Taking Care Of Employees Earns Employer Top Honor

May 14, 2002
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HOLLAND — Who wouldn’t want five weeks of paid vacation a year — to start?

After a year of working for Sordal Inc., you get six weeks of vacation time. The company adds another week for every year worked through five years of service, for a maximum 10 weeks of paid vacation time a year.

The generous policy is all part of what company founder, Chairman and CEO Dale Danver, calls “good business,” and the vacation policy provides an attractive lure when he’s recruiting talent.

“It’s a hook,” said Danver, who credits the family-friendly policies he put in place when he started the business in 1999 with generating a loyal, well-motivated and highly efficient workforce with a zero turnover rate.

That’s resulted in Danver never having to go through the time and expense of hiring and training a new employee to take over a position when somebody leaves.

“I’m trying to make it so there’s no reason to quit; there’s no job-hopping,” Danver said. “There’s a much higher efficiency in labor utilization than anywhere I’ve ever worked before.”

Danver’s efforts to create a workplace that better enables employees to balance their careers and personal time earned Sordal the Holland Area Chamber of Commerce’s 2002 People-Friendly Work Place Award. The award, initiated in 1998, is designed to showcase firms that use people-friendly policies and practices and encourage others to follow suit.

Past winners of the award include Holland Community Hospital, Johnson Controls Inc. and Progressive AE.

Among the benefits that Sordal, a technology firm that produces advanced non-flammable composite materials for NASA, offers:

  • Five weeks of paid vacation for new employees, plus an additional week for every year worked, up to a maximum of 10 weeks.

  • 100 percent tuition reimbursement.

  • Flex time that allows employees to more readily adjust their work schedules around their home life and still put in 40 hours a week, with core work hours of 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and a compressed workweek during the summer.

  • Child care reimbursement of up to $50 per week, per family.

  • A “living wage” of $12.50 an hour for entry-level employees, including general laborers and college interns.

  • Paid paternity leave within two years of the birth of a child.

  • A lactation room for new mothers who are nursing their children.

  • No time clocks.

  • Free snacks and soda.

  • Free lab coats.

  • No “Big Brother” philosophy in managing employees’ use of company computers.

  • Upon offering a job, the company outlines a five-year plan for career advancement.

While he’s convinced the effort is worth the payoff and helps the bottom line, Danver’s rationale for doing it comes down to personal ethics.

Danver learned about the value and benefits of people-friendly policies and practices early in his career while working as an engineer in Japan for a year and in Sweden for five years, he said. He wanted to replicate those practices in his own business.

“It’s a basic philosophy within the company,” Danver said. “I just said, ‘This is a better way of life than our hire-and-fire and quarterly mentality we have in America.’”

A recent report from a Michigan State University researcher shows that Danver is in the minority in his thinking.

The report from the Economic Policy Institute found that the U.S. lags far behind European and Asian countries in helping employees and families find a balance between work and home. The report states that many European Union countries are reducing weekly work hours and operating more flexible schedules.

Many U.S. employers feel an entitlement to “unencumbered workers” who can work as if they had a partner or spouse or other caregiver at home, said Peter Berg, a co-author of the report and an assistant professor of industrial and labor relations at MSU.

That view does not reflect the modern American workforce, which saw the number of women above the age of 20 who are working outside the home grow from 41.2 percent in 1968 to 60.1 percent in 1999, Berg said.

The report, entitled “Shared Work, Valued Care: New Norms for Organizing Market Work and Unpaid Care Work,” looked at workplace practices in Japan, Australia, Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands and Italy. It made numerous recommendations for change, including legislation to allow shorter work weeks, flexibility for workers, longer part-time hours and limiting mandatory overtime.

U.S. employers, Berg contends, “have a lot to learn” from their foreign counterparts.

“We are entering the 21st century in the United States with workplace practices that reflect a bygone era,” Berg said. “The way work is scheduled and done just doesn’t reflect current realities.”           

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