Can You Relate?

Recognizing where and how to invest in employee relations programs takes a trained ear, a watchful eye and an open mind. Perhaps the biggest determinant of a program's scope is whether the operation is private or public. The difference, then, becomes a matter of intrinsic vs. tangible.

"In the short run, money is the one thing the private sector can offer that the public sector can't," says Joseph Fogle, solid waste manager for the city of Dallas. "Private sector employees can jump up the corporate ladder quicker and management can give rewards more liberally."

On the other hand, public sector employees can get their motivation from creative plans and programs. N.C. Vasuki, executive director of the Delaware Solid Waste Authority (DSWA), Sussex County, knows this well.

"The incentive programs in government are not very good," he says. But government agencies can offer employees the opportunity to learn and master many tasks. "They get some experience and become very marketable."

Vasuki boasts less than 10 percent turnover. Overseeing 100 employees and a $50 million solid waste management program, he subscribes to a philosophy of employee empowerment and professional growth, emphasizing continuing education, public recognition and the freedom to explore new technologies. This has resulted in a stable and dedicated work force.

"When employees come to work on a Tuesday, they should be wondering, 'What new thing am I going to be doing today?'" he says. "They should be asking themselves, 'How can I improve solid waste management?' They should not be thinking 'I've done one day and have four days to go.'"

Because Vasuki rarely can give bonuses for exemplary performance, he has found other ways to compensate employees for their good work.

Offering a continuing education program has been helpful, Vasuki says.

"Employees can apply to take college courses and the DSWA will pay full tuition and books if they earn an A or B," he says. Students who get a C receive 50 percent of the course's cost, and failing students must pay the entire amount.

"Employees who take the initiative to further their education provide me with another opportunity to evaluate which employees are highly productive and which ones aren't," Vasuki says. "Those willing to take courses during personal time to improve themselves usually are better organized and get more done."

Unfortunately, many municipalities don't recognize the importance of continuing education, says Mordecai Lee, assistant professor of governmental affairs at the Continuing Education division of the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee.

"In some professions, (continuing education) is a powerful force," Lee says. "In government, it's not part of the culture. There, the mindset is, 'I've got my degree, I'm trained, I have a career,' as opposed to 'I need to refine my skills.'"

Such short sightedness and budget limitations can hinder employee growth, he says.

"The opportunities to expose local government managers to new ideas and to refresh their skills are limited," says Lee, a former state congressman.

This is because when budgets are cut, training typically is one of the first programs to go. "Training is secondary, and local politicians want to be able to say they kept taxes down," Lee says.

However, Vasuki says education pays off in employee satisfaction. "You really can't put a dollar value on it, but it's a very good feeling."

Standing Tall in Dallas Managers of the city of Dallas solid waste department have made employee recognition and empowerment a priority. From "well-done" memos to special hats, Fogle considers tokens of appreciation critical.

"Recognition doesn't cost a lot, but it brings so much to the family and the team," he says. "Even though we can't give employees money, we can give them little things, which are just as important."

Employees who willingly work overtime on a holiday receive a well-done memo from their supervisor. An extraordinarily kind act or superior performance beyond an employee's normal duties also can warrant a memo. These memos are presented in front of peers during crew meetings and are placed in the employee's personnel file.

Another morale booster among the 425-member team is a hat designed especially for the department that employees wear at special events, such as the Solid Waste Association of North America truck and equipment Road-e-o competitions, city-organized outings and meetings with visitors from foreign countries. Fogle says the hats, which are redesigned each year, "make the employees stand a little bit taller than the other folks with plain-Jane hats."

"Anything you can do to keep employees interested and invested in their jobs encourages them to perform better," says George Labrie, the city's assistant director for disposal operations. "The caveat is that programs must have some structure and continuity."

Survey Says ... For Raleigh, N.C.-based Waste Industries Inc., maintaining a team mentality among 2,000 full- and part-time employees in 34 locations in six states is an ongoing challenge. But that's the philosophy the private sector company developed in the early 1970s, and it has fared well ever since.

Team building starts with employee focus groups and annual opinion surveys, which provide upper- and middle-management with valuable employee feedback.

"We try to convey that the employee knows how to do his job best," says Joe Lowery, Waste Industries' human resource manager. "For example, we had drivers from all over the country get together to address concerns and discuss recommendations.

"We did the same thing with welders and mechanics, and administrative support and sales personnel," he continues.

From the focus groups, Lowery says the company developed a list of operational procedures employees liked and areas that needed to be changed. This list was shared with all participants and their branch and regional managers.

The annual employee survey is conducted by a third party and includes data rating supervisors' performance and the company's overall management, including benefits, training and communication.

"We can gauge how well or how poorly we're doing by looking at the categories," Lowery says. The results are used to develop supervisor training programs.

Waste Industries also has implemented an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), providing free confidential service to employees and/or immediate family members whose personal problems are affecting their ability to function at home or on the job.

An outside counselor works with the employee to solve the problem.

"It's not just drug- and alcohol-related problems, but emotional, marital or financial difficulties, too," Lowery says.

Lowery receives a notice about the type of problem being treated, but employee names are not included unless it's a safety issue.

For example, employees being treated for drug or alcohol problems don't drive (on the job) until the problem is resolved, he says.

In any business, human resources are the most important resources. Whether employers provide continuing education, awards or special hats to motivate and train employees, boosting employee morale and knowledge ultimately will boost the bottom line.