Top Workplaces roundtable participants

Sharon Butler, manager, donor services division at Catholic Relief Services in Baltimore; Dave Imre, chief executive officer of IMRE, a digital advertising, marketing and public relations firm in Baltimore; Johnnie Lewis, a manager at PricewaterhouseCoopers' Baltimore office; and Holly O'Shea, vice president and corporate counsel at Pasadena-based FutureCare. (Baltimore Sun photo by Lloyd Fox / November 30, 2011)

To mark the release of The Baltimore Sun's Top 75 Workplaces magazine, we sat down with managers at four highly ranked companies to discuss how they manage — and, not least, how they hold on to top workers in this time of tight budgets.

Around the table were Sharon Butler, manager, donor services division at Catholic Relief Services in Baltimore; Dave Imre, chief executive officer of IMRE, a digital advertising, marketing and public relations firm in Baltimore; Johnnie Lewis, a manager at PricewaterhouseCoopers' Baltimore office; and Holly O'Shea, vice president and corporate counsel at Pasadena-based FutureCare. Here are excerpts from the discussion:

What do you think encourages employees to stay with a company? How do you reassure people in tough times, when budgets are tight?

Imre: In good times, financial rewards are helpful, but people want to be rewarded in other ways. They want their work to be noticed and they want to be thanked. [And] we find in good times and bad, people want to know how the company is doing.

Butler: Knowing they're appreciated in the work that they do. Sometimes there can be a raise, but sometimes verbal accolades [are] enough to calm them, for a while at least.

O'Shea: It's our responsibility to figure out what makes our employees tick. [Some workers need] words of affirmation, [others need] quality time or recognition. I am definitely a words-of-affirmation person.

As managers, what do you do to retain your best and brightest staff?

Butler: My doors are pretty open. I have a weekly meeting every Thursday with my whole team [to keep everyone informed]. Whatever's going on in the agency, sooner than later it trickles down to my staff meetings. … [It's important that staffers are] heard. … A lot of employees have great ideas, but they're pushed to the back burner.

Catholic Relief Services also offers opportunities to venture abroad. … We're really in tune with staff and their career path, and encouraging them to venture out from their safe place.

Imre: You need to have formal meetings but also have to be flexible and be able to meet with people when they've got a concern informally. … People have a choice about where to go to work these days. It's an imperative to get the job done, [but] you have to create a fun workplace, an exciting place, because they do have a choice.

O'Shea: It's constantly doing lots of little things consistently. [It's a matter of] always doing what you say you're going to do over and over, to maintain that level of credibility with your employees.

Do younger workers have different needs than older employees?

Lewis: With younger associates, it's truly not about what their salary is, how many weeks of vacation they receive — they'd rather have [a] work-life balance … [and] be able to participate and enjoy the [personal] part of their lives.

[The job can be] grueling. I think part of what our firm has attempted to do is try to identify what the needs and expectations are of younger associates in order to retain them and retain their knowledge.

How important are salary and benefits to your employees?

Imre: Salary and benefits are a foundation. [But the office is] somewhat home for eight hours a day. [Workers] want to know they're going to learn. The new generation getting out of school doesn't want to stop learning. I think they have a lot to teach me; their fingers can fly with the new technology — it's their world.

Do you offer any special perks or events to help build employee morale?

Butler: The staff really enjoys luncheons. Sometimes they're paid for [by the company], sometimes [staffers bring] in a dish. The whole team just comes together for no apparent reason, [just because] we're one human family and are on the same team.

Lewis: We have an annual gala. It came back last year after being away for two years because of economic conditions. We also have an annual community service day where our office shuts down [and employees attend] community events throughout the city and county.

[Also] every year we have a success plan: Everyone in the firm is required to set achievable and measurable goals of things they want to accomplish and everyone is paired with a coach. Throughout the year, they have informal meetings as well as mandated formal meetings.

Imre: We are doing a party this year, [which will be] relatively modest. We're cognizant that everything we do sends a signal. If we were to rent an extravagant place and have an extravagant party, it would send the wrong message to our employees. It's not business as usual [these days]. We're living in a world where there are a lot of poor people, unemployed people. … We need to be very careful as business owners in what we do.

[Also] we have an annual retreat and lay out goals for the year. We're very transparent: "Here's what we want to achieve; if we achieve it, there's a week off in the holidays."

We also offer a "body and mind" bonus. Every quarter we give people $200 and they have to tell us what they're going to use it for. … It's not a big cost, but it's a sign that, OK, [management does] care about the … work-life balance.

What are some examples of what employees have done with the $200?

Imre: [They've gotten] a TV for a man cave [and] two tickets to a Kanye West concert, [taken] fly-fishing lessons and [built] a vegetable garden.

Do you have any final thoughts or management secrets, or can you tell us what you'll be up to in 2012?

Imre: [We plan to hire] 10 to 15 [people] in the first quarter. … [And] we will need to retain everyone we do have [and] develop personal development plans for each one of them because they want to achieve new things in their career. … As our company goes into growth mode, we're going to show that we're a workplace of choice and not just say it; people can see whether [employees] are leaving your company or not.

O'Shea: When you see good talent, you want to grab that. You don't want bureaucracy limiting your ability to have talented people working with you. We want [our facilities] to be a place where [managers also] want to work — we're employees there as well. I want to work at a great place. … You're only on Earth for a time; you want to work someplace that you care about.

hope.keller@baltsun.com