect from its company," Lambert recommends. "We spend a lot of time talking about social contracts at work and exactly what associates' expectations should be versus falling into an environment of entitlement."

Lambert adds, "We're running a tough business in a difficult [business] environment. Stride Rite has proven, however, that being socially responsible and being a good community citizen is good for business."

Personnel Journal, July 1993, Vol. 72, No.7, pp. 48-56.

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