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Great places to work
Written by: Jason Hovet
Photo by: Vojtěch Vlk
From cafeteria-style benefits to targeted
training, employers are putting more power in employees' hands. Empowerment
seems to be what workers want as these great places to work show.
IN THE PAST, when students were looking over companies at career
day events, typical questions would center around salaries and
benefits like a phone or car. Now, according to Jiří Vacek, who
has many years experience in HR and has run the Nestlé HR department
for three years, the first questions are about training and development
opportunities, as well as company culture.
Fresh job seekers aren't the only ones asking these questions,
though. Many young - and even older - professionals are also looking
for more than a paycheck. Of course, most companies aren't being
caught unprepared, as larger (and more international) firms have
always had some sort of training and development plans. What's
unique now is that these programs are not unique any more, and
the choices for quality employment that job seekers have are numerous.
As a result, employees have forced employers to work a lot harder
in retaining the best staff.
So what sets great companies apart? While most firms have already
ventured into better compensation, more benefits, and so on, it
seems the really great ones are providing one simple thing: empowerment.
Today, professionals have more chances for training and career
development than before. And it's a win-win situation for both
parties, as many companies are now using appraisal systems for
more targeted training and development, which aims at improving
specific areas, not just general education.
One such example is beer giant Plzeňský Prazdroj. "We provide
employees with a wide range of development opportunities based
on detailed analyses of their training needs," says Ivan Balogh,
Prazdroj's human resources manager. For training, two unique initiatives
for the workforce are PUSA (Pilsner Urquell Sales Academy) and
PUBA (Pilsner Urquell Brewing Academy). In these year-round internal
programs, employees in both areas are taught very specific skills
by more experienced staff. While advancing employee's development,
the training also benefits the company's move to align itself more
to its parent, the world's number two brewer, SABMiller.
Many companies still prefer trainings to be inhouse, although outsourcing
training has created a big market among business schools and training
centers. One area that has been particularly affected is MBA opportunities
- in a Hewitt Associates compensation study in the Czech Republic
in 2003, 30% of employers (out of 117 of the largest companies
operating in the country) now offer further education in this form,
mainly at the management level, where it's needed the most. But,
Peter Loewenguth, at CMC Graduate School of Business, while acknowledging
an increasing interest, says that number can be misleading. "What
we are not seeing are companies sending large numbers [of people]," he
says, pointing that a (large) company sending one person could
be counted, but for a large company that number isn't impressive.
Still, he does see this statistic as positive.
Getting a little help
Although many companies are teaching their employees, more are
starting to learn from them. Shortly after AstraZeneca completed
its merger in 1999, the company wanted to better define its new
company culture. Told to take a local approach, the Czech office
went to its employees for help. After a series of workshops,
the employees gave the pharmaceutical company its four key values
to follow. Václav Kouřim, AstraZeneca's HR director, believes
that it gives the values more meaning by getting employees' help. "Otherwise
it would have been just a piece of paper," he says.
Not satisfied with that, AstraZeneca also utilizes a few other
tricks common among other companies. Internal surveys are increasingly
used as a way to finetune operations and benefits. And when employees
are on the way out, exit interviews are helpful to not only identify
the reason for leaving, but to find improvements that can be made. "We
want to learn where we can improve," Kouřim says, adding these
ways help to reach a better level of frankness.
Another positive trend in workplaces is that women are starting
to get more focus. One change gaining momentum is the way companies
transition mothers back to work after maternity leave. While companies
are legally bound to hold a woman's position open for the first
six months after giving birth, most women will be out of work much
longer. Therefore, upon their return, they still have a job, but
typically find themselves in a lower position. Some banks are starting
to hold positions longer, including Dutch financial player ING
(see sidebar, p. 24). "We are trying to build the possibility
where a woman has a chance to leave and return to the same position," says
HR manager Marie Martínková, adding that this means finding temporary
workers able of filling a position for up to a year.
Not the money
At the end of the day, though, payday has not been forgotten,
and many compensation tools have become quite common. While
continue to grow - though still a fraction of the EU average
- most companies now practice benchmarking in order to stay
competitive. Adding to compensation are staff benefits, and
are increasingly similar. One example, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers'
annual Pay Well survey: in 1999, only 10% of companies in the
Czech Republic had supplementary pension insurance schemes
in place; today that number is 69%.
This just goes to show that as more employee benefits and training
become commonplace, employers may have to do more - or just do
things better. That was the conclusion that Hewitt Associates
reached in its first Best Employers survey. Looking at companies
Czech Republic and Slovakia, the study concluded that the best
companies don't do more, but just do certain things better. This
trend is illustrated in the profiles throughout our story. Seeking
help from HR and management consultants, business schools, recruiters,
and just people who've seen the inside of many companies, we
chose six examples of great places to work. When reading them,
see a resemblance to the place where you currently work, consider
yourself fortunate. If not, just be patient - maybe your employer
will read this story as well.
Squibb: Shares in success
While 26% of the 117 companies
in the Czech Republic covered by Hewitt Associates' compensation
survey now offer stock options, not all have such a wide-reaching
program as American drug maker Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS).
Upon entry, every employee receives a gift of up to 1,000
company shares and can begin optioning these after three
years. Even more, for work well done, the company awards
bonuses upwards of 1,000 shares. "These awards are based
on successful projects" like a particularly effective
product launch or marketing campaign, says HR director Monika
Počínková, adding awards are not like lollipops and must
really be earned.
Počínková thinks the stocks help provide employees security. "It's
really a long-term benefit," she thinks. "Employees
don't think about getting rich." Katarína Simonová,
who joined the company in 1997 after her former company merged
with BMS and has advanced to the HR department after starting
at reception, agrees. "It's an important benefit," she
says, "but it's just one of many."
As the company knows money isn't enough, it also works hard
to develop employees-especially internationally - and, out
of 150 employees in the Czech and Slovak offices, there's
a long list of names who've been with the company for more
than six years. This is a credit to the BMS's Europe-wide
regional structure. From product launches to marketing campaigns,
projects are worked on with almost all European subsidiaries.
Počínková, as one example, is currently preparing a training
initiative in cooperation with many eastern European counterparts. "I
moved [to the company] to get these chances," she says.
Počínková admits she had other chances at different companies
to work abroad. "But with the opportunity here," she
counters, "I could stay at home and get the same [international]
Still, not everything is roses. The company has gone through
some organizational changes, which has thinned staff levels,
and another round will come into effect next year. But, in
calmer years like now, the office has maintained a turnover
rate of less than two percent. And with fun, new offices
(just one year old) and deeper integration into the European
network, employees have more reasons than just stock options
to keep them happy.
Johnson & Johnson: Power
to the people
A lot of firms preach employee empowerment; Johnson & Johnson
J&J took the top spot in a Best Employer survey done
this year by Hewitt Associates that measured employees' engagement
(feeling a part of the organization and a desire to contribute)
and alignment (the feeling you know where the company is
going and have a stake in it). 57 Czech and Slovak companies
took part in the study, which surveyed more than 5,500 employees.
While reaching this position, J&J doesn't have any special
HR programs. "This isn't rocket science," jokes
HR director Eva Snopková, adding two simple things need to
be focused on: communication and opportunities. For the former,
the company's approach is an open-door policy with managers'
offices always accessible. Marketing manager Jaroslav Zahradník,
who's been with the firm for four years, says "you feel
freer to ask questions" in this environment.
What's more important is that the staff has a feeling they
have a piece in the company's success. Each year, performance
agreements are arranged between employees and managers, then
the burden is on their shoulders. "Everybody holds his
or her future in their hands," points out Snopková.
Zahradník adds, "You feel a real trust from your boss." According
to product manager Tomáš Hobza, who started at J&J in
1995, "The agreement helps; you have a lot of responsibility."
Hobza is also an example of what makes J&J great: about
80 of the 300-plus staff have been in the company for more
than six years and staff turnover is quite low. "I haven't
found any reason to leave," Hozba says. "Every
year I've found something new." Indeed opportunities
can come - and often. Example number one may be Jiří Pavlíček,
the managing director of J&J here and in Slovakia, who
himself started in sales. Even Snopková, who joined J&J
nine years ago, started in business administration. "I
had no plans for HR," the HR director laughs, pointing
out that's what sometimes happens at J&J.
McKinsey: Developing potential
There are few terms in human resources more ubiquitous
than "personal development". Almost a given ambition
for job-candidates, the concept is simpler to promise than
"People don't develop by being told to develop," says
Jean-Pascal Duvieusart, Director of global consultants McKinsey & Company's
Czech office. Duvieusart is referring to concrete and systematic
measures that guide and push their professionals towards
consummate development. McKinsey is known as an excellent
environment in which to gain experience and broaden expertise.
The hours are long and the demands high, as the Belgian advisor
is the first to admit, but he claims that this is another
of the keys to helping people grow. The evidence is that
the "McKinsey method" works; the list of posts
held by alumni is long and impressive. Duvieusart is proud
of the achievements of his former colleagues, describing
McKinsey as a "board-member factory". A host of
top companies in the Czech Republic enjoy leadership that
McKinsey has helped craft.
With a reputation hard to match in its industry, McKinsey
recruits freshly graduated candidates, or those a handful
of years into their career. Intensive formal training in
core skills, business management, and sector specializations
begins immediately and continues throughout their time with
the firm. This complements their "apprenticeship",
which is served on project teams alongside colleagues from
all levels, and during which staff are constantly observed
and coached by senior members.
It may feel a little like a permanent laboratory with people
watching you," smiles Duvieusart, who considers it crucial
that the persistent staff appraisal and feedback is not dispersed
to an HR department but handled by the senior managers who
operate within the core of the business. Consultants still
advancing after three years go on to an MBA at one of several
top schools; provided they stay with McKinsey, the company
pays around 80% of the cost. These factors are tailored to
advance recruits into the upper echelons of the organization
by cultivating strong and quick progression. The company
demands this, operating an "up-or-out" policy.
Doesn't this approach scare people? It could, agrees Duvieusart,
but he asserts that this is one of the company's most effective
tools to help people develop. As the longest serving member
of the Prague team, what keeps him there? "McKinsey
is still offering me the core things that make me a happy
camper," he says. "The ability to innovate; interaction
with top quality people, and freedom. I'm required to have
my own opinion and to voice it. These are things which I
ING: Youth rules
Top management in most companies is rarely seen
and usually feared. But when Marie Martinková started her
first day at the Dutch financial house ING, even the group's
young chairman was among those who greeted her.
That may be what makes ING stick out in the traditional,
button-up banking and financial world: youth, which governs
by informality, but with a professional and dedicated spirit.
Aged 39, Dutch-native Dick Okhuijsen is chairman of ING,
a brand name that encompasses banking, pension and insurance
services. The three other board members are just as young:
33, 39 and 42 years old. In management, as well, over 40
is more the exception than the rule.
According to HR director, Danny Klappe, the effect youth
has in the office is manifold. For starters, employees are
on a first-name basis. "Management also tend to be very
approachable here," says Klappe. Youth is also a connecting
factor, according to Štěpán Kratochvíl, a trainer in ING
for three years with five years experience in banking. "It
creates a better dynamic," the 25-year-old says. "People
work harder and they are more dedicated to the company," something
he didn't see at two other banks he worked at.
But as the average employee is only 33, ING stresses a working
balance and tries to support those with young families. Martínková
is one example. The 32-year-old mother of a young daughter
just joined ING in June after five years in consulting. "ING
offered me a chance to balance my work and private life," she
says. "I can manage my time easier." Flexible hours
are one benefit. More importantly, excessive overtime is
Of course, not all the 700 employees are parents, but they
still appreciate the way the company treats them. Ivan Krajčovič
started with the company after speaking with his friend. "He
was working here and was very satisfied," he says. Krajčovič
likes the openness in the office, saying it helps promote
new opinions and creativity. He also mentions the training
opportunities and social benefits. "The company pays
a lot of attention to you," the 29-year-old Slovak says.
And that attention comes from the top down.
Nestlé: The graduates' choice
With fresh university graduates increasingly being
sought out, Nestlé CR has renewed its recruiting efforts
in its six-year-old trainee program, Líheň. Fresh grads
are taking notice, with HR director Jiří Vacek saying his
department sees nearly 2,000 applicants each year.
Even more exceptional: this year the company moved to the
fifth spot on the international student organization AIESEC's
Most Desirable Employer annual survey, jumping from 25th
in 2001 - the same year Vacek took over.
Usually 10-20 applicants are accepted for traineeship in
various areas: from sales or marketing to production or human
resources. During the next two years they get hands-on experience
with senior staff while holding a minimum of two positions.
According to current trainee Petra Smažílková, "the
possibility to be managed by experienced people and to receive
a lot of knowledge from the very beginning" is the most
valuable aspect of the program. This view is often repeated
by other trainees.
Another widespread comment is the real chance for career
development. However, Vacek is quick to stress Nestlé doesn't
offer a concrete career path, but rather possibilities for
those who are able and willing. And opportunities are vast:
currently some trainees are gaining their experience in Poland,
Switzerland, and even Australia. Some of the best work might
be closer to home. One trainee spent a year as a sales rep
in Prague, Brno and, finally, Ostrava. Vacek says she now
works in the marketing department in Prague and has more
experience than some senior staff.
Which helps to show Nestlé's greater emphasis on youth and
internationalism. "With young people it's much easier
[to move around]," Vacek claims. "They can earn
a few years of experience and be ready." While the younger
generation is more flexible, the 35-year-old HR director
admits that they are also increasingly more prepared for
international companies after leaving school.
After the program, 90% of finishers stay on with the company.
Nor does development stop there, as Nestlé uses a complex
appraisal system to further career opportunities. Asked why
she chose Nestlé, another trainee, Irena Milerová, says, "Nestlé
cares about its employees."
Philips: Cultivating leaders
Leaders aren't born - so many companies go to great
lengths to groom future performers and managers. One of
the most extensive initiatives can be found at Philips
While year-round training programs are designed for all
160 employees here, the company pays special attention to
star members of its staff. "We are even more demanding
toward our key people," admits Philips' management development
officer, Blanka Lisá. "We have a clear method to identify
early career talents and high potential employees." Early
on, Philips measures target-related and people-related competencies. "Only
employees who have potential to grow in both areas can be
involved in our talent pool program," Lisá says.
The talent pool program, which top management pays close
attention to, is a very hands-on, guided program. Each member
meets with their superior, or coach, to plot out a development
plan by identifying abilities to be strengthened and activities
to be completed - including quality improvement projects
and international projects. From there, during the next year,
participants will receive at least one training for each
identified aspect of their plan. The tailor-made trainings
cover areas like career management and skills like persuasion,
leadership and coaching. "And there are at least two
intensive coaching sessions [between the coach and employee]
during the year," Lisá says. Each phase of the process
is supported by a development specialist. Even more, the
company also contributes to further education, including
two current "talented" employees who are working
toward their MBA.
Our main goal is to give a chance to our people to prove
their skills in practice," Lisá says. Some recent examples
are a group of employees than won a company award in the
lighting division and a team of Czechs, Poles and Slovaks
that improved the supply chain to shorten deliveries. Participants
then go on to bigger and better things, including executive
level positions - as one Czech employee recently did in the
company's European medical systems division. "Most of
the talented people are promoted within the Czech Republic
and the best of the best are promoted internationally [usually
in central and eastern Europe]," Lisá shares. "For
example, six talent pool members were promoted in 2004, and
it could be even more in 2005."