At Rhino Foods, employee teams have helped make many of the hard decisions.
Ted Castle does not believe in giving orders. The founder and president of Rhino Foods, the Burlington, Vermont-based company that supplies the chocolate-chip cookie dough in Ben & Jerry's ice cream, would rather work together with employees to identify problems and develop solutions.
That's why Castle and the other managers at Rhino use teams in just about every aspect of the business. Many, like the "hiring team," require volunteering employees to take on duties above and beyond their regular jobs. Preparation for a one-year term on the hiring team is extensive: Employees sit in on numerous interviews and are trained in interviewing techniques, etiquette, and the legal constraints of the hiring process. The strategy is win-win: Team members have a vested interest in hiring the best workers, and the company benefits.
Company meetings are another way Rhino Foods keeps employees invested. No matter how busy the production schedule, the company shuts down operations every other week for a 30-minute meeting to inform everyone about issues that affect them and allow them a voice in making decisions.
Smart Solutions Even when the going gets tough - perhaps especially when it does - Rhino makes a point to involve its employees in finding solutions. Nowhere was this more evident than when the company experienced a serious downturn in business - one that resulted in the need to lay off 25 percent of the workers. A team of 26 employees volunteered to find a way to payroll the affected employees while keeping them tied to the firm.
They came up with an ingenious solution: to ask for Rhino volunteers to work for other local firms that needed temporary help. Rhino guaranteed the volunteers' jobs as long as they performed well in their temporary positions, and also agreed to continue their seniority, accrued vacation, and benefits. And while the new companies paid the hourly wages, Rhino made up the pay difference for employees who had to take a cut.
A Layoff Avoided Four workers moved to gardening product catalog firm Gardening Supply Company, and six others to Ben & Jerry's. Not only did Rhino avoid a layoff, the workers enjoyed their time away. Says Stephen Mayo, a quality assurance technician, "People ask me if I'd do it again. In a heartbeat. It was like a vacation: You go somewhere for a few months knowing you'll be secure here. You know you're eventually coming home. And it's nice to get back home."
1. Communicate with employees - Develop different ways to let them know what's going on and to address their questions with a sense of urgency.
2. Encourage employees to focus on problems - Make the organization's problems the employees' problems - not management's. Give them permission to take on key issues affecting the success of the organization.
3. Involve employees in determining solutions - Develop volunteers teams. Ask for and expect their help in making a difference.