In the know Featured

8:23am EDT February 23, 2005
When Dutchman Frits Goldschmeding founded Randstad in 1960, he adopted "Know Serve Trust" as his staffing company's promise to customers.

Nearly half a century later, CEO Jim Reese sees that promise as an equal obligation to the 2,230 employees of the Atlanta-based Randstad North America division and even to the nearly 200,000 temporary and contract workers the company places every year.

"When you look at our values, those are really the core of who we are, and those are one of the things that really brought me to this company," says Reese. "As I talk to people, be it a customer or an employee of ours or a flexible worker, simply knowing starts with understanding the other person."

Reese takes getting to know his personnel, well, personally.

"All of our new hires, we bring to Atlanta," he says. "And I speak to 90 percent of the new hires myself. I usually spend an hour with them. I walk through and talk about these values, what they mean to me, what they mean to our customers, what they mean to us as colleagues and what they mean to the people we put to work. So we talk about them, and we live them out.

"I think it's one of the things I'm most proud of about us as a company. They have to hear it -- that I believe it -- and then I have to walk it. If I don't walk it, then it's just words on a wall."

Practice what you preach

Randstad North America is a $1.2 billion subsidiary of The Netherlands-based Randstad Holding nv, one of Europe's biggest staffing firms. One of the U.S. unit's communication hallmarks is an annual survey of employees and employers.

The 2004 survey -- conducted by RoperASW, one of the world's top marketing research firms -- covered 2,639 employees and employers in North America to examine the relationship between the two and find the most critical gaps in perception.

Reese says the survey attempts to bridge the gap between managers and employers and to break through the misconceptions. For example, ask managers how loyal employees are, and very few think their employees have any dedication to the company. Ask the employees, and seven of 10 claim they hold a special affinity for their employer.

Two years ago, Reese decided to turn the mirror on his own company and conduct an internal employee survey. In effect, he wanted to find out how well Randstad practices what it preaches.

"We hold the mirror up to ourselves and say, 'How are we doing on that?'" Reese says. "Are we really being trusted? Are we building trust that comes back to what we do from a communications standpoint?"

With the results in hand, Reese formed teams from each region and each support center to look for ways to turn the newfound knowledge into action.

"I was proud of the results we got, but we still have room to improve," he says.

For one thing, management learned just how important the 401(k) retirement plan -- particularly a consistent company contribution -- is to employees, he says.

"We kind of continuously look at our benefits to make sure we're competitive," he says. "And I think we really understand the need of flexibility for our work force. That's what we sell every day."

The company now provides flex time for its employees, such as for those times when a parent wants to attend a child's soccer game or musical performance.

"Those days that you let somebody (leave early) creates so much loyalty for the company," he says. "People are almost all working more than 40 hours. The company has the opportunity to give some of that back, in different ways. It doesn't always have to be financially. One of the things that came out of the survey is that flexibility creates huge loyalty in the employees themselves. We really try to run our company as much as we can that way.

"What we've learned from our surveys -- and what I've believed in my whole life -- is people want to hear from you," Reese says. "(Employees) want to hear from the person who's running the company and know, 'What's this person like?'"

And they also want to know how the company is doing.

"We had a tough few years, and I was not delivering the most favorite messages to people," he says. "But by the same token, people want to be spoken to, because this is their company. I tell them I have the privilege to go to customers because of the work they do every day.

"I think that really ends up being a key thing for the success of businesses. If you're going to communicate effectively, you really need to be in front of people and talk to them. They want to feel part of it."

The survey is just one of the tools that the company uses to communicate with employees.

"I work very diligently on ensuring that I'm not only communicating, but that we also have the structures in place so that each level in the organization is effectively communicating," Reese says. "Some things we do specifically to live this out.

"Every quarter, I do a conference call with the whole company, where I'm on the phone probably 30 to 45 minutes, sharing with them our results, what we did well, what we didn't do well, and where we are as a company. And there's an opportunity for them to send questions in ahead of time to me, so that I can answer them.

"We (also) have what we call a Speak Up line. It gives people an opportunity to praise another employee, to raise a concern about something we have internally, to talk about our systems, to really speak up.

"I listen to every one of those calls. We have people, obviously, that handle the different situations, but instead of getting the piece of paper that has the words on it, I want to hear the tone. I want to hear what people are really feeling.

Another communication method is a weekly e-newsletter, the Monday Morning Update. "I can speak in that, but it also talks to where the business is," Reese says.

In addition, Reese writes one-page letters around major U.S. holidays that talk about the company, "things I'm proud of, issues we need to address, things we need to do to try and stay in touch with people."

Regardless of the form of communication, consistency is key to maintaining the trust and respect of employees, Reese says. It doesn't matter whether the company is experiencing good times or bad. Maintaining the same attitude and management approach are key.

"I think one of the most important things as a leader is that people know how you consistently manage," Reese says. "Now, I'm going to deal with different problems when the business is down than when the business is good. When business is down, I'm going to have to worry more about costs, productivity.

"And if the business is growing, am I getting resources quick enough? Am I (ensuring we have) enough capacity to grow?"

Now that the company has left difficult economic issues behind, Reese reflects on his management approach.

"I think I had to deal with different problems in each of those situations," he says. 'I think that's very important for people; they want to know who their leader is and when he shows up to work each day, and he's not swayed by (it being) a good day or a bad day."

The payoff

As Reese sees it, all of this focus on internal communication pays huge dividends because customers know when a company makes its values a part of the culture -- and not just a part of the marketing literature.

"They definitely have to see it, and you don't build trust overnight," he says. "You know it takes time; you've got to be able to deliver on it. Our ability to retain and keep customers is a strength we have as a company.

"If you really are serving them well, you do build trust. A breakdown of trust usually takes place if it's more about what you're trying to get out of it than what you're doing to try to serve someone."

"I tell our people, if you're serving with what we think somebody needs, we're self-serving, and we're not really listening to what's most important to them or the business problem they have, or what they're trying to accomplish.

"It doesn't matter whether it's a colleague that I'm working with on a team, with a company or wi th a flex worker. If I really do those things well, then I'm effectively living out our values, and you see it."

While it takes a long time to develop a trusting relationship, Reese says, a single bad encounter can destroy one.

"I think that there's no question that you can lose customers with one event," Reese says. "But if you're working on a partnership, and you've built this foundation of knowing, serving and trusting together, there is a chance that you could make mistakes with that partnership. If you have enough trust for each other, you're going to come to the table and talk about that.

"You know, there're times customers make mistakes with us, and there are times we make mistakes with customers. We're clearly not perfect. And my hope is, and what our people demonstrate is, if we have built the foundation that you really can trust us, let's come to the table and talk about it."

HOW TO REACH: Randstad, www.us.randstad.com