Great places to work

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 salaries 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 there, companies 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 in the 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, if you 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.

Bristol-Myers Squibb: Shares in success

Monika Počínková

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] experience.”
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.

Jason Hovet

Johnson & Johnson: Power to the people

A lot of firms preach employee empowerment; Johnson & Johnson practices it.

Eva Snopková

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.

Jason Hovet

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 to deliver.

Jean-Pascal Duvieusart

“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 cherish.”

Tim Gosling

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.

Danny Klappe

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 discouraged.
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.

Jason Hovet

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.

Jiří Vacek

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.”

Jason Hovet

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 Czech Republic.

Blanka Lisá

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.”

Jason Hovet






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