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iOptimas Award -I Managing Change Almost Curtains

July 31, 2003
Related Topics: Managing Change, Diversity, Featured Article, Recruitment, Staffing Management
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Designer Blinds was in a world of hurt, and Deb Franklin, human resources manager, couldn’t blame the old building anymore. Until 1998, the family-owned custom window-coverings manufacturer had occupied a few floors in a dilapidated old department store building in a gang-infested part of South Omaha, Nebraska. So when employees quit one after another and Franklin’s help-wanted ads drew dismal responses, she had ready excuses. It was the location, she told herself. It was the building. It was the bad neighborhood.

    Then the company relocated to a newer, nicer building in a better area--but the recruitment and retention troubles followed. Out of the 215 workers employed at the time, five or six were quitting every week. "Our issues came with us," Franklin says. "For every person I hired, I would lose two. I was spending all my time putting out fires and running ads."

    Most of the turnover troubles involved employees who worked in production. Without a stable, experienced workforce in the factory, orders went unfilled and were marred by quality problems. Customers were defecting, and profits were sinking. The company’s future was clearly at risk. That’s when, Franklin says, "the light went on. I realized that human resources has an incredible impact on the organization’s health and future, and I could make a huge difference in turning the company around. I knew that I had to re-invent my department."

    Franklin embarked on an all-out recruitment and retention campaign, involving community outreach, better orientation and communication, and management training. The results surpassed her wildest hopes. Turnover plummeted, productivity skyrocketed and worker safety improved. Quality is near perfect. And today, Franklin has a waiting list of prospective employees lining up to join the Designer Blinds team. "After an extremely challenging two or three years, we had more than a 30 percent improvement in bottom-line profit from January 2001 to June 2002." Productivity jumped more than 14 percent between January 2002 and February 2003; turnover dropped from a horrifying 165 percent in 1996 to 6.7 percent.

    Until that point, her recruitment efforts had been what she calls "traditional." Her approach pretty much consisted of "run an ad and they will come." She became much more proactive and began participating in job fairs and visiting state employment agencies, community centers and chambers of commerce. "I did a huge blitz to get people in the door, doing everything from running ads on local radio shows and in church bulletins to making friends with security guards at state agencies and job counselors," Franklin says.

    She also broke with tradition by actively reaching out to Omaha’s Sudanese community. Since 1995, thousands of refugees from Sudan have migrated to the upper Midwest to escape religious persecution at home. Most of them settled in Omaha because of its established Sudanese community, affordable housing, plentiful jobs and good schools. "Many employers did not consider other cultures as a viable workforce, but I recognized them as an underutilized market," says Franklin, who also began outreach efforts to the growing Hispanic population. She offered ESL classes, adjusted new-hire training to better reflect the way other cultures learn, and developed presentations for the current workforce and supervisors to promote understanding and empathy among the staff. Today, Sudanese and Hispanic employees make up approximately 25 percent of the workforce at Designer Blinds. Even better, the new diverse workforce results in more employee referrals. "They recruit for us," Franklin says.

The next step was boosting retention. Designer Blinds had developed an unfortunate but well-deserved reputation as a place where "people came in, did a little bit of time and went on their way," Franklin says. To encourage employees to stay put, she implemented a new-hire training program, including classroom and on-the-job learning. She also appointed a "buddy" for new employees--not only to teach things like where the time clock is located, but also to help them socialize, join them for lunch and introduce them around. "No new hire should ever sit in the break room alone," Franklin says.

    A new "rolls and roundtable" program was instituted, during which eight employees at a time mix and mingle with senior leadership in an unstructured, casual setting. Those sessions, perhaps more than any other single activity, help employees feel valued and involved in the company, says CEO Lloyd "Woody" Woodworth. "Too often, folks don’t feel safe saying what’s on their minds," he says. "But in this environment, they say things they wouldn’t anywhere else. Whether it’s a little thing like needing better lighting or filing cabinets, or something significant, such as a complaint about a manager, they are not afraid to speak up because they’ve learned it’s OK."

    Better supervisory training was also key to retention. Before 1998, the company had simply promoted the best technicians to managerial positions--whether or not they were management material. "Our leadership crew was running on autopilot--with no pilot," Woodworth concedes. Realizing that better-trained supervisors were integral to making Designer Blinds a better place to work, the company began a formal management-development program, including both leadership and technical skills. During weekly meetings, supervisors learn about management issues ranging from attitude adjustment to sexual harassment.

    "The word is out that Designer Blinds is a good place to work," Franklin says. Thanks to the more stable and experienced workforce, productivity has soared. The company is producing the same amount of blinds with 180 employees, 30 fewer than in 1997, when Franklin launched the human resources initiative. Its safety record, which was 16 percent worse than average in 1999, is now 25 percent better than average. And the company’s 99 percent perfect quality record has become an industry benchmark.

    "We were able to dramatically impact the business without asking for increased wages or benefits," Franklin says. But the company’s newfound success isn’t just about compliance or recruitment and retention. "It’s about engaging with the managers in how to run their part of the business. And it’s about engaging employees’ hearts and minds."

Workforce Management, August 2003, pp. 54-55 -- Subscribe Now!

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