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I’ve been on a bit of a crusade lately to spread the word about the importance of workplace culture. More and more people are talking about culture in the business world these days. And that’s a good start. But, I’ve noticed that the conversation is pretty one-sided. It’s all about the employees—how employees influence culture, what employees can do to change it, and how businesses should use employees to build better workplace environments.

The importance of employees in the cultural equation is undeniable. However, it’s time to take a step back and change the way we think about culture at a higher level. It’s about a lot more than employees. Consider the impact outside partners have when it comes to forming and nurturing workplace cultures.

Companies spend countless hours recruiting and evaluating job candidates, trying to ensure each new recruit is a good “culture fit.” Screening tools, interviews, and personality assessments are just a few of the methods used to decide if a candidate will fit in and contribute to company culture in a positive way. Companies like Zappos and Pardot have this process down to a science. If one interviewer vetoes a candidate in the culture category, it’s over. No offer letter. Period. The end.

And it makes sense. We’ve all seen the impact of a positive or negative cultural fit on the broader work environment. Get it right, and you’ll see higher employee engagement, job satisfaction, and business results. Hire a bad egg, and you’re in for a very rocky ride.

Now, consider how much time we spend screening our outside partners for culture fit… Yeah. You’re not alone.

Most companies completely bypass any cultural assessment for outside influencers—which is troublesome. From third-party vendors to contractors, advisors to Board members, these ‘outsiders’ can have a profound impact on workplace cultures—as much as (or more than, in some cases) actual employees.

I think back to the outside parties who had significant exposure to my business and employees. These include benefits and wellness partners, real estate brokers, and others. Every interaction between my outside partners and our employees impacted our culture in some way – positively or negatively. So, why don’t more companies screen outside partners for culture fit?

Outside parties are oftentimes referred to as “agents” of the company. But, the reality is that, to the outside world, agents are your company. Other employees, customers, and the general public don’t differentiate between the legal designation of employee and non-employee. All people see is someone associated with your company, who is therefore assumed to be acting on the company’s behalf.

Perception is reality.

Here are five tips to ensure your outside parties are the right culture fits:

1. Identify and understand the type and level of interactions your outside parties will have with employees, customers, and the general public. You’ll be surprised how much influence and access they have.

2. Identify a key point-of-contact(s) from each outside partner who will interact with your stakeholders and meet with them before you sign on the dotted line. It is not enough to like your partner’s leadership team. Make sure the ‘feet on the street’ align with your core values and culture.

3. Interview outside parties in the same manner that you would a potential job candidate. Have face-to-face meetings. Learn about how they would interact with your employees, customers, and prospects. Be thorough, and get multiple opinions from your team before making a decision.

4. Check references. If a potential partner can’t supply a list of references who vouch for their integrity, professionalism, and commitment, that’s a red flag.

5. Quickly eject any outside partner (existing or potential) who are cultural misfits. Like employees, one cultural bad apple can ruin the bunch. No person, regardless of resume, is worth risking the culture you’ve built.

Outside partners can be a huge value-add and are often a business necessity. The key is to enter into those relationships with your eyes wide open. Your partners will influence your culture—the only question is ‘How?’

It’s time we all placed the same emphasis on outside partner culture fit as we do on employee culture fit. Start with your own company, then spread the word. I won’t be satisfied until we fundamentally shift the culture conversation.

Originally published in Forefront Magazine.

Also published in FirstPerson.

Recently, I proposed a new bill called The Employee Equality Act. Though the legislation is fictional, I have a dream that one day all businesses will treat employees with the same reverence as customers.

Only when you communicate with employees in the same high-quality manner companies traditionally reserve for customers will you achieve true employee engagement.

Here are five ways to start treating employees as well as customers:

1. Secure marketing resources.

Customer communications typically involve marketing, sales, and leadership resources. Marketing standards are high since the people executing those communications are uniquely qualified to develop compelling communications (e.g. design, messaging, delivery).

Employee communications, on the other hand, are typically planned, created, and delivered by HR team members who, though qualified in many areas, are not trained in communications or marketing.

Give your employee communications and marketing campaigns professional polish by either a) Requesting design and creative assistance from the marketing department, b) Allocating budget to hire external marketing agencies or freelance creatives (e.g., or c) Hiring marketing/communications professionals on your HR team.

2. Create an employee advisory board.

Companies use customer advisory boards to understand needs and gather feedback about products and services. These groups provide customers with a unique sense of value, influence, and camaraderie.

Unlike customers, employees rarely have a robust and regular forum to share suggestions, feedback, and ideas. Why should companies give customers more control over product, service, and overall direction than their own employees?

Form an employee advisory board comprised of key influencers across the organization. Give the group direct access to company leadership and solicit their opinions on business and employee matters. Not only will this help increase employee engagement, it will also give you invaluable insights into the hearts and minds of your employees and show that employee feedback is a critical part of the company’s direction and evolution.

3. Regularly solicit and act upon employee feedback.

Most companies monitor and measure customer feedback on a constant basis. From post-purchase surveys to product reviews and focus groups, companies treat customer feedback data like gold.

Employee surveys, on the other hand, are typically annual (if that). When results are gathered, the feedback is rarely acted upon.

Partner with a third-party employee survey partner like Kenexa and/or create an internal employee survey cadence. Then, share high-level results back with employees, tell them what actions you’re going to take based on their feedback, and hold yourself accountable for following through on those promises.

4. Implement employee-related change management strategies.

Companies agonize over how to communicate important (and minute) business changes to their customers. Painstaking care is taken to ensure key information is communicated clearly, concisely, and consistently. It’s not uncommon for companies to deliver the message across multiple channels and measure engagement and reception.

Employee-related changes should be planned, drafted, and delivered with the same (if not more) care as customer communications. Last-minute, half-baked, one-time, email-only employee communications don’t cut it anymore.

From leadership changes to process changes, use a thoughtful, cross-channel, measurable communication plan that provides employees with the information they need in a format they can digest. Consider videos, live meetings, desk drops, FAQs, etc. Make sure every communication includes a clear path for employees to ask questions or voice concerns.

5. Educate and enlighten HR staff.

Whether you partner with your corporate marketing team, use external firms, or have the benefit of hiring dedicated communications staff within HR, make education a priority. Every member of your HR organization needs to understand the value of professional, polished employee communications and internal marketing.

Spend time educating them about how and when to engage with marketing/creative team members. Explain how HR benefits from putting more time and resources into internal communications. Celebrate successes as a team to build momentum around effective campaigns.

Only once every member of your HR organization understands and values marketing and communications will your team truly begin firing on all cylinders.

Treating employees with equal care and attention as customers is a gradual process. But, the incremental impact on employee engagement – and the increased respect your team will gain across the organization – makes this paradigm shift a necessity.

A labor/employment and business attorney by trade, I often find parallels between my legal training and my experience as an HR leader. Lately, I’ve been considering championing a new law – The Employee Equality Act. My bill would require businesses to treat employees with the same reverence as customers. Though my proposed legislation is entirely fictional, the sentiment behind it couldn’t be more real.

Head to your local bookstore’s business section, and you’ll find dozens of titles about how to build, grow, and evolve your approach to customer service. It’s widely understood that customer success begets business success. No wonder organizations spend so much time and money on customer marketing, communications, and service. As Sam Walton of Walmart writes in his memoir, Made in America, “The goal of a company is to have customer service that is not just the best, but legendary.”

Next, browse for books about corporate culture. You’ll find dozens of additional titles that promise to help you build, grow, and evolve powerful cultures like those at Zappos and Patagonia. Now, peruse the section related to corporate marketing. You’ll come face-to-spine with a plethora of books addressing every facet of marketing.

Finally, look for books about how to implement world-class employee marketing and communications. I guarantee you won’t find many – if any – titles on the topic.

As a business leader and HR executive, I’m beyond baffled by this gap. We all seem to accept the reality of employees serving customers. We spend countless hours reading, meeting, and speaking about how to deliver world-class customer service.

But, that’s only half of the equation. What about the importance of leaders serving employees? How much time to do we spend perfecting the craft of employee marketing?

Think about The Golden Rule: Treat others as you wish to be treated. In business, this has historically translated to treating our customers like our most valuable assets. It’s not uncommon for companies to invest upwards of 25% of their budget on customer service and customer communications and dedicate less than 1% of their budgets to employee marketing.

To be clear, I agree that customer service and marketing are incredibly important to business success. If you don’t execute well in these areas, it won’t matter how superior your product is or how much people need the goods and services you’re selling. If customers don’t feel valued, understand what makes your company unique, and fully commit to your product over competitors, business will eventually flatline.

The Golden Rule extends beyond customer service, however. As business leaders, we need to approach employee marketing, measurement, and investment with the same tenacity as their customer equivalents. In short, treat employees as well as you treat customers.

Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, says it best: “You can’t expect your employees to exceed the expectations of your customers if you don’t exceed the employees’ expectations of management.”

Affordable and comprehensive benefits are a good start. Meaningful volunteer opportunities and gracious paid time off help, too. But, that’s only the beginning. To “Deliver WOW through service” (a core value at Zappos) for employees with the same fervor as customers, you must rethink every employee touch-point.

For example, consider the differences between your current customer and employee communications. Chances are, customer communications are scrutinized at length, involve engaging and professional messaging and design, and are professionally printed or delivered through user-friendly digital channels.

Now, think about typical employee communications. It’s not uncommon to see plain text emails, newsletters thrown together in Microsoft Word and printed on the office copier, and company meeting PowerPoints bursting at the seams with bullet points and cheesy ClipArt.

Arguably, employee and customer communications are of equal importance to their constituencies. Why, then, is the design, messaging, and delivery far superior for the customer audience? The time for such inequality is over.

The good news? Your organization already has a playbook for how to treat employees – it’s the same way you treat your customers.

To be continued in the Employee Equality Act: Part 2.

It is never too early to think about your legacy. I wish someone would have shared this simple truth with me in my teens, 20s or 30s. More importantly, I wish someone would have shared how to forge through actions a legacy that I could be proud of. Instead, I am left to pray that my actions over these last three decades were legacy affirming (or at least not destructive). I simply didn’t focus on my legacy, instead adopting a more myopic, short-term focus on how to progress my career, achieve the next financial milestone, or achieve the next monthly/quarterly goal.

Legacy is defined as “something transmitted by or received from an ancestor or predecessor or from the past.” My definition of legacy is far more basic–how you are/will be viewed by those that you have interacted with and how profoundly you have impacted those around you. Have you made an impact and was that impact a positive one on the lives of those you care about?

To properly think about your legacy, you need to think about what you want said years from now about you, and then work backwards. For example, I would like to be known as a transparent leader, one that allows my team to stretch themselves, learn from mistakes, and maintain a big-picture view in all they do. Nothing would make me happier than to hear a colleague or previous co-worker say something like “Todd allowed me to try new things and was supportive when those things didn’t work out” or “I grew not only as a professional, but also a person under Todd’s leadership.”

So, with the above end in mind, I ask myself whether my actions reflect the legacy I intend to forge? Is how I am acting today laying the groundwork for the legacy I will leave many decades from now? So, with no further adieu, below are all the things I wish I would have more clearly realized that would have positively impacted my legacy. . .

I wish someone would have told me that how I carry myself in social settings as a twenty-something would help form how people think of me in my 30s. People have long memories. Doing things you regret as a young adult (even a teen for that matter) will stay with you for decades.

I wish I would have realized just how small the world is. Folks I competed against in high school athletics, became friends in college, became colleagues in jobs out of college, became partners in current business ventures, etc. Who you meet along your life’s journey and how you treat those around you will impact you in future times—count on it.

I wish someone would have told me that how I represent myself on social media in my 30s would matter in future decades. We live in a world where posts are an ever-present part of our lives. What is digitally transmitted endures forever.

I wish someone would have reminded me that what comes out of my mouth reflects what is in my heart and that words are far more impactful than most actions.

I wish someone would have told me that you can be a leader without actually leading people in a managerial sense. Leading by example speaks volumes about the type of person you are or will be. Leaders don’t have to be formally anointed or have a certain title.

I wish I would have learned sooner that caring for the whole person, both personally and professionally, is the most effective way to earn the trust and loyalty of a team. As a people manager, it is easy to fixate on the professional side of work relationships. However, caring for the personal side of the employee, the individual behind the worker persona, is an equally important facet of effective leadership.

The above items may all be obvious and/or lessons you have learned through your own life journey. For me, while none of the lessons were overly complicated, it took me many years to fully grasp each of their true meanings. As each lesson came into focus and I was able to put them into practice, my ability to build my legacy was enhanced.

The good news is that legacies are built over extended periods of time. If you have not been legacy-focused, it is not too late to make it a priority. Focus on your behaviors, attitude, and style with an eye toward the big picture. Focus on the legacy you desire and ensure all you do is in sync with that end legacy goal.

In part two, Todd Richardson shares real-life examples of how caring for your employees can lead to a stronger business.

Below are examples of real life cases where I ignored traditional legal counsel and instead focused solely on the whole employee, both professionally and personally:

Stacy, an HR Specialist working for me, had been trying to get pregnant for over three years. During that time, she had two failed in-vitro attempts and one miscarriage. While Stacy was not one of my direct reports, and I did not have routine interactions with her, I had heard from others of her pregnancy woes. One day, I saw her at her desk weeping. I asked her to come into my office. She immediately broke down and asked that I not fire her for being distracted and less effective the last few years. I offered her a tissue and re-assured her that our meeting was not a professional meeting, but instead a personal meeting. I explained that I first and foremost cared about her health and well-being. I then stressed that I cared about all of her life goals, including personal goals. Stacy shared that she and her husband wanted a family more than anything else and then outlined the challenges that they had encountered. I immediately explained that I am part of their team and that I would do what is necessary to support Stacy and her husband in achieving their parenting dream. I subsequently scheduled time to meet with Stacy and her husband and talked about opportunities where I could be more supportive in their birthing efforts. We ultimately agreed to have Stacy come to the office later in the morning, work from home every other day, and travel less. These moves helped lessen Stacy’s stress and provided her the support she needed to ultimately get pregnant and have a beautiful baby boy. An attorney would advise not to engage an employee on this type of situation. I could have opened the door for exposure under the American with Disabilities Act and a variety of pregnancy-related and sex discrimination laws. Instead, I formed a relationship with Stacy that helped her achieve her personal goals and ultimately resulted in Stacy’s tremendous loyalty to her employer.

Steve was a long-tenured product leader who was a high-performer for many years. However, he had become less engaged and disconnected from his team. I asked Steve for coffee and discovered the source of his angst was not work, but martial challenges. His wife of many years had an affair, and Steve was navigating, albeit unsuccessfully, marriage counseling. I maintained regular communication with Steve, listening to his challenges, counseling him where I could help, and generally offering him a support system at work. I even went so far as to pray with Steve, knowing we shared similar religious beliefs. We worked out a work schedule where Steve could take the time he needed to attend both couples and individual counseling, and to generally create space for him to work through this intense personal pain. Steve experienced close to two years of turmoil, resulting ultimately in his divorce. Steve is re-married and back to a stable place personally. He is re-engaged at work, operating at an even higher level than before. An attorney would advise not to engage an employee facing these types of personal challenges. I could have opened the door for exposure under the Americans with Disabilities Act and/or the Family and Medical Leave Act. Instead, Steve became re-engaged and became a star performer.

Kelly was a professionally ambitious recruiter and the most productive contributor at an important time in our company’s growth. With that said, Kelly had dreams of managing a recruiting team, and shared those dreams with me. I met with Kelly and discussed her professional aspirations. She explained she wanted to start a family, but not before achieving some career milestones. Time was of the essence, and she asked how she could accelerate her professional growth. After a few discussions, it became clear Kelly could not achieve her ambitions at our company. I instead actively worked with Kelly to identify outside opportunities where she would be able to meet her professional goals more quickly. Kelly ultimately took a job with a company I introduced her to that better met all of her aspirations. While I lost a key player at a critical time in our own businesses evolution, satisfying Kelly’s needs was not only the right thing to do for her, but also showed other employees how much I cared for them as people. Through actions, not words, I demonstrated my commitment to their professional and personal growth, regardless of the impact on my business interests.

In the above three scenarios, I (1) discussed an employee’s physical conditions impacting childbearing and met with her family to ensure I was playing a role in helping them achieve their family goals; (2) provided counsel to an employee around a marital situation; and (3) actively found a key employee a new job that better fit her professional and personal goals. An attorney or business professor would never recommend the above actions. I got personal with each of the employees and ensured they knew I cared about all aspects of their lives, professional and personal, even to my own detriment.

I have adopted the care-for-the-whole-employee strategy for more than a decade, touching over 7,500 different employees. This required my team and me to manage through a variety of employee personal issues involving mental health, physical health, marital challenges, sexual orientation topics, personal financial troubles— the list goes on and on. Most attorneys and traditional business professionals would advise never to address or discuss these personal topics with employees. They would claim it is better legally and from a business perspective just to ignore all topics not tied directly to work duties. I discount this advice and instead preach the exact opposite—get involved in your employees’ lives and care for all of them, the whole person. For me, this approach has paid off in higher employee engagement and loyalty. Furthermore, I have never encountered a situation where an employee alleged or pursued legal action against me or the company for having gotten personal with them and expressing my care and support for the whole person.

This article advocates for caring for the whole person. However, never forget that general business principles (e.g. cost/benefit analyses) should govern how much attention should be provided to a particular employee. We have all had the employee who is a constant swirl of drama and non-value-added activity. Some employees cannot be helped or don’t want to be helped. Other employees are in need of so much help that if you were to invest in them, you would be neglecting other employees and business interests. The balance is not always easy. The bottom line is that managers must make a judgment call on when to invest in employees and how much to invest in those employees. But avoiding all investment is a mistake.

Originally published in Forefront Magazine.
Also published in Indianapolis Business Journal.