Architecture & Design, Human Resources, and Sustainability

Cascade Engineering invests in people with triple bottom line approach

Programs for former prisoners and those on welfare are successful.

December 13, 2013
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Since its beginnings 40 years ago, Cascade Engineering has operated on the belief that it could be a successful business and good to its employees at the same time.

Essentially, the company has always been a “triple bottom line” business, said Kenyatta Brame, newly named executive vice president.

“Focusing on people is something we’ve done for many years, and I think that is why people stay at Cascade and why people come to Cascade. And that’s why people find us, whether reading about us or seeing what we are doing (as) interesting,” Brame said.

Creating an open and inclusive environment has been at the heart of Cascade’s approach to investing in its employees.

While many topics might be considered off-limits at other companies, Cascade Engineering welcomes difficult conversations, including those involving race, gender, religion, etc.

“A couple of years ago we had the Jim Crow Museum (of Racist Memorabilia) exhibit,” Brame said. “We actually brought it in and we had all of our employees on campus go through this museum, and the museum shows some pretty hateful and despicable things. Someone said, ‘You are a business; why would you want to do that at work?’ My thought has always been, well, we are part of the community and this is an important conversation to have.

“We want to create a safe environment where employees can ask questions. I’ve had people come into my office and say, ‘Hey, Kenyatta, I’ve never had the opportunity to ask this, but why is Aunt Jemima bad? I always thought that was a good thing.’ So we had a dialogue about it. I have people ask me numerous questions that they would not have had the opportunity to ask a person of color otherwise.”

The entire management team is required to attend the Institute on Healing Racism, the company has adopted an anti-racism statement, and it regularly creates opportunities for dialogue through organized activities.

“We think that our employees appreciate the dialogue,” Brame said. “The people of color particularly feel appreciated and understood. We’ve given them a voice that they may not have had otherwise. We think our employees that are not of color appreciate the opportunity to ask, learn and understand.”

As a result of addressing issues regarding race, the company earned the highest designation from Partners for a Racism-Free Community earlier this year. The designation includes six key areas: leadership engagement; internal policies, practices and processes; external collaborations and relationships; contractor, supplier and/or vendor practices; client, congregation, customer and/or marketplace practices; and measurement and results.

Brame said creating an open-minded culture also has paid off in bottom-line business terms.

“The biggest byproduct of having an open and inclusive culture is that it drives our innovation,” Brame said. “Because we are able to keep our minds open about numerous topics, that carries over to our work, whether it’s in manufacturing, engineering or HR. The open-mindedness allows us to see things differently, and other organizations aren’t able to do that. I think it allows us to have different relationships with our co-workers so that we are able to know and understand each other better and so we are able to effectively problem solve in a way that perhaps other organizations can’t.”

Being open-minded also has contributed to two of the company’s most successful programs: Welfare to Work and a prisoner re-entry program.

Keith Maki, Cascade’s director of corporate marketing, said that while the Welfare to Work program has been a great benefit, it’s had its hiccups along the way, and the company has tweaked it to make it work.

“We understood that we wanted to move in that direction, to take people off the welfare rolls and provide them with a chance and opportunity to have work and a viable career, but we had some misfires that had to do with not understanding the barriers those people were confronted with,” Maki said.

As a result, a Department of Human Services representative is now available onsite at Cascade Engineering every day to help employees who are on welfare.

“She is able to ask questions and able to dive into areas that I, as an employer, can’t ask, but those are the questions that often get that person to work the next day,” Brame said.

The DHS staff person was so successful that the company realized all employees could benefit from having a go-to person with whom they could discuss challenges and issues, so it hired a social services employee who is available to everyone.

As for the Welfare to Work program, it has been tremendously successful, with a retention rate of 98 percent. Additionally, Maki pointed out that the program has saved the state tens of millions of dollars.

Reducing barriers for people with criminal backgrounds is also important to Cascade Engineering.

“One thing we’ve done is, it’s not an automatic bar from working at Cascade Engineering,” Brame said. 

In fact, the company has removed the criminal background check box from its application. Brame said once the company has narrowed its list of job candidates, it asks for that information and will assess several factors to determine if someone’s criminal background is an issue or not. Cascade considers length of time since the conviction, circumstances of the offense, number of convictions, employment record since the conviction, rehabilitation and nature of the job applied for.

“Since most of the people who have criminal backgrounds are low level drug offenses, in manufacturing it’s not a major problem for them to be employed,” he said.

Through its many programs, initiatives and overall culture, Brame and Maki agree the company is a great place to work.

“You sometimes can’t qualify these things, but it’s apparent in the work force and it’s apparent in the productivity that is generated because they feel like their word is heard, that they have a place and are respected,” Maki said. “They feel like they can be themselves, and that is very meaningful.”

In order to continue improving its social capital, Cascade Engineering became a Certified B Corp., a designation earned by a company following an intensive audit of its social and environmental practices.

“What we use that audit for is to measure our triple bottom line journey,” Brame said. 

It also sends a message to employees about the equal weight the company puts on people, planet and profit.

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