Driven by a meaningful culture

For the Baltimore Sun
In top workplaces, success is defined by more than the bottom line.

Bill Cannon left a large wealth management firm to join much smaller Glass Jacobson less than a year ago. His reason: "Opportunity for advancement," the 47-year-old said. "I wanted a seat at the table."

And that's what he got with his new job as director of retirement plan services for the Owings Mills firm. Cannon was able to leverage his 20-plus years of retirement planning experience into a leadership position.

In his previous job, he said, orders came from above. But collaboration is encouraged and expected at Glass Jacobson, which earned a spot on The Baltimore Sun's annual list of the region's Top Workplaces for the fourth year running.

Companies that make the Top Workplaces list year after year don't necessarily offer the highest salaries or the most lavish benefits. But employees stay because they feel valued and empowered. They love the work and believe it's meaningful, and also enjoy flexible work schedules, opportunities to advance and a voice in company policy. And the companies work to sustain that culture.

"We treat people with respect and give them leeway," said Ed Jacobson, Glass Jacobson's president. "When you work for us, you have a real opportunity to impact what we do. … I always like to say, at Glass Jacobson, the story hasn't been written. We don't know how the story is going to end, and we need people to help us write the story."

It's no coincidence that many of the workplaces that consistently appear on the list make helping others a priority. That include schools, nonprofit groups and a number of health care firms. Some of the list's most consistent performers over the years are nursing home operator FutureCare, the McDonogh School and Archbishop Spalding High School. There are also advisory businesses that help people with taxes, legal matters and finances.

"We spend so much of our time working," said Ebony Hypolite, a manager in the business performing practice of SC&H Group, a Sparks-based accounting and consulting firm. "It's not good unless you know you're doing something valuable and meaningful."

While Hypolite's job involves helping large companies use software to quickly and accurately analyze their profits and losses, she's glad her employer puts the focus on doing the right thing for the client, instead of chasing short-term profit.

That's a large part of the reason the 30-year-old has remained at SC&H — the first job she held after graduating from Stevenson University with an accounting degree.

In its third year as a top workplace, SC&H also shares and supports Hypolite's passion for helping others. Every year, the firm's employees take a half-day off for a Day of Service, contributing to local nonprofits through a partnership with Business Volunteers Maryland.

Through that service day, Hypolite became involved with Baltimore Station, a residential treatment program in Baltimore for veterans and others who are working to overcome homelessness, poverty and addiction. She now serves on the nonprofit's board, and said SC&H also supports the organization by raising money for it. Once a quarter, people from the firm, including Hypolite, go to Baltimore Station to make and serve meals. "And they also sit and have dinner with the residents," she said.

Knowing that her job is meaningful is also important to Beth Awalt, 26, of Baltimore, who has worked 21/2 years at Catholic Charities, which is in its third year on the top workplaces list and ranks No. 8 this year among large organizations.

Catholic Charities employs more than 2,000 workers who help people at about 200 sites throughout the Baltimore metropolitan area, including homeless shelters, Head Start centers, nursing facilities, Our Daily Bread, and schools for children with disabilities. More than 23,000 volunteers help make it all possible.

Awalt, a Baltimore resident, has been able to advance quickly. She was hired as an administrative assistant and was promoted to volunteer coordinator at the Esperanza Center, which provides social services, legal services, English classes and other resources to immigrants in the Baltimore region. A second promotion in March made Awalt volunteer manager at the Weinberg Housing and Resource Center, which provides shelter housing to as many as 275 people.

In her new job, Awalt coordinates the volunteer efforts of outside helpers, as well as the Weinberg residents who volunteer to do laundry, serve meals and take on other responsibilities.

"What really attracted me to this position was the marriage of outside volunteers with the direct client contact," she said. "It's a step up."

Bill McCarthy, executive director of Catholic Charities, said people who work at the organization are motivated by a passion for the mission, not a lavish salary or gold-plated perks.

"The work is very hard," he said. But the environment and culture are "really something special and why people love the work here. You're part of this organization that really helps people transform their lives. I think people sense they are part of something greater than themselves. They are personally enriched by the work they do every day."

In addition to opportunities to advance, Catholic Charities offers a mentoring program and a yearlong Leadership Academy. Anyone in the organization can apply for the academy, which accepts 15 people a year.

And while Catholicism "is why we do what we do," McCarthy said, "you don't have to be Catholic to work here or be served."

Work-life balance also is an important factor in the workplaces that are ranked among the best year after year.

"There's some flexibility," Cannon said of Glass Jacobson. "If you want to take some time off in a given week and make it up on Saturday, you can do that. That helps with the family."

Tom Condrasky, marketing director at Glass Jacobson, said he leaves the office at 3:30 one day a week to coach his son's travel baseball team. As long as he gets his work done, he can make his own schedule.

Glass Jacobson also ends its busy tax season by shutting down at noon on April 15, and remaining closed the following day.

"They recognize that we put in the effort," Condrasky said. "They appreciate that and, in return, they're generous with their time off and benefits."

And then there's the fun stuff.

Glass Jacobson hosts an annual summer outing. Software firm Praxis Engineering Technologies throws picnics and parties for employees. SC&H orchestrates a four-day trip to the Caribbean each year.

"There are no meetings," Rena Creamer, marketing coordinator at SC&H, said of the Caribbean trip. "We're just there for fun. It's team-building. It's nice to get out of the office and see people on a different level."

SC&H also eases the pain of tax season with in-house massages, an ice cream cart, healthful snacks, and takeout dinners.

Praxis Engineering — in its fourth year on the list — also makes a point of "doing a lot of social things," including holiday parties, picnics, and outings to baseball and football games, said Bill Dunahoo, president and CEO of the Annapolis Junction-based software development firm.

"It can't just all be work," he said.

Creating an appealing workplace culture is essential for Praxis to attract and retain good employees, especially since software workers have a "desirable skill set" that makes it easy for them to find employment elsewhere, Dunahoo said.

Praxis hosts three "major, all-hands" work sessions per year, where long-term strategies and challenges are discussed, and executives answer questions posed by employees. Support for continuing education helps employees advance in their careers.

And Praxis organizes dozens of charitable events, driven by employees who are eager to support particular causes. These include an annual charity golf outing that this year raised $30,000 to help build a Resiliency Center at Fort Meade that will provide support and resources for service members and their families.

All these factors make Praxis a workplace that consistently ranks among the best in the region.

"We came to the conclusion early on that we had to provide good opportunity, a good career path, make it fun, make it enjoyable, and be open and honest about things," Dunahoo said.

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