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Jellyvision Knows Jack About HR

February 27, 2000
Related Topics: Corporate Culture, Innovation, Featured Article
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Fed by the runaway success of its interactive computer trivia game "You Don't Know Jack®," Jellyvision Inc. enjoyed the kind of growth that most entrepreneurs dream about.

The core creative team comprising the company hit its stride in 1995, fostering a harmonious corporate culture. Employees knew how how to discuss John Quincy Adams and Gomez Addams in the same smart-aleck trivia question, but by 1996 it was clear that they didn't know Jack about HR.

They brought this point home to founder Harry Gottlieb at a companywide retreat in 1996.

The Chicago-based purveyor of original interactive experiences in entertainment, education and beyond had been moving the clever quips out the door so fast that it hadn't given enough thought to such trivial pursuits as compensation and benefits. Until the amalgamation of 30 writers, editors, programmers and directors brought it to founder Harry Gottlieb's attention at the retreat that year, various staffers squeezed such critical functions as recruiting and event planning into their already overflowing schedules.

Other employee concerns--notably the lack of day-to-day employee guidance and formal business policies--simply weren't addressed.

Gottlieb listened to the complaints and realized that these issues, all of them HR-related, threatened to engulf the creative atmosphere so essential to sustaining Jellyvision's future in interactive media.

"We needed to codify our values and ensure people were treated well here," he says. "Work ought to be a pleasant and meaningful experience in a healthy, supportive environment. In a company based on people's talents as much as ours is, HR and the organization of human beings are a primary concern."

Company president Liz Michaels adds, "There was definitely a commitment to how we wanted to be treating people and what we wanted to give them. We had the best of intentions for things like salary and benefits, but nothing was happening. It's pretty unique for a company of only 30 people to start an HR department, but it's only one example of how important we think the people are."

So began Jellyvision's quest to develop an HR department that would be true to the company spirit. As it turns out, HR is perfectly described by the company name, "Jellyvision," as HR inaugurates semi-solid policies that can easily move or melt down completely around the company's vision in order to preserve it.

HR builds on a foundation of trust.
To some, marrying sound business policies to a wacky, tight-knit corporate culture would seem about as likely as combining Wayne's World with Greek mythology.

The company had to find someone who could orchestrate the necessary changes while staying true to Jellyvision's collaborative, caring and communicative style. As Michaels explains, "We needed somebody who could make HR an integral part of Jellyvision without becoming the negative entity so often associated with HR."

The company met its match in its very first HR director, recent MBA graduate Vaiva Vaisnys. Vaisnys had a background in marketing, with no previous experience in human resources, but, maintains Michaels, "she understood that HR had to be an intrinsic part of who we are. Vaiva was not the traditional fit in terms of experience, but she was the right fit for us."

To justify this trust, Vaisnys started to work with a crash course in Jellyvision culture. "My very first task was gaining everyone's trust that HR wasn't going to come in and lay down rules and a chain of command and communication," she says. "While HR was a department everyone recognized they needed and wanted, there was a fear that the good stuff was going to change. I hate to say it, but the preconceived notion of HR as an army of paper pushers still exists. So I took a lot of time observing and trying to understand how people work here."

HR became a gatekeeper for the perks so desirable to creative employees, a hiring process focused on consensus and quality, and a link between business and creativity.

Vaisnys next began an all-encompassing campaign to adapt the company's lackluster--or simply lacking--policies so they'd reflect Jellyvision's concern for its people. First, she tackled the area most concerning employees: a total compensation package consisting of below-market salaries, discretionary year-end bonuses, and a health insurance plan with high deductibles and narrow coverage.

Vaisnys partnered with Michaels and the brand-new finance director, Anna Hinich, to improve the budgeting process and allow for better benefits. "Coming into Jellyvision, there wasn't a dedicated finance staff and no firmly established budgeting processes," says Hinich. "I worked very closely with HR on the total compensation and benefits initiatives to make sure we could afford the improvements HR was proposing."

Hinich, Michaels and Vaisnys reviewed the company's compensation structure, and adjusted the budget so that salary increases became a reality by December 1997. Simultaneously, the team also devised a new, more profitable methodology for determining bonuses. To address the more long-term needs of the employees, the team implemented a 401(k) plan with generous matching that garnered 100 percent employee participation. "Keeping our values doesn't always mean finding the cheapest alternative," admits Hinich. "The primary objective is always to find the plan that works best for Jellyvision's needs."

To this end, Vaisnys evaluated the company's health insurance plan. "Once we started looking at the coverage and how it fit in with our philosophy of caring deeply about our employees, neither the plan's high deductibles nor its six-month waiting period for coverage made sense," she says.

Vaisnys conducted extensive employee surveys and reviewed 19 health plans before finding one suitable for Jellyvision. "With our new plan, not only are the premiums Jellyvision pays reduced, but deductibles are much, much lower. And now employees get coverage the day they start at Jellyvision," Vaisnys says.

Making policies that are meaningful to employees.
HR also became the gatekeeper for the compelling perks so desirable to creative employees--a regularly stocked kitchen, corporate health club memberships, corporate bookstore discounts and specially priced movie passes.

"Most people here are avid readers and pop-culture fanatics, so we give them stuff that's meaningful to them," says Vaisnys. "Where else can you wear sweats to work, take naps on your choice of sofas strewn around the office, bring your dog in, and have free pudding every day?" chimes in Hinich.

HR associate Jamie Pekarek joined the Jellyvision HR team in May of 1999 to handle the hiring process, which had outgrown part-time status in the rapidly expanding company. "Seventy-five percent of the reason I came to Jellyvision is Vaiva," Pekarek comments. "She's incredibly open and respectful, and I knew she was somebody I could learn and grow from. The other 25 percent is Jellyvision's philosophy behind HR and recruiting."

Every aspect of the company is shared among company leaders and employees alike. Every employee is encouraged and even expected to speak up against any policy they feel doesn't reflect the Jellyvision way.

The company's hiring-by-consensus method is lengthy and time consuming. Prospective candidates go through a preliminary screening, a test or audition process, and interviews with a cross-section of 10 to 20 current Jellyvision employees. Pekarek herself endured a six-hour take-home test and lengthy interviews with 12 of her future colleagues.

"The process does create a challenge, because it's so labor-intensive," Pekarek concedes. "But it's win-win when we hire on the kinds of people who not only have the right skills, but who fit in with our values. I don't want to just get bodies in here. I want to maintain integrity."

Maintaining the values-centered integrity of Jellyvision workers remained the top priority, even as HR brought in programming and graphic art disciplines which had previously been farmed out to other companies. "Because of the job market right now, it isn't easy to get people with both the right skills and the right values," says Pekarek. "But I am not going to compromise or skip steps just to get someone in here."

Pekarek hasn't had to. The programming department has grown from one employee to nine, and the graphic art department from no employees to seven, in just a year and a half.

Now, at 65 employees strong, Jellyvision HR's goal is to keep the expanding corporate community as interactive as the company's products. "To this day, HR is a collaborative effort," Vaisnys says. "It makes the job more time-consuming, but what we come up with together is better than any one person's ideas. Everyone wants to make Jellyvision a great place, and so we share information that other types of environments don't."

Every aspect of the company, from strategic partnerships with other companies to the drafting of confidentiality agreements, is shared among company leaders and employees alike. Every employee is encouraged and even expected to speak up against any policy that they feel doesn't reflect the Jellyvision way.

And they do. Company president Liz Michaels says, "People here don't pick up stuff by osmosis. They question everything, and answering those questions takes a lot of time. You have to be able to respond, recognize when you're wrong, and change tacks."

Vaisnys adds, "Employees ask, 'Why is the company doing this?' all the time. Sometimes people's questions will drive you to do something better, and other times you agree to disagree. But we have an attitude, not of the company vs. the people, but a relationship that we all want to continuously make better."

Jellyvision's HR isn't adverse to tweaking policies to further the company's creative endeavors. "With too many rules, the mind isn't free," says Vaisnys. "To remain innovative, we need to maintain flexibility and the freedom to change policies. Some degree of bureaucracy is necessary to maintain efficiency, but there has to be a balance so that efficiency doesn't come at the expense of creativity."

Alterna-HR forges ahead.
As the company continues to grow, HR constantly revisits the policies it's helped put in place. "The company is a live entity, always changing, and therefore our work is never done," says Vaisnys. HR is currently preparing for further growth and possible demographic composition and needs changes of employees by examining a flexible spending benefits plan. Vaisnys is mentoring the creative departments to bring performance reviews and mentoring programs in line both with performance objectives and the goal of direct, caring communication.

And the casual companywide retreat, where employees first vocalized their need for HR, has evolved with HR's help into an organized, two-day event where all of Jellyvision can reflect on the company's growth and discuss policy changes in terms of whether they progress or impede creativity.

Jellyvision has become a place where creativity and business initiatives collide, producing inventive synergy.

Phil Ridarelli, an actor and writer who has been with Jellyvision since before HR's inception and who also acts as the company's chief mentor, sometime director and voice talent for "You Don't Know Jack" Online, says, "I can't say enough great things about Vaiva. When we hired her, we just hoped things would go well and the choices we made would reflect our culture. But Vaiva consistently keeps Jellyvision's mission and culture foremost in her mind in the policies she institutes. She's one of those people who sets the tone for the culture because she leads by example. Writers and performers know how to apply creativity to their jobs. But we're so lucky that our HR, our president and our founder all think the same way."

So in addition to knowing how the Lake Poets relate to frozen foods, Jellyvision employees now know Jack about HR and how it can preserve employee freshness. Says Vaisnys, "The company and its people are intricately linked. If we're innovating, then by definition we're creating something new. At Jellyvision, we're pioneering a new industry. The roles don't exist, so we're creating them. But, at heart, the company is built on a achieving a mission we all work toward together, a foundation of trust that hasn't been broken."

Workforce, March 2000, Vol. 79, No. 3, pp. 60-64.

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