Baltimore's top workplaces help make Baltimore a top place to work

The Living Legacy Foundation of Maryland demands a lot from its employees, many of whom remain on call for multiple 24-hour shifts to coordinate organ and tissue donations. They shepherd grieving donor families through the wrenching ordeal of losing a loved one, while helping save the life of a stranger.

The work is emotionally and physically draining. But once again this year, the nonprofit’s employees voted it one of The Baltimore Sun’s Top Workplaces. It’s the Baltimore nonprofit’s fourth time making the annual ranking.

“The closure you get at the end of the day, knowing you’ve enhanced or saved somebody’s life, is what makes it all matter,” said Melissa Marianos, 27, a lab services technician at Living Legacy, which shows its appreciation with such perks as employee massages, free lunches and car washes. “I’ve never worked for a company that cared so much about each and every employee.”

The companies that made this year’s Top Workplaces list come from all sectors: information technology, mortgage lending, property management, health care, education and engineering, to name a few. But common themes emerged when employees shared why they love their jobs. Their reasons include finding meaning in one’s work, answering to managers who empower and appreciate them, and having the potential to grow professionally and personally.

Many of today’s workers also want the opportunity to give back to the community. Local executives say workplace charity programs are not only positive for the region, but can improve staff retention and promote a sense of solidarity among colleagues.

In the wake of the civil unrest last spring after Freddie Gray died of injuries suffered while in police custody, outreach work in Baltimore City has taken on a deeper meaning for many local employers.

This fall, the Living Legacy Foundation provided funding and volunteers to help overhaul a deteriorating park and fountain in Baltimore’s Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, where Freddie Gray grew up. The project, in partnership with Jubilee Arts, had been in the works before Gray’s death, but volunteers are hoping the project can help inspire a community trying to rebuild, said Litsa Williams, the foundation’s director of community services.

“Staff are coming to us and wanting to get involved in work we do in the community,” Williams said. “They’re so connected to our mission, and there’s an inspiration to go above and beyond.”

At design firm Gensler — a top workplace for the first time this year — the unrest prompted conversations about socioeconomic disparities in Baltimore and other cities across the country, said Elaine Asal, who has been an architect with the firm for 10 years. The protests also lent urgency to efforts already under way.

To address the lack of opportunity for kids in distressed neighborhoods, Gensler’s Baltimore office has been working to introduce more minority students to architecture, one of the least diverse professions in the United States, she said.

“It gave us a window and an opportunity to talk more openly about inclusivity in design,” Asal said. “The way we engage more voices is to bring those voices in earlier and expose the different career paths to a broader audience. Those are some small ways we’re able to have that conversation.”

Gensler staff members help out in the architecture program at Morgan State University. The firm also is planning workshops and donating materials for disadvantaged students at the Baltimore Design School, a middle/high school focused on architecture, design and fashion.

Gensler’s annual client appreciation party has in recent years morphed into a fundraiser for nonprofits doing positive work in the city. Gensler matches client and staff donations up to $5,000, focusing on programs working to make Baltimore better, Asal said.

Allowing staff to work and make decisions independently increases employee fulfillment as well as productivity, said Jim Camp, managing director and principal at Gensler.

“I definitely believe if you empower your employees then you are going to get more out of them than if you dictate,” he said.

Employees today are vocal about their desire for opportunities to give back, said Jan Ozga, president of NFM Inc., a Linthicum-based mortgage lender that has been a top workplace for four years and tops this year’s midsize employers list.

Nearly all the charities NFM supports — including Ronald McDonald House Charities, Habitat for Humanity and the Michael Phelps Foundation — were suggested by employees who had a personal connection to those groups, he said.

The grass-roots mindset extends to the firm’s day-to-day operations, Ozga said.

“I don’t love the hierarchy,” he said. “That’s something we really try to focus on: working and solving things together as a group, regardless of stature and position in the company.”

That’s the right approach, said Mario Macis, assistant professor of economics at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School.

Employer-sponsored charity can be a burden if employees end up feeling pressured — by peers or their boss — to donate time or money to a cause, Macis said.

But if volunteer programs are organized by staff members, and supported by executives, workplace charity can boost social cohesion in the office, which makes for happier employees, he said.

“When the employees perceive that it’s not all about profit, that the organization is also part of the community and cares about the needs of the disadvantaged, that can definitely create a sense of belonging,” Macis said.

At Visionist Inc., an information technology firm based in Columbia, giving back has become ingrained in the workplace culture, said Chris Berry, president of the company, which is making its debut on the Top Workplaces list as the No. 1 small firm.

In the late 1990s, Berry headed up another company, where workplace volunteering wasn’t on employees’ radar, he said.

“I didn’t get the sense employees valued community service as much as the younger generation does now,” he said. “They seem to get really excited about participating.”

Today, Visionist staff members volunteer to refurbish computers for local schools, and this summer, about 30 of the company’s employees participated in a 24-hour fundraising bike relay ride. Visionist riders raised nearly $12,000 for the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults.

“It was a good environment for people to get out there and socialize in an out-of-work setting, while at the same time raising money,” said Brian Lehman, a Visionist vice president and a cancer survivor.

Faculty members at the McDonogh School in Owings Mills say their employer is a regular on the Top Workplaces list for good reason.

The school, which has been a Baltimore top workplace for four years running, was founded in the 1870s to house and educate orphan boys. Today, a spirit of service remains among employees as well as students, who must complete 40 hours of community service to graduate.

“The culture of community service is far more prevalent now than it was in my generation,” said Charlie Britton, McDonogh’s headmaster.

In 2008, faculty members established Roots Farm, an outdoor classroom on the McDonogh campus. It produces hundreds of pounds of fresh produce for the Maryland Food Bank annually.

Students and their families come out to help on the farm, but faculty are eager to volunteer their time as well, said Sharon Hood, the farm’s director and a science teacher in McDonogh’s lower school.

Last summer alone, Roots Farm grew 1,300 pounds of vegetables for the food bank, including tomatoes, peppers and squash, she said. Plus, on a monthly basis, students and faculty make turkey and ham sandwiches to deliver to the Corpus Christi Community Center Outreach Ministry in Bolton Hill.

The charitable programs contribute to Hood’s sense of fulfillment at McDonogh.

“I can’t think of a better place to work,” she said. “I think we have responsibility to give back. We have that obligation to help our surrounding community. To me, that is very rewarding.”

Baltimore’s top workplaces are also places where employees feel respected and have the trust of their bosses.

OrderUp, an online food delivery service that employs 80 people in the region and is making its debut on the list this year, has an unlimited-vacation policy. That means staff understand that if their work gets done, they can take whatever personal time they need, said CEO Chris Jeffery.

“We trust that they’re adults and know they have a job to do,” he said. “I think that goes to build a better culture and environment for the company.”

Sometimes, employees want to use that free time off to give back, Jeffery said.

On the day of Gray’s funeral, hundreds of city businesses were damaged when protests turned violent. The next day, dozens of OrderUp’s Baltimore employees asked for a couple of days off work to help clean up the city and repair damaged storefronts, Jeffery said. He was happy to oblige.

“It’s giving people freedom and the flexibility to do things they’re passionate about, outside of work,” he said.

Last year, OrderUp also participated in “Giving Tuesday,” pledging to donate $1 to the Maryland Food Bank for every order placed. The company ended up raising more than $15,000, Jeffery said.

“As we grew our footprint here in Baltimore, we wanted to do more,” he said.

At Rummel Klepper & Kahl, a planning and engineering firm that employs more than 400 people in the region, the staff is offered flexible work schedules to accommodate employees’ ample community service activities, said William Wood, human resources manager for RK&K, which tops this year’s large employers list in its second year as a Baltimore region top workplace.

Engineers volunteer to give science and engineering presentations to middle and high school students, as well as college students. The Baltimore firm’s staff have volunteered in the Dominican Republic, building churches, schools and bathrooms for the ministry Kingdom Builders. Others volunteer with the Frostburg-based nonprofit Camp Hope, repairing homes for the elderly and disabled in rural Maryland.

Many contribute to charity drives. Over the course of 18 years, the RK&K staff has donated more than $200,000 to the WBAL Radio Kids Campaign, which supports disadvantaged children in the region, Wood said.

These programs help foster a sense of purpose in the workplace, Wood said, but employees also find meaning in their daily work, building bridges and other infrastructure that shape their communities.

“Our employees’ involvement [in charity] helps them feel invested in the company,” he said. “But so does their work. Every employee truly understands their impact on our clients. Their own involvement in projects and this work certainly impacts the communities in which we live.”

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