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Employment

Under Pressure

By Marylou Fabbo

In the year that’s passed since President Donald Trump signed the Buy American and Hire American Executive Order, there’s been increased federal scrutiny on the employment-based visa petition process that has made it more difficult for businesses to hire foreign employees.

President Trump and other critics of employment visa programs believe they displace American workers and drive down wages, while employers maintain they need foreign labor to fill jobs that Americans are not willing or qualified to fill. So far, however, the administration’s actions have taken place through heightened agency action, such as government I-9 audits and immigration ‘raids,’ rather than legislation.

Enforcement Action Substantially Increased

When it comes to employing non-immigrant workers, the message is clear: companies’ hiring practices must be able to withstand heightened scrutiny. In September 2017, Asplundh Tree Expert Co. was ordered to pay a record fine of $95 million for employing thousands of unauthorized alien workers.

The U.S. Customs and Immigration Services (often referred to as ICE) has implemented a worksite-enforcement strategy that focuses on criminal prosecution of employers, human-resources personnel, and talent officers who knowingly hire illegal workers or are ‘willfully blind’ to the same. ICE has already doubled the number of worksite-enforcement cases that it pursued all of its last fiscal year. In New England alone, ICE made more than 680 arrests during the first quarter of its fiscal year. Even companies that don’t employ any immigrants or foreign workers are subject to an ICE audit and can face significant fines and penalties for things such as failing to fully and accurately complete I-9 forms for U.S. citizens.

Number of H-1B Visa Petitions Down

President Trump’s Buy American and Hire American Executive Order is purportedly designed to increase wages, protect the jobs of U.S. citizens, and increase employment rates. Among other things, the order requires federal agencies to review and propose new rules and guidance to protect the interests of U.S. workers and to prevent fraud and abuse in the H-1B visa program. This program allows companies in the U.S. to temporarily employ foreign workers in occupations that require the theoretical and practical application of a body of highly specialized knowledge and a bachelor’s degree or higher in the specific specialty, or its equivalent. H-1B specialty occupations typically include fields such as science, engineering, and information technology.

About 65,000 regular visas and 20,000 masters-level visas are awarded each year through a lottery system, although the ultimate goal is to switch to a point-based merit system. While ICE received more than double the amount of petitions needed to fill the quotas, the total number of petitions submitted decreased by about 10,000 from last year and has decreased more than 50% since its high in 2016. Trump’s executive order — designed to reform the H-1B visa program by making it more difficult to get such a visa — may be driving some away from using the program at all.

Spouse Employment Authorizations Likely to Be Rescinded

Certain spouses of H-1B workers may be eligible to work pursuant to an H-4 visa. However, the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security have stated that they intend to rescind employment authorization for H-4 visa holders, and it now appears that at least some form of the rescission is likely to take place in the near future.

Yet, some questions remain unanswered. Will current H-4 visa holders be able to renew them? Will there be a drop-dead date after which H-4 authorization is no longer valid at all? What’s clear is that employers who hire H-4 workers need to start thinking about alternate means of legally employing them.

Tougher Standards for H-1B Workers at Third-party Locations

ICE also has increased the scrutiny on employers who petition for H-1B employees and intend to place them at third-party sites. Earlier this year, ICE issued a policy memorandum stating that, for an H-1B visa petition involving a third-party worksite to be approved, the petitioner must show “by a preponderance of evidence” that, among other things, the worker will be employed in a specialty occupation and the petitioning employer will maintain an employer-employee relationship with the beneficiary for the duration of the requested validity period. The third-party recipient of the H-1B worker will also have to come up with some evidence corroborating what the employer provides.

Organizations that provide H-1B workers to third parties should be prepared to respond to requests for evidence beyond what they have experienced in the past, denials of petitions, and, possibly, the granting of H-1B visas for less than the usual three-year period.

Moving Forward

Employers should expect the Trump administration to continue to aggressively pursue immigration reform. Like the visas mentioned in this article, the state of those with C-33 visas — non-immigrants who have been granted Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), remains up in the air, and employers that have DACA recipients with employment authorization may face the loss of the ability to continue their employment.

Companies that have not already done so should carefully review their hiring practices and evaluate alternate means of employing non-immigrant workers regardless of their current visa status. Those employers that have H-1B workers at third-party sites should scrutinize their vendors and their contracts with those third parties. And, perhaps most importantly, companies should make sure their I-9s and other immigration-based records are complete and accurate. u

Marylou Fabbo is a partner and head of the litigation team at Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C. She provides counsel to management on taking proactive steps to reduce the risk of legal liability that may be imposed as the result of illegal employment practice, and defends employers faced with lawsuits and administrative charges filed by current and former employees; (413) 737-4753; [email protected]

Employment Sections

Leg Up on Life

Michaela Lopez and Danielle Stewart

Michaela Lopez and Danielle Stewart examine a specimen during their internship at Mercy Medical Center’s Pathology Lab.

It’s hardly news that far fewer teenagers work during the summer than they did decades ago, for many reasons. Those who do want to work are often happy to nail down a steady paycheck, while others gain something more — a career-oriented summer job that comes with training, mentorship, and connections. That’s the goal of a state-funded program that will send 900 area teens into the workforce this summer, but its administrators say that number isn’t nearly enough.

Joe Shibley recalls when he was a teenager, washing dishes and weeding for a little extra money, and thinks the young people who come to work for him each summer have it a lot better.

“When I was a kid, I would have loved a job like this,” said Shibley, president of Pilgrim Candle in Westfield, who will participate for the fifth time this year in the regional summer-jobs program administered by the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County (REB).

Previous participants have worked on a historic-renovation project in one of the company’s buildings, a landscaping project that took up most of one summer, and various warehousing tasks, not to mention mixing, pouring, and labeling candles.

“They learn how the process goes, from raw materials to finished goods out on shelves,” he continued. “We’ve trained these young adults to weigh the wax, mix in the colors, pour the products, and wick the candles, start to finish. We’re not building computers, but it’s still a process, and you still have to put out a good product.”

The REB initiative, funded with $1.2 million from the state’s YouthWorks program, will give about 900 young people — ages 14 to 21, but mostly 16 to 18 — the opportunity to work at private-sector businesses and community organizations for six weeks this summer, earning minimum wage. Now in its 12th year, the program also provides 15 hours of workplace-readiness skills and safety training.

“We’re trying to have the youth working in the kind of jobs that could be the start of a career pathway,” said Kathryn Kirby, REB’s manager of Youth Employment and Workforce Programs. “We focus on making sure summer employment will be a quality work experience where they develop skills to lead them to self-sufficiency.”

That includes a wide range of job sites, from day-care centers and summer camps to corporate offices and nonprofits; from landscaping companies and media outlets to, well, a candle manufacturer.

“We’re looking for all kinds of employers to step up and help out a young person. It can’t be any job — it has to be position where the young person is supervised, in a safe working environment, Cruise went on, adding that the 15 hours of training delves into the soft skills employers are looking for, like communication and team-building, and that will help the participants be successful in future workplace environments.

Most of the businesses taking part — at no cost to their own bottom line, thanks to the YouthWorks funds — are in the private sector, REB Executive Director David Cruise said. “We’re not opposed to working with municipalities and nonprofits, but we’re more involved in the private-sector companies, because we think the career pathways are a little clearer.”

Kathryn Kirby says the summer jobs offered through REB and YouthWorks

Kathryn Kirby says the summer jobs offered through REB and YouthWorks are the kinds of opportunities that could be the start of a career pathway.

And make no mistake — these teens are, indeed, getting an up-close look at potential careers, not just summer jobs.

Where Are the Jobs?

For example, Mercy Medical Center took on eight teenage interns last summer who had trained as peer advocates during the school year at Martin Luther King Jr. Family Services, part of Trinity Health’s Transforming Communities Initiative (TCI).

Ten more from the MLK program will follow this summer, in addition to several coming over as part of the REB program, said Maggie Whitten, TCI program director in the hospital’s Community Health Department.

“They worked in a variety of departments based on their interests and which departments had the greatest availability for interns,” she said of last year’s crop, with the assignments ranging from the Hearing Center to Nursing Education; from the Sister Caritas Cancer Center to Marketing.

The jobs weren’t trivial; in the Pathology Lab, Danielle Stewart and Michaela Lopez attended medical lectures, processed samples, and were given homework each night. The experience was so impactful that one of them decided not to pursue a culinary degree in college and instead is looking into nursing school.

“They all had these interests to begin with, so they were good matches, but their mentors helped them identify what they needed to know to pursue it further,” Whitten said, adding that the summer-jobs program also gave these teens the kind of foot-in-the-door internship often reserved for relatives of employees.

“It also exposes them to careers they may not even know about,” she went on. “When most young people think about a hospital, they think of nurses and doctors, and they don’t realize there are hundreds of jobs here.”

Giving kids exposure to career pathways is one of the REB program’s strong suits, but, in reality, far fewer teenagers are working paid jobs during the summer. According to Census data, the percentage of 16- to 19- year-olds who were employed each July remained relatively stable, around 55% throughout the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. By the mid-2010s, fewer than 35% were.

Part of the change is a shift in demographics in some jobs. Again, according to Census data, in 1992 the median age of a food-service worker was 26, and only 21.5% were older than 40. Currently, the median age is 28, and about 27% are over 40.

According to a report in the Atlantic, the rise of low-skill immigration in the last few decades has created more competition for the sort of jobs that teenagers used to do, like grocery-store cashiers, restaurant servers, and retail salespeople. At the same time, older Americans are staying in the workforce longer than ever, and many of them wind down their careers in the kind of jobs teenagers used to grab during the summer.

Another factor, however, speaks to teenagers getting serious about their future career, just in a different way. The percentage of 16- to-19-year-olds enrolled in summer school — not remedial work, but extra, often college-preparatory work — has tripled in the last 20 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Whatever the reasons for the decline in youth employment, teenagers who do want to work over the summer often struggle to find jobs; even rarer are the kind of jobs that make them think about their future, rather than just doing busywork between paychecks.

“It has always been our feeling that college kids need this experience as well,” Cruise said, “but for a high-school student, this exposure may be the thing that inspires them to continue their education. Maybe they wouldn’t sense that as clearly if they didn’t have this opportunity.”

In some cases, Kirby said, the teenagers make such a strong impression over the six weeks that the employer wants to bring them back the following summer, or even part-time during the school year.

“That’s why we say to these young people, ‘when you get this opportunity, you really have to seize it. If you do a good job, the employer may hire you, and you’ll have permanent employment and a job to go to after school.”

Just as valuable is the mentoring that the employers in the REB program are asked to provide, Cruise added.

“They might talk about a potential career path with that company, or encourage them to go on to school if that’s what’s required in order to be hired on a full-time basis,” he explained. “This summer job might potentially be that job that triggers where their educational pathway goes. It can have an impact on far beyond the six weeks they’ll be working with them.”

Two-way Street

Conversely, the participating employers say they gain, something, too, in the energy, perspective, and skills (often technological) that young people bring to the table.

Plus, Cruise said, “it really does add value because they can do things that may have fallen to another employee — like filing and basic computer work — so that other employee can make better use of his or her time.”

He admitted, as Whitten noted, that summer openings for young people at various companies are often filled by employees’ sons, daughters, nieces and nephews. But there’s value in that, too, because if the experience opens employers’ eyes to the value of hiring young people, maybe they’ll be willing to look outside for more such help.

In Shibley’s case, he’s interested in what his yearly cohort thinks about potential new products, knowing their age group will eventually be his customers. “Their tastes help us in developing some of the fragrances — what trendy things they would like instead of the traditional country fragrances. Tastes are constantly changing.”

Managing teenagers — both through YouthWorks and another program through which young people with Down syndrome and other special needs work at Pilgrim Candle — has also spurred changes in operations.

Jerry Moore III, another of Mercy Medical Center’s summer interns, leads U.S. Sen. Ed Markey on a tour of the hospital.

Jerry Moore III, another of Mercy Medical Center’s summer interns, leads U.S. Sen. Ed Markey on a tour of the hospital.

“It’s kind of opened up our eyes about how we could streamline some of our processes and make it simpler for some of the workers,” he said. “And it’s been really gratifying to see these kids develop and learn some skills, especially kids with special needs. It’s been a good experience, and I would definitely recommend it to other companies.”

Kirby hopes testimonies like that persuade more employers to get involved in the summer-jobs program, or, better yet, consider hiring young people on their own.

“We definitely need more support,” he said. “We have thousands of applicants, and 900 kids will be the lucky ones to secure work through this program. The rest are left to fend for themselves and find a job on their own.”

Cruise said teenagers who work during the summer reap benefits beyond pay, job skills, and career readiness. “I think the program plays a significant role in increasing young people’s self-confidence and self-esteem. That’s a critical part of the outcome they get from this experience. Over time, it’s good for kids, good for families, and hopefully good for the communities they live in.”

Kirby agreed. “Some are so shy when they come in, but they just blossom under the program. That happens a lot,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to learn about themselves, to be mentored and build skills, and to network in the community and build relationships.”

Relationships that, in many cases, will become the first step toward a career that lasts well beyond the summer.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Employment Sections

Character-building Exercises

By Henry DeVries

A tough challenge for many executives is convincing top talent to join their company. A second challenge is training newcomers to understand the company’s core values.

To become better at hiring and training, it pays to know how humans are hardwired for stories. If you want prospective employees to think it over, give them lots of facts and figures. If you want them to decide to join your company for the right reasons, then tell them the right story.

Now, any executive can easily use proven techniques of telling a great story employed by Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and Wall Street by employing six simple steps to storytelling to attract the right candidates and properly train them in your company culture.

These stories must be true case studies, but told in a certain way. The process starts with understanding your core values.

Core Values Are Key

Top candidates don’t want to work just anywhere. They want an organization where they align with the core values.

Every business has core values, although some have not formally stated what they are. Basically, core values are the guiding principles that drive and organization’s conduct both internally with employees and externally with customers. Here are a few examples of core values of small to medium-sized businesses:

• We go the extra mile for customers;

• We do whatever it takes to get the job done;

• We value integrity, which means doing what we say we are going to do;

• We are honest and transparent with employees and customers; and

• We value quality as job number one.

The list of possibilities is mighty long. Core values are a decision that company leaders make. But just naming a core value is not enough.

The Core-value Storytelling Formula

For every core value, the company should capture a true story of that core value in action. Here is a quick overview of the core-value storytelling formula:

One: Start with a main character. Every story starts with the name of a character who wants something. This is your client. Make your main characters likable so the listeners will root for them. To make them likable, describe some of their good qualities or attributes. Generally, three attributes work best: “Marie was smart, tough, and fair” or “John was hardworking, caring, and passionate.” For privacy reasons, you do not need to use their real names (“this is a true story, but the names have been changed to protect confidentiality.”)

Two: Have a nemesis character. Stories need conflict to be interesting. What person, institution, or condition stands in the character’s way? The villain in the story might be a challenge in the business environment, such as the recession of 2008 or the Affordable Care Act (the government is always a classic nemesis character).

Three: Bring in a mentor character. Heroes need help on their journey. They need to work with a wise person. This is where you come in. Be the voice of wisdom and experience. The hero does not succeed alone; they succeed because of the help you provided.

Four: Know what story you are telling. Human brains are programmed to relate to one of eight great meta-stories. These are: monster, underdog, comedy, tragedy, mystery, quest, rebirth, and escape. If the story is about overcoming a huge problem, that is a monster-problem story. If the company was like a David that overcame an industry Goliath, that is an underdog story.

Five: Have the hero succeed. Typically, the main character needs to succeed, with one exception: tragedy. The tragic story is told as a cautionary tale — great for teaching lessons, but not great for attracting clients. Have the hero go from mess to success (it was a struggle, and they couldn’t have done it without you).

Six: Give the listeners the moral of the story, which is the core value. Take a cue from Aesop, the man who gave us fables like “The Tortoise and the Hare” (the moral: slow and steady wins the race). Don’t count on the listeners to get the message. The storyteller’s final job is to tell them what the story means.

Six Ways to Put Stories into Action

After you build an inventory of stories that demonstrate your core values in action, you are then ready to deploy the stories. In storytelling, context is everything. You should never randomly tell stories, but instead use stories at the right strategic times.

Here are six perfect opportunities to persuade with a story:

• During a job interview. No, don’t start the interview telling stories. However, once the candidate has shared about themselves, then the interviewer can share stories about the core values of the organization.

• During a training class. Core values should be taught during training. First, state the core value and then explain what that means. For them to really get the point, tell a story about that core value in action.

• At weekly staff meetings. One executive boasted that his organization had 22 core values, and they were on posters throughout the office. Asked if he had any stories to illustrate, a little red-faced, he said “no.” Now, every week at staff meeting, they tell a story to illustrate one of the 22 core values.

• At company-wide meetings. Is it time to assemble all the troops? Maybe for a change in direction or for recognition? This is a perfect time for core-value selling.

• On the company website. Promote core-value stories on your website to detail for clients and potential clients the power of story.

• In company brochures and collateral material. Since stories connect on an emotional level, doesn’t it make sense to put them down in writing?

Storytelling helps persuade on an emotional level. Maybe that is why so many Fortune 500 companies are honing in on storytelling techniques and imparting that wisdom on their sales and business-development professionals to tell relatable stories that will convince prospects.

Henry DeVries, CEO of Indie Books International, works with consultants to attract high-paying clients by marketing with a book and speech. As a professional speaker, he teaches sales and business-development professionals how to build an inventory of persuasive stories. He is the author of “Marketing with a Book” and “Persuade with a Story!”; www.indiebooksintl.com

Cover Story Employment Sections

Team-building Exercise

From left, Courtney Wenleder, CFO; Alex Dixon, general manager; and Mike Mathis, president and COO. Photo by MGM/Springfield Mark Murray

From left, Courtney Wenleder, CFO; Alex Dixon, general manager; and Mike Mathis, president and COO.
Photo by MGM/Springfield Mark Murray

Mike Mathis said he doesn’t use any of those ‘gotcha’ questions, as he calls them, when he’s interviewing job candidates.

He said he’s been on the other end of a few of these, like ‘describe your greatest weakness’ or ‘how well do you get along with your current boss?’ He didn’t particularly enjoy those experiences and, more to the point, doesn’t believe they were particularly effective in providing real insight to those asking those questions.

But Mathis, president and COO of MGM Springfield, said he does have some favorite — and effective — go-to questions (he wasn’t too revealing) that he likes to ask in an effort to get beyond the words printed on a résumé and determine if the candidate across the table would make a good fit.

And he’s had plenty of opportunities to put them to use in recent months as he’s interviewed finalists for the positions that make up the executive team that will open and then operate the $950 million resort casino complex taking shape in Springfield’s South End.

“The résumé gives me good insight into what their technical experience is,” he explained. “But I’m looking for personality and cultural fit, and you can usually get to that through them talking about their experiences.”

As he talked about his team members, or department heads, or ‘number ones,’ as he also called them, collectively, Mathis made early and frequent use of the word ‘diverse,’ and said it takes on the quality in many different respects. These include gender, age, race, geography (where they’re from), casino experience, and MGM experience.

As for those last two, some have it, and others, like Mathis himself when he was named to lead MGM Springfield, don’t.

“We have some who are internal MGM and others who are external to our company but in the industry,” Mathis explained. “We have a combination of young and those not as young, as I like to say, those with a little more experience. And we have a few from outside the industry; the company took a chance on me, and we’ve continued to take some of those chances on others.”

Anthony Caratozzolo: Vice President, Food & Beverage

Anthony Caratozzolo: Vice President, Food & Beverage

Anika Gaskins: Vice President, National Marketing

Anika Gaskins: Vice President, National Marketing

Brian Jordan: Director, Surveillance

Brian Jordan: Director, Surveillance

Monique Messier: Executive Director, Sales

Monique Messier: Executive Director, Sales

It is this team, featuring individuals with titles ranging from CFO to vice president, Table Games, to executive director, Arena Operations, that will lead the ambitious casino project through the most critical stage in this six-year process — the completion of construction, finalization of specific components such as dining options and other facilities, the assemblage of a team of roughly 3,000 people, and, finally, opening the doors (early September is the projected ‘go’ date).

At present, that team-building assignment is priority 1, said Mathis, adding that the members of the executive team will soon be, and in many cases already are, adding members to their own specific leadership teams, and soon these individuals will begin to assemble the larger teams they will lead.

“The number ones hire number twos, and the number twos hire number threes,” he explained. “And then, from there, you start building out your business plan and prepare for mass hiring.”

For this issue and its focus on employment, BusinessWest looks at the team Mathis has assembled and how it came together. Also, we’ll look at the daunting challenge this “dream team,” as Mathis called it, will face over the next six months and how it will go about making MGM Springfield ready for prime time.

A Strong Hand

Mathis told BusinessWest that he’s been a part of a few casino executive teams during his career “around but not in on a day-to-day basis” the casino industry, as he chose to phrase it.

Indeed, he was legal counsel for the Venetian Las Vegas, which opened in 1999, and also for a start-up operation, Echelon Place, also in Las Vegas.

Being the one on the other side of this equation, the one putting the team together, the one able to joke during meetings (and he’s already done this a few times) that ‘none of you would be here without me’ — well, that’s a completely different and quite rewarding experience.

“I have a great sense of pride when it comes to the group we’ve pulled together,” he said, emphasizing that this was a team effort. “What’s really nice is how, organically, this team reflects the personality of the community and our original vision. For me, as a day-one employee, I feel I’m a steward of the original vision of our president, Bill Hornbuckle, and of the mayor and the different community-group stakeholders I originally met with. And I want to reflect all that in the team we put together.”

Sarah Moore: Vice President, Marketing, Advertising & Brand

Sarah Moore: Vice President, Marketing, Advertising & Brand

Marikate Murren: Vice President, Human Resources

Marikate Murren: Vice President, Human Resources

Jason Rosewell: Vice President, Facilities

Jason Rosewell: Vice President, Facilities

Jason Rucker: Executive Director, Security

Jason Rucker: Executive Director, Security

Elaborating, he said this team is non-traditional in some respects, and, as noted, diverse in every sense of that word.

‘Non-traditional’ in that, in many cases within this industry, executive units travel as a team, Mathis explained. That was not the case here.

“Someone would come to my role already thinking about who their number two and number three would be,” he explained. “Some of those executive teams travel in groups. There’s nothing wrong with that … these people are used to working with one another, and there’s something to be said for that.

“But because I was new to the role, I came at it without some of those preconceived notions about who the team members should be,” he went on, adding that he actually worked with very few members of this executive team before MGM Springfield. “The group is really eclectic, and we make each other better.”

In total, there were hundreds of applicants for the 16 positions, Mathis went on, adding that, because the pools of candidates were strong and diverse, it was that much easier to create a very diverse team.

“One of things we believe in at MGM is that, if you have a diverse applicant pool, you’ll get great employees, and the diversity will be reflected in the hires,” he said. “So our focus has always been on making sure we’re getting great people in front of us before we make decisions.”

Elaborating, he explained that, for each of the positions, the company tried to have, as finalists, an internal (MGM) candidate, an external candidate, and a diverse candidate, and in most cases met that goal.

Overall, nine of the 16 members of the executive team are diverse or female, which, he said, makes it one of the most diverse teams not only within the MGM company, but within the industry.

Why is diversity important? “Within the hospitality industry and particularly with MGM Resorts, we’re a host to a wider range of customers than any industry I can think of,” said Mathis as he answered that question. “We’re the Disneyland for adults. We have international guests, local visitors, those who are interested in gaming, those who are interested in food and beverage, families … with that range of customers that we invite to our resort, we need our employees to reflect that diversity of customers. That’s a big part of our success, and diversity is one of our pillars — not only ethnically, but diversity in all respects.”

Great Odds ‘Relaxed.’

That’s the adjective Mathis summoned to describe not only how he wants those taking his interview questions to be, but also the kind of corporate environment, for lack of a better term, that he’s been trying to create at MGM Springfield.

Lynn Segars: Vice President, Slot Operations

Lynn Segars: Vice President, Slot Operations

Gregg Skowronski: Executive Director, Hotel Operations

Gregg Skowronski: Executive Director, Hotel Operations

Talia Spera: Executive Director, Arena Operations

Talia Spera: Executive Director, Arena Operations

That certainly sounds illogical given the nature of the casino industry in general and, more specifically, the ultra-challenging six months ahead for the team at MGM Springfield. But hear him out.

“I mean relaxed in terms of the collegiality between the team members,” he explained. “We’re all working hard, but time is going by quickly, and the work is hard enough without the environment being overly formal or not having that collegiality.

“People perform best when they’re happy; we believe in our business in the service-profit-chain model,” he went on, referring to the theory in business management that links employee satisfaction to customer loyalty and, therefore, profitability.

It was an unofficial goal, or milestone, to have this team in place, in this relaxed environment, at the start of 2018, and it has been met, said Mathis, adding that, while some team members still have some logistics to work out, such as finding homes and moving families, they are all at work now at MGM’s nerve center in at a renovated 95 State St.

They will meet collectively twice a week, said Mathis, adding that one of these sessions is an executive-team meeting at which specific information will be communicated about project status, timelines, and other matters, and decisions will be made that involve multiple departments. The second session is a weekly staff meeting, a 90-minute to two-hour roundtable with no set agenda.

Seth Stratton: Vice President and General Counsel

Seth Stratton: Vice President and General Counsel

Courtney Wenleder: Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Courtney Wenleder: Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Robert Westerfield: Vice President, Table Games

Robert Westerfield: Vice President, Table Games

“What we’ve learned is that meeting [the roundtable] is as productive as any other meeting we have,” he explained, adding that there are a host of smaller meetings involving some but not all of the executive staff members.

And as you might expect, there is quite a bit to meet about with the countdown now at or just under 200 days.

The biggest priority is building the individual departments, Mathis went on, adding that, while the casino is taking shape in a highly visible way on and around Main Street, the task of interviewing, hiring, and training 3,000 employees is already going on behind the scenes.

The top levels of each team will be filled out over the next few months, he continued, and mass hiring will commence in the early summer and hit high gear in the weeks just prior to opening.

Meanwhile, there are literally thousands of other tasks to be carried out, he said, listing everything from building the reservation system to creating training manuals; from interviewing vendors to detailing what will be needed in the warehouse.

“It’s a pretty incredible undertaking, and we’ve got a great team in place to carry it out,” noted Mathis, adding that this team will has borrowed heavily from the playbook created by another MGM casino that opened just over a year ago, National Harbor in Maryland.

“I don’t envy anyone that’s doing one of these as a one-off,” he told BusinessWest. “National Harbor is one of the most successful operations in the country, and we’ve taken their best practices, as well as lessons learned, and incorporated them into this project.”

Teaming with Excitement

Meanwhile, MGM Springfield will provide the playbook for the next MGM project, whenever it moves off the drawing board, said Mathis.

“Each time, the process gets better,” he noted. “One day, there will be a perfect opening; unfortunately, I don’t think we’ll be it. But with each one of these, you get a little closer to that standard.”

A perfect opening might be beyond the reach of Mathis’ executive team, but it will likely move the bar higher. In the meantime, by most accounts, it is already setting a higher standard for diversity.

It’s been an intriguing team-building exercise in every sense of that phrase.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Employment Sections

Sidebar

Courtney Wenleder says she can see a number of parallels between the MGM Springfield development and the work to rebuild in Biloxi, Miss. after Hurricane Katrina.

Courtney Wenleder says she can see a number of parallels between the MGM Springfield development and the work to rebuild in Biloxi, Miss. after Hurricane Katrina.

Courtney Wenleder was working in Las Vegas, as financial controller for the Bellagio Hotel and Casino, in the summer of 2005 when she was asked to step in and assist another property in the MGM portfolio, the Beau Rivage Hotel and Casino in Biloxi, Miss.

She happened to be back in Vegas for some meetings when Hurricane Katrina slammed into the region several weeks after her arrival, but she’ll never forget the flight back to the area five days later on one of the company’s corporate jets that received special clearance to fly into the devastated area.

“Flying over Biloxi, you could see the blue tarps everywhere,” she said, adding that the casino complex itself was closed for exactly a year and had to rebuild just as the region around it did.

“The community saw us as a kind of beacon of hope,” she recalled. “We committed to rebuild right away; people lost their homes and their jobs, and we played a big role in the recovery.”

Wenleder related that story as she started to explain what brought her to Springfield late last summer and, more specifically, to the role of vice president and chief financial officer for MGM Springfield.

While Hurricane Katrina was an exponentially larger natural disaster than the tornado that carved a path through Springfield almost seven years ago now, Wenleder can see a number of parallels between the two calamities and the two regions, especially when it comes to the role a casino complex can play in a devastated region.

And also in how rewarding it can be to be a part of such efforts.

“That experience in Biloxi was more than a job, more than just being a CFO in a casino,” she told BusinessWest. “It was helping the community, giving them hope, rebuilding, working as a team.

“The team that we had down there was incredible,” she went on. “When you go through something like that, you bond instantly; there’s no time for niceties, and ‘let’s just develop this relationship’; you become connected quickly.”

While different from the experience in Biloxi in many ways — the disaster is years in the rear-view mirror, not days — Wenleder says she can find many parallels to her current role with another team, the one that will open the $950 million MGM Springfield in roughly six months.

That’s why, when Mike Mathis, president and COO of MGM Springfield, first approached Wenleder, then the VP of Finance and CFO at the New York New York Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, about coming to the City of Homes three years ago, she almost immediately started giving it some serious thought.

There were several reasons why she eventually said ‘yes.’ There was that opportunity to be part of another community comeback story, if you will, but also a desire to get back to the East Coast (she was born and raised in Virginia), and the chance to open a new facility.

“Springfield was a pretty easy sell,” she explained. “I was looking for change — I had been at New York New York for nine years and wanted a new challenge — and the opportunity to have a job that meant more than building a property and running the financials.”

Although those are, obviously, big parts of her job description, as we’ll see.

For this issue and its focus on employment, BusinessWest talked at length with Wenleder about her role at top level of the leadership team at MGM Springfield, and also about why, as she said, this particular job involves much more than running financials.

On-the-money Analysis

Wenleder, one of the first members of the executive team hired last year (see story, page 15), said those letters CFO usually come complete with a lengthy and varied job description.

That’s especially true in the casino industry, where operations such as MGM Springfield have a number of components, myriad expenses, and (eventually, in the case of MGM Springfield) several revenue streams.

But at the end of the day, the job here, as it does everywhere, comes down to making sure the expense side doesn’t exceed the revenue side. (Although, when it comes to the Springfield casino, we’re going to need that word ‘eventually’ again because, at the moment, there are no revenues).

There’s no end to the expenses, though, said Wenleder, who said she’s trying to manage them the best she can.

“It’s quite stressful when you only have one side of the ledger,” she said with a laugh. “Managing the budget is difficult, especially when things come up that you didn’t anticipate, and there are plenty of those.”

One of the most pressing items on Wenleder’s to-do list is putting her own team together. For several months she was a one-person show, but over the past several weeks there have been a number of additions to the finance team.

But most of the hiring is still to come, obviously, she said, adding that, by the time MGM Springfield is ready to open, that finance team will number between 150 and 200 people.

They will be spread out across a number of departments, she noted, including purchasing; warehouse and receiving; inventory control; financial planning and analysis; those working in ‘the cage,’ meaning those handling money; the ‘counts team,’ individuals who pull money out of the slot machines and table games; casino finance (a compliance role); and a small accounting team. (Payroll, accounts receivable, and other functions are handled out of corporate offices in Las Vegas.)

It’s a big job, with big numbers, such as a projected $90 million in annual payroll alone for the Springfield facility, said Wenleder, adding that she does not yet have a budget or updated revenue projections for either the short year ahead (2018) or the first full year of operation to follow.

But she’s working on it — just as she’s working on a whole host of other aspects of the casino operation.

Such as staffing. That is the focus of much of the activity at 95 State St., and the goal is to come up with the right numbers across each of the various departments. Talks are ongoing as to just how many will be needed within each department, she said, adding that the goal, quite obviously, is not to overstaff or understaff. “There’s a balance there, and it’s important to get the right numbers.”

Other day-to-day work includes everything from financial analysis on potential partners, such as retail tenants, the movie theaters, and bowling alley, to setting of internal control drafting procedures related to the minimum standards set by the Gaming Commission.

While handling all that, Wenleder is thinking about that ‘beacon of hope’ aspect to this casino operation, the element that links it many ways to Biloxi, those blue tarps she saw while flying overhead, and the rewarding work of helping a community bounce back from adversity.

“That’s the element to this I really enjoy — engaging the community, helping people find jobs and improve their lives, training them on new skills, and, hopefully, bringing more vibrancy to the area, because other businesses will come because we’re here. There is that ripple effect.”

Watching the Bottom Line

She’s seen that ripple effect first-hand, in Biloxi and in Las Vegas, of course.

And she’s quite confident that there will be one here as well, and being one of the key drivers of that ripple effect is just part of what made Springfield the easy sell she described.

There won’t be anything easy about getting the doors open come September, but Wenleder is, by all accounts (that’s an industry phrase) well on top of things, thanks to a wealth of experience with these balancing acts.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Employment Sections

The New Pay-equity Law

By John S. Gannon, Esq. and Amelia J. Holstrom, Esq.

John S. Gannon, Esq

John S. Gannon, Esq

Amelia J. Holstrom, Esq

Amelia J. Holstrom, Esq

This summer, Massachusetts will enact what many believe to be the most stringent pay-equity legislation in the country.

Back in August 2016, Gov. Charlie Baker signed “An Act to Establish Pay Equity,” which amends the state’s existing equal-pay law and goes into effect on July 1, 2018. The intent of the legislation is laudable; it is aimed at strengthening pay equity between men and women in the Commonwealth.

Studies show that, despite more than 50 years of pay-equity laws being on the books, a significant wage gap between men and women still exists. In order to try and narrow that gap, the new Massachusetts pay-equity law imposes rigorous equal-pay obligations on employers. The new law also prohibits certain pay-related conduct by employers, including asking applicants about past compensation.

With July 1 just around the corner, employers need to take a careful look at the law, its requirements, and what they should be doing right now to limit their legal liability.

What Is Comparable Work?

Employers have been prohibited from discriminating in the payment of wages between men and women who perform comparable work for decades. The current version of the law, however, does not define what ‘comparable’ means. As a result, the Massachusetts courts defined ‘comparable’ in a way that made it very difficult for employees to succeed on a pay-discrimination claim.

Specifically, the employee had to establish that the jobs “did not differ in content” and entailed “comparable skill, effort, responsibility, and working conditions.” Many employers were successful defending pay-equity claims by showing that jobs “did not differ in content.”

The new pay-equity law defines ‘comparable work’ in a way that eliminates this “differ in content” requirement. This means that jobs may now be comparable for pay-equity purposes even though the job duties are different. The new law defines comparable jobs as those that involve “substantially similar skill, effort, and responsibility” and are performed under “similar working conditions.”

This language is broader than the test previously set forth by the courts, so it will likely lead to more favorable results for employees who file lawsuits under the amended act.

What If Employees in Comparable Jobs Are Paid Different Wages?

Some pay differences are permitted under the amended act, but they are very limited. Pay differences between persons performing comparable work are only acceptable if based upon: (1) a seniority system; (2) a merit system; (3) a per-unit or sales-compensation scheme; (4) geographic location of the job; (5) education, training, and experience, or; (6) the amount of travel required.

However, because the statute does not define these terms, employers have little guidance on how they might be interpreted and applied.

Employers who need to correct pay disparities may not reduce the salary of an employee in order to comply with the new law. Employers who have unexcused pay differentials will need to ‘level up’ and bring the pay of the lower earners up to the pay of the highest earner doing ‘comparable work.’

From Pay Equity to Pay Transparency

The amended act also prohibits employers from engaging in a common pay-related practice. Starting July 1, employers may not ask job applicants about their salary or wage history. Employers similarly cannot seek an applicant’s pay-history information from a current or prior employer.

As a result, employers must remove all questions regarding previous salary and wage-history information from their applications and train hiring managers not to ask prohibited questions.

Defense for Those Who Evaluate Pay Practices

There is one silver lining for employers. The new law provides an affirmative defense to employers who complete a “good-faith” self-evaluation of their pay practices and demonstrate “reasonable progress” toward eliminating any wage differentials.

This means employers who adequately audit their pay practices may avoid liability under the new law, but only if the employer’s self-evaluation is “reasonable in detail and scope in light of the size of the employer.”

Businesses should take advantage of this defense by formally auditing their pay practices before July 1, 2018, to ensure compliance with the new law. Employers who conduct an audit with an attorney can assert the attorney-client privilege with regard to all or some of the audit, which would protect it from disclosure during a lawsuit if the employer so desires.

With July 1 roughly four months away, employers need to begin making necessary changes to comply with the statute and strongly consider performing an audit to identify and address any already existing pay disparities. Attorneys may be eager to assert these claims due to the relaxed definition of comparable work and the potential for liquidated damages, attorney’s fees, and costs. So businesses need to be ready.

John S. Gannon is an attorney with Skoler, Abbott & Presser, LLC, one of the largest law firms in New England exclusively practicing labor and employment law. He specializes in employment litigation and personnel policies and practices, wage-and-hour compliance, and non-compete and trade-secrets litigation; (413) 737-4753; [email protected] Amelia J. Holstrom joined Skoler, Abbott & Presser in 2012 after serving as a judicial law clerk to the judges of the Connecticut Superior Court, where she assisted with complex matters at all stages of litigation. Her practice is focused in labor law and employment litigation; (413) 737-4753; [email protected]

Employment Sections

There Are Many, for Employers and Employees Alike

By Erica E. Flores

Erica E. Flores

Erica E. Flores

As 2017 winds to a close, society continues to be rocked by the Harvey Weinstein scandal, the #MeToo movement, and the unending torrent of allegations against prominent and powerful men. We find ourselves wondering what happened.

Or, more importantly, how this has been going on for so long, seemingly undetected. But sexual harassment isn’t a new problem. And it’s not a problem that went away and is just now returning. No, sexual harassment has always existed, in one form or another.

After the Mad Men era, perhaps it became a bit more taboo, and less an accepted norm, but it did not go away. So why now? And more importantly, what can we — the concerned bystanders, responsible business owners, and innocent professionals — take away from all of this?

It is clear that the first allegations against Weinstein struck a chord in the collective consciousness of the American woman, but we may never fully understand how or why the dam broke as and when it did. After Bill Cosby, maybe we had simply had enough, and when those first cracks appeared, the levee was inevitably doomed. Ultimately, the why is not so important.

Because, just as sexual harassment is not a new problem, it is also not a problem that will ever be solved completely. People behave badly, especially when emboldened by an imbalance of power. And the workplace provides both the temptation and the authority for bad people to do bad things.

Which brings me to the second question — the takeaways. As a management-side employment attorney and a woman, I see in this avalanche of public shaming both lessons and warnings. The lessons are caution and vigilance. Whether you are a man, woman, or gender-fluid; straight, gay, or bisexual; supervisor, subordinate, or human-resources professional, you must exercise caution as you go about your affairs at work. No matter what side of the power equation you are on, you should always be aware of the effect your words may have on others, the messages and signals you are communicating, and the risks you run when the lines between friend and colleague start to blur.

While being cautious about your own behaviors, however, you must also be vigilant when it comes to what is going on around you, and you cannot be afraid to speak up, no matter how high or low on the totem pole you are. We all share a responsibility to protect our co-workers, at every level; to make sure that we all can enjoy a safe and comfortable workplace where we can and will perform at our best. We also share a responsibility to protect our company’s brand, the reputation each of us has worked so hard to earn and maintain, for the benefit of every one of us and our families.

Which brings me to the warnings. The law is not forgiving when it comes to sexual harassment. Employers are strictly liable for sexual harassment committed by managers, and anybody — yes, anybody — can be held legally responsible for aiding and abetting sexual harassment. What does that mean? It means whatever a judge or jury decides it means, and in this moment in time, I suspect it means much more than you might think.

Make no mistake — society is desperate for consequences, and this public purging will not stop at the top. Small businesses in small communities are just as vulnerable, and there will be lots of blame to go around for the behavior of those who are eventually outed.

So before you or your business become the story, take steps to protect yourself. Employees cannot be afraid to speak up, and employers should encourage them to come forward. Businesses should also consider reviewing and revising their sexual-harassment policies, reiterating that employees who come forward will not face retaliation, and perhaps even provide additional training to supervisors and human resources personnel.

Most importantly, employers must make sure they are addressing complaints promptly and properly. That means being thorough but objective, and fair but strict. It means talking to the right people, asking the right questions, looking in the right places, and preparing the right forms of documentation. None of this is obvious or easy, so when in doubt, get your employment attorneys involved.

After all, while the tide will eventually ebb, sexual harassment will never go away completely.

Erica E. Flores is an attorney at Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C., which exclusively represents management in labor and employment matters. She has successfully defended employers before state and federal courts and administrative agencies. In addition to her litigation practice, she regularly advises clients with respect to day-to-day employment issues, including decisions regarding adverse employment actions and litigation avoidance;(413) 737-4753; [email protected]

Employment Sections

Labor Pains

Angst.

You won’t see that colorful noun written anywhere in the National Business Trends Survey conducted by the Employers Associations of America (EAA), said Mark Adams, but there is quite a bit of that commodity lurking behind the words and especially the numbers that are contained in that document.

There is angst — or concern, or anguish, or anxiety (all quality synonyms) — when it comes to the labor market and what is becoming increasingly a labor shortage. There is more of it when it comes to wages — employers want to raise them, but there are hindrances to doing so, especially rising healthcare costs.

And there is more angst when it comes to the juxtaposition of wages and the labor market, said Adams, director of HR Services for the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast (EANE). Indeed, he said that, as wages remain fairly stagnant (3% increases are the norm, as they have been for several years) and the increases amount to less amid the rising cost of living, many employees are exercising their right to pursue greener pastures. And they’re finding them, leaving employers to replace them in a job market where good help is increasingly hard to find.

“It’s definitely a buyer’s market,” said Adams, noting that employees are the buyers. “With unemployment being so low, and people looking to add bodies to their organization, either through new jobs being created or replacing existing workers that are going to leave, employees realize that now is the time to explore all their options if they haven’t been fully satisfied with what they’re been earning in their organization.

“The 2.8% to 3% increases they’ve been getting are being cannibalized by rising health costs and the cost of living in general,” he went on. “So they’re not advancing financially within the organization they’re in, and a lot of them are sitting there saying, ‘I’m going to start exploring other options.’ For companies, there are a lot of openings, and they’re not finding adequate replacement workers, which puts a whole premium on ‘are we paying people enough? Are we providing a workplace that’s engaging enough?’”

Like we said, angst. There’s enough of it to temper the considerable optimism reflected in the report, said Adams, adding that nearly two-thirds of respondents (62%, to be exact) expect their 2017 revenues to exceed those of 2016, and 73% project that 2018 will be better than 2017.

Meanwhile, more employers expect to be hiring in the year ahead than in 2017. In the Northeast region, 51% of the executives surveyed plan to increase staff in 2018, a sizable increase from a year ago, when 41% responded in such fashion.

But these positive numbers are couched in the reality that, for many employers across virtually every business sector, hiring is becoming a real challenge. Indeed, 42.3% of regional respondents (those in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states) identified the skilled labor shortage as a ‘serious’ challenge in the short term (up from 37.8%), while 52% identified it as a serious challenge long-term, up from 47% last year.

Adams noted that these numbers clearly reflect what he’s heard anecdotally and seen directly through EANE’s efforts to assist members with finding and hiring talent.

“We’re experiencing all that with the members we’re serving,” he explained, adding that many of the recruitment-and-hiring projects EANE has undertaken with members have taken much longer than anticipated, and some have been relaunched, simply because employers have not been satisfied with the response they’ve seen in terms of the quality of the job aspirants.

Elaborating, Adams said EANE will assist members with searches for managers or professional staff, providing services including ad placement, sourcing of candidates, prescreening, help with interview questions, actual interviewing, and more.

And, as he noted, many of these searches are taking much longer than they did even a year or two ago, and a growing number of them are not ending successfully, and for a host of reasons, ranging from lack of satisfaction with (or consensus on) finalists to disparity between what the candidate is seeking compensation-wise and what the company is willing to pay.

As the challenges to hiring and retaining good help grow, employers are responding, said Adams, adding that many are making investments in technology, equipment, benefits, training, recruitment, and other areas in an effort to navigate a job market increasingly defined by full employment or something close to it.

Indeed, the survey showed that 60% of respondents plan to invest in technology in 2018, up from 45% in 2017; 54% plan to invest in equipment, up from 45% a year ago; 41% intend to increase the training budget, up from 26% in 2017; 38% plan to heighten their emphasis on recruiting, up from 30% a year ago, and 35% intend to shift more healthcare costs to the employer, a huge increase from the 15% who responded in that fashion a year ago.

“Companies are realizing that, if they can’t go dollar for dollar to keep people in the organization or attract people, they’d better bring other things to the table to make them a company that’s going to be worthwhile to someone,” said Adams, adding that these numbers speak loudly about the extent of the problem and growing awareness of the need to do something about it.

And while it is still too early to gauge the full impact of MGM Springfield’s ongoing efforts to create its workforce of roughly 3,000 people on all of this, it’s to assume that it will only exacerbate the problem, Adams said, adding that employers are certainly expressing concerns about this development at EANE HR Roundtables.

As for wages, many companies are in a bind because, as much as they feel compelled to raise them and want to, strong forces, especially double-digit increases in healthcare insurance, act as considerable roadblocks.

“The rising benefit cost is a countermeasure that’s creating a barrier toward putting more on the table financially to induce people,” Adams explained. “And it’s becoming a paradox for companies; they want to pay people more to attract and retain them, but they have these rising benefits costs, and there’s only so much in the budget to cover both of those things.”

Meanwhile, the pay-equity act set to take effect July 1 becomes what Adams called a “wild card” when it comes to wages in 2018.

“The question becomes whether there will be additional needs to invest money into compensation budgets because of concerns employers may have about questionable difference in pay structures,” he noted.

— George O’Brien

Cover Story Employment Sections

Paws for Effect

Lauren Mendoza

Lauren Mendoza gets plenty of work done at Inspired Marketing, at least after Finn gives her mouse back.

To some employers, the very idea of having employees’ dogs roaming about the office every day seems absurd. How would anyone get any work done? Would they pester clients and other visitors? But many area businesses that welcome pets into the company culture say the benefits — reduced stress and a sense of lightness and fun leading to more productivity, not less — definitely outweigh any drawbacks.

Maxwell Vondogenburgen (Max for short) came into Jill Monson-Bishop’s life around the time she launched her company, Inspired Marketing, in 2009.

Right from the start, neglecting one for the other was out of the question.

“Since I got Max, we’ve had a dog culture here,” Monson-Bishop said, while Max came sniffing around to check out the reporter visiting the company’s Maple Street office in Springfield. “It was almost necessary because some of the staff have dogs, and I want them to give me their all; I want them to be present and be here, and it helps from a logistical standpoint for the dog parents not to worry about running home at lunch or getting home before 5 to let them out.”

When you’re stressed, there’s nothing like being able to sit on the floor and have this unfiltered love of a dog. He doesn’t judge your deadline or your creative work. A dog just licks you, and everything else just melts away.”

But the benefits extend far beyond that, she added.

“It grew into what the dogs did for us. When you’re stressed, there’s nothing like being able to sit on the floor and have this unfiltered love of a dog. He doesn’t judge your deadline or your creative work. A dog just licks you, and everything else just melts away. Everyone thinks creatives are super fun, and obviously, we have fun, but there are elements of stress to our jobs, too. And dogs are great for that.”

Max’s title on the Inspired Marketing website is ‘employee satisfaction manager,’ which implies a broad set of responsibilities for someone getting paid in food, treats, and ear scratches. He’s joined in the office by two other mixed breeds: Monson-Bishop’s second dog, Vinnie — the ‘customer experience associate’ — and Finn, the firm’s ‘siesta manager,’ who belongs to Operations Manager Lauren Mendoza. Other dogs have come and gone over the years as well.

Deb O’Brien

Deb O’Brien has been bringing Fidelco dogs to work for well over a decade, providing educational opportunities for both the dogs and her fellow TD Bank employees.

As a result, when a client visits, they might be greeted by barking, but the dogs are behind a locked door, so no one gets jumped. Visitors are also asked if they have a problem with dogs before meeting any. “Almost everyone says no,” Monson-Bishop said. “Sometimes, during a meeting, a dog will try to get up on somebody, and we get them down, and most times the person is like, ‘oh no, it’s fine.’ It’s nice — sometimes meetings can be intense, and when we introduce a dog, it lightens the mood and can help us be more creative.”

Meghan Lynch didn’t have a dog when her advertising agency, Six-Point Creative, was getting off the ground, and one of the key considerations when adopting one was not having to leave the pet at home. “To me, there was no point in having a dog and bonding with him and then leaving him home alone for eight to 10 hours a day.”

So she talked to her partners about accommodating a dog at work, and everyone was willing to give it a shot. Five and a half years later, Dexter is a fixture in the office on Hampden Street in downtown Springfield. Meanwhile, he’s joined some of the time by Quincy and Goose, the fur babies of Senior Director Scott Whitney and Senior Designer Meghan Mason.

“It’s worked out really well, and it’s good for socialization because he’s coming into contact with different people all day long,” Lynch said. “Getting used to all the people coming in and out, and me going in and out, has made him a calmer, happier dog.”

And the feeling is reciprocal.

“From our standpoint, it means a lot having him around, especially if I’m having a tough day,” she said. “And for new employees, it’s a signal that we value work-life balance. We understand that you only have one life — you don’t have a work life and a home life; you have a life.”

When Blair Winans launched Rhyme Digital in 2011, he searched for a workspace that allows dogs, before finding one at Eastworks in Easthampton. When the digital-marketing company needed more space, he moved to an available building on Route 10 and brought the canine crew — four were in the office the day BusinessWest visited — with him.

“For me, it was the convenience of not leaving my dog at home, having to check on him, going back and forth. I had never worked in an environment that would have dogs at the office, but as employees came on here, I said, ‘my dogs are here; feel free to bring your dogs.’”

That’s why Winans’ lab, Butters, and pug, Flora, get to hang out with Design Master Ian Reed’s husky mix, Maggie, and Marketing Analyst Dan Taylor’s Aussie puppy, Ellie, instead of sitting quietly at home.

“I feel they supply so much comic relief,” Winans said. “When we’re in a meeting and Butters is trying to be the center of attention and barking at something going on outside the door, it’s just part of the environment here.

“And our clients get it,” he went on. “When I’m on a conference call and a dog is barking in the background, they ask, ‘which one is that?’ No matter how stressful things are, when these guys are begging for attention and trying to make you laugh, that’s an extension of what we want as a company culture. Our employees are part of a business, but they’re also part of a family.”

Tails to Tell

Businesses that are opening their arms to that concept of family and dog culture are a growing breed (pun intended). The Society for Human Resource Management’s Employee Benefits survey in 2015 found that 8% of respondents reported that their workplaces permitted pets, an increase from 5% in 2013.

A report published this year in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health cited a recent study on the effects of dogs in the workplace on stress and well-being. In the study, employees who did and did not bring dogs to work completed a perceived stress survey several times throughout the workday. Employees who did not bring dogs to work had significantly higher perceived stress than employees who did. To assess differences in stress, employees who brought their dogs to work were instructed to leave them at home two days a week during the one-week study period. On days when employees in the dog group did not bring their dogs to work, their stress levels increased throughout the day, matching the pattern of employees who never brought dogs to work.

Lynch is a believer in that effect, but conceded that the dogs themselves need to get along — which, in her office’s case, they do. “There’s never been a problem. They all have beds with their person, so they interact for a while, then go back and lie down in their people’s offices, then they might come back again and play a little later in the day.”

Meghan Lynch

Meghan Lynch wasn’t going to adopt a dog if she couldn’t bring him to work with her.

She noted, however, that not every dog has the temperament for an office environment, and Whitney leaves his second dog home for that reason.

“You have to know your dogs, and which one would thrive in the office and which wouldn’t. It has to be the right dog fit. We’re not running a kennel here,” she told BusinessWest. “At the same time, they learn very quickly and pick up on each other’s behavior.”

For some dogs in the workplace, learning is the whole idea. Deb O’Brien trains German shepherds to be Fidelco service dogs for the blind; the puppies stay with her for 18 months, then it’s back to Fidelco in Connecticut for “college work,” learning seeing-eye and guide-dog skills.

“While we have them, our job is to raise them with basic obedience, manners, and tons of exposure to everything, so when they go into training and learning job skills, they’re already well-adjusted, well-behaved, and socialized in every social situation,” she explained.

That’s why O’Brien can be seen bringing a pup named Ray to work at TD Bank in downtown Springfield, where she is the commercial regional operations director, to get him used to the office environment, a wide variety of people, traveling on elevators, and all the outdoor distractions of a downtown city setting.

The main goal is socialization, but when she puts his Fidelco vest on, that’s behavioral-training time, and the dog quickly learns the difference, she noted. “Most of my challenge is telling people they can’t pet him right then.”

That said, fellow employees and others who work in the TD Bank building on Main Street have gotten a good education about Fidelco dogs, and about general etiquette on how to approach an animal in a public situation (always ask before petting, for starters).

“We’re not just training dogs; we’re training people,” she said. “There’s a difference between having a dog in the office for love, attention, and therapy, and being here to learn. But while you’re educating people, it’s also an opportunity to train your dog. They’re both learning.”

City life brings plenty of opportunities for training service dogs, from learning to relieve themselves on a hard surface where grassy areas aren’t plentiful to developing a comfort level around noisy buses, foot traffic, and other stimuli they might run into someday during their service career. But the socialization is critical, too.

“We all get something out of it,” she said. “I’ve seen people having a bad day, and they come into my office, and the minute we take the vest off, you see them de-stress.”

O’Brien began training Fidelco dogs after hearing an ad on the radio, and has now trained eight such animals, counting her latest companion. The hardest part, she said, is letting go.

“When it came time to return the first one, my heart got ripped out,” she recalled. “Seven dogs in, I’m better. But I see them with clients, and I see them working and doing what they’re intended to do. It becomes easier if I tell myself, ‘now they’ve got to go to college and get a job.’”

Pet Projects

As for humans that are supposed to be working, Monson-Bishop said some employers might feel welcoming dogs will just lead to staffers sitting around playing with their furry friends. But Inspired Marketing hasn’t seen that kind of loss in productivity. On the plus side, someone may walk their dog during lunch, which gets them out of the building, which is a healthy thing. “I’d like to see more dogs interacting in downtown Springfield.”

Of course, a building’s owner has to be OK with dogs as well, and Monson-Bishop said her landlord has been more than accommodating. “Other office buildings might not permit dogs, but we’re lucky.”

Rhyme Digital’s official ambassadors

From left, Butters, Maggie, Flora, and Ellie — on a break from their duties as Rhyme Digital’s official ambassadors — wait for a treat from Dan Taylor.

So are Max, Vinnie, and Finn, she added. “Statistics say socialization helps dogs live longer, and if we can give that to them here, it’s better for their well-being — with the caveat that this is not for all dogs. Not everyone should bring their dog to work. A very rambunctious dog could be very disruptive. They all have their individual personalities, and some wouldn’t thrive at work, and you wouldn’t put a child in a situation where they wouldn’t thrive.”

Lynch agreed that introducing canines into the office has not been a distraction or a drain on productivity.

“They all get into the routine of the day, and it’s a huge help not to run home to let them out, or pay for a dog sitter. And it’s a benefit for the people who don’t have dogs, because they get to be around a dog without having to feed or walk it.”

Winans reiterated that there’s a lightness, even a silliness, that dogs introduce to often-intense work, and that’s a healthy thing.

“We’re serious about everything we do, no question about that,” he said. “It’s more like, how can you feel stressed when you turn around and there’s Butters lying upside down, or having a meeting and these guys are having a wrestling match under the table? What we’re trying to do here is build an environment where people are able to get their work done and have some fun, and feel like they can bring their dogs, part of their family, into the office.”

In short, the benefits outweigh the distractions. “I feel like they’re happier, and the employees are happier,” he told BusinessWest. “That’s not to say they’re not annoying sometimes when you’re on a conference call and something interesting is happening by the front door and they can’t stop barking. But, at the same time, that’s just who we are.”

Like the others we spoke with, the team at Rhyme makes sure everyone who comes in — for client meetings or job interviews — is comfortable being around dogs. “There are some people who aren’t, so we corral the dogs and keep them away.”

But most people expect to be welcomed, and look forward to it, said Winans, who called his furry friends “official ambassadors” for the company. “I can’t imagine them not being here. The times when there are no dogs in the office, it is rare, and it feels like something’s missing.”

Lynch takes the same approach to office visitors. “Our dogs are part of the family and the culture here, and it’s something we tell people about in advance. Some clients may have a dog phobia or may be allergic, in which case I schedule meetings elsewhere.

“Overall, it’s a really positive experience,” she went on. “Some people specifically schedule meetings in order to see Dexter or see Quincy. Some of them bring treats and presents; they love them as much as we do.”

Monson-Bishop goes even further, claiming that dogs in the office are doing their small part to make the world a better place.

“It’s a family-based culture here,” she said, “and dogs unify us. At a time when the world is a little more tumultuous than usual, dogs bring humans together, and that feels good.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Employment Sections

An Engaging  Topic

Janice Mazzallo

Janice Mazzallo

Danielle St. Jean

Danielle St. Jean

Elba Houser

Elba Houser

PeoplesBank was in news again recently, bringing more ‘top employer’ honors, this time from both the Boston Globe, again, and the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast, also again. While the awards are newsworthy, the real story is what’s behind them, a culture of employee engagement. In a roundtable discussion, some bank leaders talk about this culture and how other businesses can create one of their own.

They might have to start thinking about securing a bigger display case for the front lobby at PeoplesBank’s headquarters at 330 Whitney Ave. in Holyoke.

It was already crowded with various awards and commendations — many of them in the broad realm we’ll call ‘top employers’ — and now, it is even more so, with some recent additions. Indeed, for the sixth year in a row, the bank has been named a ‘top place to work’ by the Boston Globe, and for the second time, the institution has been named an ‘employer of choice’ by the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast.

But while what’s in the trophy case is significant, it’s what’s behind all that ‘best employer’ hardware (and we don’t mean the wall) that is actually more important to the company.

When asked to talk about all that in the form of advice to other business and owners and managers, Janice Mazzallo, executive vice president and chief Human Resources officer at the bank, paused for a moment.

It was a poignant pause to be sure, and it essentially said what she was about to say before she even said it — that becoming worthy of these ‘best employers’ awards takes time, patience, energy, imagination, and much more than a flex-time policy and allowing people to wear jeans on Friday, although that helps.

It’s about creating an environment where people feel good to come to work every day; it’s not just a place to make a living, but it’s more of a family environment.”

“It’s sounds cliché, but it’s about walking the walk and talking the talk, and it all starts in the C-suite,” she said. “It’s about creating an environment where people feel good to come to work every day; it’s not just a place to make a living, but it’s more of a family environment.

“It’s a place where people don’t just come to do a job, but get involved in the community, get involved with each other,” she went on. “We have a lot of people here who do more work outside, in the community, than they do in their 9-to-5 work.”

It is impossible to sum all this up with one word, she said, but ‘engagement’ does the job as effectively as any other (see sidebar, page 16). There are many types of engagement, she went on — with others at the company, within the community, with mentors, with new team members, and more — and the bank works hard to ensure that employees have experience with all of them.

And this hard work goes a long way toward explaining not only all those plaques in the display case, said Mazzallo, but the bank’s continued growth and success in the local market.

tptw_logo-smallIn an effort to dive deeper into this discussion of culture and employee engagement, Mazzallo was joined in a broad roundtable discussion on this subject by Danielle St. Jean, Human Resources coordinator and training specialist at the bank, and Elba Houser, commercial banking credit analyst, both fairly recent additions to the team.

The stories about how and why they came to the bank and what they’ve experienced since help drive home the importance of culture to a company’s success — not in winning awards, but in building teams, promoting innovation, attracting and retaining talent, and, yes, gaining market share.

The three stressed that a culture of engagement starts at the top — in this case bank President Tom Senecal — and filters down to all levels, and all locations (the institution has 17 branches scattered across Hampden and Hampshire counties), within the company. And it also encompasses a number of other words and phrases, including communication, listening, connecting, mentoring, empowerment, volunteerism, even fun.

“It’s really a personal experience,” said St. Jean as she sliced through all those words and what they mean collectively. “When people feel supported from day one, they perform better and are more likely to be engaged in what they do.”

Houser agreed. “From day one, there have always been people I could reach out to who have guided me through the ropes,” she explained. “It’s a community here, and it’s a family; these are not only people you work with, but people you can depend on.”

Listen Up

To effectively get many of those talking points and bullet points across, Mazzallo recounted Senecal’s recent decision to visit many of the branches personally with the stated desire to meet with employers and listen to them about their work and any issues or concerns they may have.

She said some of the employees were initially intimidated by the notion of the boss coming for a visit, but soon, most fears evaporated.

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“At first, people were scared and shocked, saying, ‘here’s the CEO coming out to my branch and my department,” she recalled. “But when he came in and genuinely wanted to learn more about what they did, with a mindset of ‘how can I understand your role to make this a better place to work and walk a mile in your shoes?’ the word spread very quickly that not only did he want to understand, he really wanted to hear their ideas.”

Better still, he responded to what he heard.

“He brought some of the ideas to management meetings, and we talked about them,” Mazzallo went on. “And changes were made as a result.”

Senecal’s road trips represent just one of many ways in which the bank’s operating mindset, or culture, has generated benefits in the form of improved communication, idea generation, and continuous improvement.

Others, as noted, include a greater ability to attract and retain talent, which is significant at a time when many in banking can relate their careers through a large stack of business cards they’ve disseminated over the years, and also when individual lenders — and sometimes whole teams of them — are moving from one institution to another with great regularity.

And it’s significant also because, from a big-picture perspective, PeoplesBank is still a relatively small institution (about $2.3 billion in assets) based in Holyoke.

“Were competing with larger banks, and at the end of the day, there are other organizations that can offer more money and probably big bonuses,” said Mazzallo. “And so, I have to be able to answer the question, ‘why should someone be excited work with us? And once they’re here, why should anyone be excited to stay with us?’”

Why indeed? The answer, she said, lies in that fact that, for most people, contentment goes well beyond money and to things that “pull at the heartstrings,” as she put it.

For St. Jean, who was working in Boston before she came to the bank, it was the culture she said was in clear evidence starting with her first interview with the company roughly six months ago.

She and her boyfriend, who is from this area, had made the decision to leave the Hub and relocate to the 413.St. Jean needed a job, but more than that, she needed the “right employer and the right community.” And she found both at the bank.

“The strength of the culture here really does begin before day one; it all begins with the recruitment and onboarding process,” she explained. “For me, personally, leaving behind the city life, I had a lot to do to get ready. When I first started here and accepted the offer, I had to find a car, move all my belongings, and get established. And the team here really helped me with all of that.”

And she said she’s seen that scenario — meaning several layers with assistance with the process of relocating and starting the next chapter in a career — repeat itself several times since she arrived, re-emphasizing that this is the culture at the institution.

“This is a place that can help individuals with that type of transition in their life,” she said, “which speaks greatly to the culture and to what keeps associates engaged.”

Houser tells a somewhat similar story. Her transition involved returning to work after taking some time off to start a family, and, like St. Jean’s, it wasn’t an easy journey, and one for which support was appreciated.

“I started as a management-development trainee, and when I came in, I had a network of colleagues who were management-development trainees prior,” she explained. “That first day, they took me out to lunch, and they discussed what was to be expected of me in that role, and that helped a lot, especially after not being in the workforce for two years and having to build a career again. That help is the reason I succeeded as I did.”

The Not-so-secret Sauce

Returning to the subject of retention, a key ingredient in any company’s success, Mazzallo said one of the main reasons why people leave an organization is a feeling that they’re not being heard, or that their input isn’t entirely welcome or appreciated.

“People get wooed by other companies because they’re getting attention, and often, they don’t feel they’re getting attention from their current employee,” she explained. “So it’s very important, especially with your higher performers, that you’re paying attention, and sometimes it’s just as simple as making time to listen to them and listen to their ideas.”

If that sounds like advice to other business owners and managers, it is. And those we spoke with at the bank had lots of it as they addressed the question of how other companies can become more engaging and, in the process of doing so, become better competition for ‘top employer’ awards.

For starters, they said, repeatedly, that a culture of engagement starts with those at the top setting the tone, walking the walk, and giving employees at all levels a voice.

“Ideas can come from anywhere, and they should be encouraged,” said Mazzallo. “And companies should look to not only implement them when it’s appropriate, but communicate that they’ve been implemented. We do that here, and it takes on a life of its own; people hear about these ideas, they get inspired, and that creates more innovation and involvement.”

But while listening and encouraging ideas and innovation, a company must also take the proper attitude when things don’t go as well as everyone would like. In other words, a company can’t be afraid of — or in any way punish — failure.

“Failure comes with the territory, and you have to be careful with it,”Mazzallo explained. “You don’t want to have too much, obviously, but here, when we work on a project and it runs off course, we take the opportunity to bring the team together, to course-correct, to find out what’s happened, and learn from those experiences.

“You embrace the problem and find out what out what’s happened,” she went on. “That way, people aren’t hesitant or afraid of making a mistake in the future. If you’re in an environment where you’re afraid to make mistakes, that’s where innovation gets squashed.”

Still another big part of the equation, she went on, goes back to that notion of a workplace being more than a place where people go to work.

“Just show people that you care,” Mazzallo said simply. “Show people that they’re more than just there from 9 to 5. Show people you value them as more than just a worker.”

As an example, she said the bank’s leaders, recognizing how stressful the holiday season can be and usually is, scheduled a lunch-and-learn (a healthy lunch) that addressed the many stress-inducing aspects of the holidays and how to deal with them head on.

There’s also that fun factor, which all those we spoke with said cannot be overlooked.

Which brings us to something the bank calls Employee Fest, which is a week, not a day, of what amounts to employee recognition and celebration.

Staged in September to coincide with the United Way’s Day of Caring, Employee Fest involves volunteerism, a luncheon, team games, visits to the branches, and more.

This year, there was a carnival theme, said Houser, adding that activities were designed, many with some assistance from the Internet, to bring the branches and the main office together.

This year’s festival was St. Jean’s first, and she was struck by its ability to connect people, even if they were working in branches separated by miles of asphalt.

“It really strengthens the community,” she told BusinessWest. “It connects different groups within the organization with friendly competition and provides insight into what different people are doing for the institution; it helps keep them productive and engaged.”

Bottom Line

There’s that word again. Engaged.

It’s a simple term, but it covers a lot of ground, said Mazzallo, reiterating that, ideally, employees should be engaged in everything from the community to innovation; from the well-being of their co-workers to the art and science of listening.

Creating such a culture doesn’t happen overnight, and there are absolutely no quick fixes.

But all the hard work that goes into creating and maintaining such a culture and making it part of the company’s DNA pays off in all kinds of ways.

And we’re not even talking about the those plaques in the display case.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]