At This Exotic Workplace, Employees Feel Like Family

October 20, 2000
How exotic: a workplace where many professionalemployees spend decades, where work is like family.

It actually is exotic -- very. The San DiegoZoo, arguably the world’s most famous, includes not only thousands of animals(many very rare), but close to 1,900 employees at the peak time of year.

HR manager Gabriela Valverde talks about herpumped-up recruiting efforts, orientation and training, employee recognition,corporate culture, and the changing employment world.

Workforce management

The zoo employs 13 people to handle HR, employeerelations, labor relations and related areas. There are an additional sevenbodies who do organizational development, planning and training.

Says Valverde, "We basically move andchange hats to do the recruiting, the new hires, the orientations that kind ofthing."

Recruiting and staffing

The zoological society employs approximately1,480 individuals on a regular basis. This fluctuates by about 500 employees –less in winter, more in the summer. There are perhaps 150 different jobs.

When it comes to what Valverde calls her"volume hires"-- employees somewhere around entry level that are hiredin large numbers, sometimes seasonally -- she says recruiting ain’t what itused to be.

"It’s taking more effort from an HRstandpoint to reach the applicants that four or five years ago were freelycoming to the job," she says. "It’s mostly impacting our volumehires. Where we used to have a job fair that would attract 1,200 or moreapplicants … this year we had two job fairs and we had 314 people total. Thatis becoming the standard. What used to take us 2-3 job fairs now takes 10-13 toget the number we need."

For their "volume hires," the zoo hashad to become much more proactive. They’re going to high schools, to communityagencies, faxing senior citizens’ groups, luring Elks Club members, and more.They also post jobs on their Web site, and target newspapers and magazines.

For their more professional positions, they’retargeting niche publications, like zoological publications or science magazines,depending on the job. "We’re advertising everywhere," Valverde says.

Everywhere does not include a lot of online jobboards. "We’ve done butwe didn’t really get what we were looking for," she says. "We get alot of applicants but not probably the qualified applicants. That’s true withthe type of business we’re in."

Five years ago, recruiting was a matter ofsifting through candidates as they plowed through the little turnstiles. Now, it’s"outreach, advertise, take supervisors on school lunch visits, that kind ofthing. We’re having to go out and get those same applicants that use to cometo us. There’s a changing trend."

Employee referrals

The zoo gets a lot of employees from employeereferrals, though it pays nothing to employees who refer.

"We are in a unique situation -- we do havea union on board," she says. "That would be a negotiated item."

They also have bulletin boards throughout theirparks so every job they have gets advertised for employees to see. There’salso a job phone hotline, monthly printed and e-mail newsletters, and more.

Whatever the zoo does, good or bad,they all live it.

Assessing applicants

If you want to work at the zoo because you liketo cuddle with furry animals, you’re the wrong person for the job. Being azookeeper is tough stuff, and it’s gotten tougher "based on the fact thatit’s more of an exotic type of collection," Valverde says. "It’sbecome what I term a quasi-professional keeper. We look for individuals who havea background, education, and training in biological sciences. We look for abackground in exotic animals."

Unlike the story with the "volume"hires, these positions are still attracting a lot of top candidates. "I’vebeen here 23 years and we seem to be getting more keepers who have been trainedprofessionals. We’ve got a good crop of keepers here."

HR receives the applications, but the supervisoris involved in the actual interview, as is the process of many companies. Thesesupes look for experience more than anything else. Beyond that, they askthemselves, "Based on the criteria, are they the best fit that particularjob?" and, "How would they relate to other people working in thisdepartment?"

Orientation and training

The zoo’s HR folks present organizationalhistory, policies and procedures and give new employees a tour of the parkduring their first day. The entire introduction takes about five hours."Then we expect the department to continue that training and thatinformation feed," Valverde says.

The zoo offers training for employees whichtakes about 5-6 months, spread throughout the course of a year. Training, saysValverde, includes such things as "protocols, practices, processes, andworking with the vets. They’re taking courses in nutrition. It’s all gearedto creating that base-trained keeper. It’s a training we put all keepersthrough."

Some new employees feel almost asense of entitlement.

Employee recognition

When it comes to employee incentives, the zoofits in the "Old Economy" mode. The zoo has a lot of employees whohave lasted a long time. A very long time. Twenty-year employees get a specialdinner every year. What’s more, retired long-term employees get invited backfor the dinner, too. "We have over 225 active employees who’ve passed the20 year mark," Valverde says. "That’s a good number ofemployees." Another 75 or so retired employees also worked 20 years.

Service awards are also given for variousamounts of tenure, and additional staff appreciation parties are thrown.

Says Valverde simply, "As far as merit pay-- no we do not."

Corporate culture and pride

"From my personal perspective a lot of ushave grown up, started working here in our late teens, early 20s, have seen theorganization grow," Valverde says. "They all feel this is a part ofus. We’re a part of it."

Valverde says this isn’t just about workingfor a famous institution. Maybe it’s corny, but it’s really about workingtogether.

"It has to do a little with it being theSan Diego Zoo," she says. "But mostly I work at the level I workbecause of the satisfaction I get. That’s true for a lot of us. Whatever thezoo does, good or bad, we all live it. We experience all of the emotions. We crywhen a popular animal dies. We share in each other. It’s a sense of asmall-town community within the zoo. There’s a deep-rooted sense of loyaltyand pride."

Business results

Valverde has looked back over the last fiveyears at the number of hires and terminations. Their turnover hasn’t changedall that significantly, despite the heavier effort that’s had to go intosourcing. "We’ve done a lot of research to see why we are working so muchharder, and it turns out it’s really in the volume of a market that’s verydiminished. The quality of applicants we are getting is not at the same level itwas 5-10 years ago. It used to take us 6-8 weeks to hire all our volumeemployees, and now it takes 6-7 months."

"Most of our turnover is in the lower-levelpositions. In what we call the more constant jobs, there’s very low turnover.In administration there’s very low turnover. In animal areas, horticulture,construction and maintenance, there’s very low turnover."

If turnover in the professional positions andthe ‘volume positions’ is averaged out, the zoo’s overall rate is in theneighborhood of 10%.

Bye-bye to the good ‘ol days

"We’re running into more and moreapplicants who have a dim sense of value as to what work is," Valverdesays. "They’ll give up a job in the drop of a pin if they’re going onvacation. Before, there was more sense of a need to work. They feel ... I don’tknow …almost a sense of entitlement."

Valverde says that the pride she felt whengetting a new job seems to be lacking in some current candidates.

"When I got my job I was thrilled with theopportunity to do the job. There’s a whole different thought process now.Maybe it’s the better economy. But they don’t have that same sense ofcommitment to working."