Thursday, April 28, 2011

Best Companies to Work For: Happy Campers

Taking care of top talent is taking precedence as the economy picks back up. Here's how Zappos, DreamWorks Animation, and Teach for America do it.

Smart companies don't take retention for granted, especially now that the economy is showing signs of life. How do they keep employees loyal? We interviewed human resources executives and regular staff at three firms that made this year's 100 Best Companies to Work For list. Bottom line: These HR stars all offer welcoming office cultures that motivate their workers. And the perks ain't bad either. Best practices from Zappos, DreamWorks Animation, and Teach for America.

Courtesy of
Industry: Online retail
Headquarters: Las Vegas
Headcount: 2,248
Best Companies ranking: 6
The online apparel and footwear retailer famously includes "Create fun and a little weirdness" on its list of core values. Applicants are carefully screened to make sure they can cut it in a corporate culture where rules are few, professional titles include "cruise director," and colleagues frequently stage spontaneous parades down cubicle row.
This quirky zeitgeist appears to have survived's 2009 acquisition of Zappos. Job interviews still take place in rooms with zany themes, including Cher's Dressing Room and an Oprah-style talk show set where candidates sit on a couch next to their HR host. Standard interview questions include "On a scale of 1 to 10, how weird would you say you are?"
There's no right answer to that question, says recruiting manager Christa Foley, 37. "We're looking for people who don't take themselves too seriously," she adds. "Somebody who gets into an argument with us about the definition of 'weird' will probably not be able to handle a parade with cowbells."
Perks include free lunches, 25¢ vending machines (all proceeds go to charity), and a full-time life coach on staff. And customer service is a religion at Zappos: All new hires are required to work in a call center during their first month on staff, even if their jobs don't involve customer interaction.
Best practices:
• HR staffers can (and do) veto hiring decisions if they don't think a job candidate is a cultural fit.
• Senior employees receive no benefits that aren't also given to junior hires.
• HR actively seeks candidates who enjoy socializing with colleagues.

DreamWorks Animation
Courtesy of DreamWorks Animation SKG
Industry: Film Production
Headquarters: Glendale, Calif.
Headcount: 2,160
Best Companies ranking: 10
Not long ago, Kyle Maxwell had a bright idea. The 25-year-old effects artist thought DreamWorks Animation needed a panini machine in its cafeteria, so he e-mailed CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, a legendary Hollywood mogul whose credits include Shrek, Kung-Fu Panda, and Megamind. At the next company-wide meeting, Katzenberg publicly thanked Maxwell for his suggestion and ordered that it be done.
Within the week, DreamWorkers were chowing down on bespoke paninis, and Maxwell had acquired a mover-and-shaker rep to go with his computer-animation chops. "Now I get all kinds of weird e-mail from people at DreamWorks," says Maxwell. "They're like, 'Hey, can you get us a new staircase?'"
Most Hollywood studios act as clearinghouses for freelance creative talent, bringing teams together to make movies and then cutting them loose when the production wraps. By contrast, DreamWorks keeps all talent on staff. Animators who leave the studio to pursue other projects are often welcomed back: 15% of new hires are rehires.
DreamWorks fosters a culture of creativity, offering free drawing, sculpture, and improv classes to staffers. Everyone is encouraged to pitch movie ideas; the studio runs "Life's a Pitch" workshops, where animators and accountants alike can hone presentation skills. Says Katzenberg: "Our philosophy is that if you love your work, and you love coming to work, then the work will be exceptional."
Best practices:
• Eliminate inconvenience so employees can focus on work. DreamWorkers get free dry-cleaning, medical care, and meals on campus.
• Cut everything except people. DreamWorks tightened its belt during the recession, but nobody was laid off.
• Communicate openly. Katzenberg blogs frequently for the entire staff. At company meetings, he takes pains to explain financial performance in language artists can understand.
Teach for America
Industry: Nonprofit education
Headquarters: New York City
Headcount: 1,400
Best Companies ranking: 82
If you're looking to join a crusade, Teach for America might be just the gig for you. The nonprofit's mission is nothing less than fixing public education in the U.S. TFA provides teacher training to recent college grads and young professionals, and then places them in disadvantaged schools around the country. (The teachers work for their local school districts, not TFA.)
Everyone we spoke with at TFA, from facilities managers to senior executives, seemed fired by a missionary zeal to give all American children access to quality education. "The bottom line is achieving results for every student, regardless of their zip code," says Crystal Jones, 30, director of the nonprofit's operations in Jacksonville.
TFA offers an innovative work/life integration program, giving most employees the opportunity to work from anywhere at any time. Other benefits include a 403(b) match of 100% up to 5% of pay, an extra week of vacation after three years, and a week off around the holidays.
At TFA, talent and hard work yield rapid advancement. "I'm in my late twenties, managing a big team and a huge chunk of the country," says David Omenn, a former teacher in the program who now oversees all campus recruitment in the Western U.S. "And the caliber of people I work with is unbelievable."
Best practices:
• Focus on the mission. TFA urges all staffers to spend time in classrooms to see how they make a difference.
• Stress professional development. Training and evaluations are taken very seriously at TFA, and talented staffers get pushed up the ladder fast.
• Be flexible. As long as they get the job done, TFA staffers can live anywhere and work from home.

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