The Great Places to Work Institute’s recent eighth annual conference in Los Angeles could be summed up in two words: best practices.

Take Stew Leonard’s Dairy Stores, whose legendary customer service and fun culture has landed the food and wine retailer on the coveted “100 Best Companies to Work For” list compiled by the institute and published annually in Fortune for nine consecutive years.

Stew Leonard Jr., president and CEO, told attendees that the key to lasting success is to trust, recognize and reward the company’s 2,500 employees. “It’s so important, as Ken Blanchard says, to catch people doing something right,” he said.

Employees of the month are called “superstars” and given a free lunch, while a store aisle is lined with hundreds of employee photos, as well as promotion boards and career ladders showing employee advancement. There’s also a “sweaty palm” award that recognizes when employees do something outside their comfort zone, such as giving a speech to a community organization.

Other organizations with noteworthy people practices have made their mark by periodically refreshing the most meaningful initiatives in the eyes of employees rather than reinvent the wheel.

HR and benefit professionals from the Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts noted how they increased the number of free nights their employees could stay in a vacant room booked 90 days in advance to six from five. The additional pampering was especially appreciated during the economic downturn.

“Our goal is to be the undisputed luxury hotel around the world,” said VP of HR Debbie Brown. With more than 33,000 employees working at 82 hotels in 34 countries, the Four Seasons has been on Fortune’s annual best-companies list every year since its inception 13 years ago.

Baptist Health South Florida, which conducts a “culture audit” to gauge the level of trust among 13,376 employees and nearly 2,000 physicians, added a series of data-driven polls involving more than 8,000 respondents to develop 23 job attributes, as well as a better understanding of how to motivate, attract and retain talent. As a faith-based organization that has been on the best-companies list for 10 years, BHSF prides itself on an employee-grievance procedure designed to ensure fairness.
 
One key business challenge was to examine the extent to which a paternalistic culture of caring might not be resonating among younger employees, according to Corey Heller, corporate vice president and chief human resources officer. A warning sign was when the average age of a BHSF employee fell to 42 from 45 in the past two years, signaling that turnover was higher for younger employees.

In one of the keynote addresses, TDIndustries CEO Harold MacDowell said career development and wealth accumulation help motivate more than 1,000 employees. Like the Four Seasons, this employee-owned firm is one of only 13 companies to be on the list every year since its inception.

“Servant” leadership is nurtured among plumbers, pipefitters, welders, sheet-metal workers, service technicians and facility maintenance engineers plus all other employees who are given the tools, training, feedback, coaching and high expectations they need to succeed.

Employees who start as an apprentice have amble opportunity to climb the corporate ladder as project managers and supervisors. All employees receive 100% tuition reimbursement paid up front. Also, employees are expected to complete 32 hours a year in the classroom and learn life skills that can be used to better themselves.

“A wise mentor once said to me that no matter where you are in your journey to be a great place to work, you start where you are, do what you can and show some steady progress,” MacDowell said.

Guest blogger Bruce Shutan is a former managing editor of Employee Benefit News and a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.

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