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The Working Life: Focusing on people, not resources

Medrad's job-retention success follows goal of creating an 'enjoyable, rewarding' place to work

Tuesday, July 17, 2001

By Pamela Gaynor, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Tom Beals confesses to having checked out other job offers from time to time during his 11 years with Medrad Inc. "It's one of the most enlightening things you can do," he said as he sat in the company cafeteria.

Engineer Steve Smallwood awaits the pitch during a lunchtime whiffle ball game earlier this month in front of the Medrad Inc. offices in Indianola. The company has been recognized with The Pennsylvania Psychological Association's "Healthy Workplace Award" for state employers with more than 1,000 employees. (Martha Rial/Post-Gazette photos)

Still, he hasn't found any attractive enough to lure him from his work as a Medrad engineer and, to him, that says something.

"When everything is added up, [both advantages and drawbacks], this is a pretty good place to work."

The Pennsylvania Psychological Association thought so too as it scouted the state for companies that might be candidates for its "Healthy Workplace Award."

Last month, it gave the Indianola-based maker of medical imaging equipment this year's top title among Pennsylvania employers with 1,000 or more employees.

The organization was looking for companies that contribute to their employees' well-being in a variety of ways -- from helping them reach their career potential to providing the kinds of benefits and support they need to maintain healthy families, said Rex Gatto, a local organizational and industrial psychologist who chaired the group working on the project.

The state association's effort is tied to a national one, mounted by the American Psychological Association, said Gatto, an industrial and organizational psychologist running his own business consultancy, Gatto & Associates.

As a consultant, Gatto said he'd seen the corporate environment become so competitive that many companies were "forgetting the people side of the workplace."

He said the seeds of ever-increasing workplace demands and stress were sewn in the early 1980s, when Japan seemed an economic threat to numerous American industries.

The global, competitive push since then has driven companies to a state of constant change, Gatto said. Unfortunately, in the drive to compete, businesses often forget or ignore the need to nurture, support and provide stability for the employees who are integral to success and profits, he said.

Gary Bucciarelli, vice president for human resources, said Medrad has a three-part philosophy -- improve quality of health care, ensure continued growth and profit, and provide an enjoyable and rewarding place to work.

"Truthfully, I think the work/life balance is out of hand," he said.

But, Gatto and colleagues in his state association found a different picture at Medrad.

"Medrad had many ways that it demonstrated care for employees," he said.

Medrad's employees apparently think so, too.

The company, which is owned by Germany's Schering AG, surveys its 1,000 employees, including 750 here, twice a year, aspiring to match or outperform a "best in class" benchmark developed by the Hay Group in more than 20 different areas of "employee satisfaction."

In the latest tabulation, taken in the spring, 68 percent of Medrad's employees gave it favorable ratings for overall effectiveness and employee treatment and the use of their individual talents and time. That pushed Medrad three percentage points above the "best in class," which it had matched in the survey taken the previous fall.

Medrad's vice president for human resources, Gary Bucciarelli, said the frequent checks on the collective employee pulse fit with a three-part philosophy formulated in 1983 to guide the company's activities.

That philosophy states Medrad "exists" to improve the quality of health care; to ensure continued growth and profit; and to provide an enjoyable and rewarding place to work."

An afterthought -- if it's a thought at all -- at many companies, the last of those tenets takes many forms at Medrad.

As for compensation, Medrad benchmarks to ensure that its salaries and wages are in the 75th percentile among other employers, or better than three out of four companies for similar positions.

Also in the economic category are generous benefits, including health-care coverage and vacation time that begins with two weeks for a year's service and climbs to five weeks at 20 years. In addition, employees get 11 holidays off and two personal days. Medrad also provides tuition reimbursement and subsidies for health club memberships.

Medrad wants to be competitive in the benefits it offers, but it also strives for an atmosphere that conveys "respect for the individual," said Bucciarelli.

He described the corporate culture as "egalitarian" and "unpretentious."

"It's not a top-down organization," Bucciarelli said.

Top managers and employees are on a first-name basis. Executives have no reserved parking spaces, and they eat in the same cafeteria as everyone else. Benefits are the same across all levels of employees, though the company pays a larger share of health-care premiums for those at lower pay grades.

Medrad President John Friel spends some time working in a different department each month, including production, both to keep in touch with basic business activities and to get to know employees.

The company also encourages employees who want to broaden their understanding of the business and advance their careers to work in departments outside the one for which they were hired.

As he spoke about entertaining other job offers, Beals said one thing he valued most about Medrad was that, "The way we run the business, there is a lot of opportunity to learn. There's a learning environment here."

A handful of others interviewed in the company's cafeteria said they had generally good feelings about working at Medrad as well.

Rob Renaldi, who has worked at Medrad 13 years and does quality control in the company's production facilities, said he liked the fact that, "There's no time-clock kinds of stuff."

At his previous job, in a machine shop, employees clocked in and out of every shift and bells rang to begin and end every break.

At Medrad, employees are respected enough that they take responsibility for when they can leave their posts.

Renaldi said the company's employees dealt with the usual headaches of production, pushing to achieve certain numerical goals even when there have been disruptions in the supply chain or other snafus.

"Sometimes you are kind of pressed to get the most out of every minute," he said.

But those stresses have their offsets at Medrad. Not only are the benefits good, but employees also have some flexibility about using them, Renaldi said. For example, vacation and personal days can be deployed in hours, so that one needn't take a whole day off to fit in a bit of personal business or to take in a child's school play.

In addition, he said, management is "approachable -- they make you feel you can go and talk to them."

The company also shuts down for a day so that everyone can participate in the United Way's Day of Caring. In addition, it provides support and time for about 20 other volunteer efforts each year that are recommended by an employee committee. Those include "adopt-a-stream" or "adopt-a-highway" projects, food drives and clothing drives, among other things.

The company also supports company sports leagues in which employees participate, fielding a volleyball team, a softball team and a rowing crew.

"All the little things add up," Renaldi said

After only eight months with Medrad, Waiman Cheung, who works in the company's manufacturing engineering department, thought so, too.

More than other companies he'd worked for, Medrad is supportive of the fact that, "There's life outside work," he said. He said he liked the fact that the company organizes activities and creates "a sense of community for our family."

Another big difference Cheung sees between Medrad and other employers is, "This company tries really hard to do what it says" it's doing or going to do. "They walk the talk. ... I've worked for a lot of companies, and not all of them do."

Another newcomer to Medrad's manufacturing engineering department, Wesley Horst, said one thing that impressed him was the company's "emphasis on professional development." At 24, he said the encouragement "to switch jobs and roles within the company" is very attractive.

Of course, many of these policies work to Medrad's benefit too, said Bucciarelli, who heads human resources.

For one thing, they've earned the company an employee turnover rate that is well below corporate norms. The relatively low rate -- 8 percent compared with a 14 percent average among firms listed in Fortune magazine's "100 Best Companies to Work For" -- not only helps Medrad keep the costs of recruitment and training down, but it also creates an atmosphere of stability, another attribute employees said they found attractive.

That doesn't surprise Gatto, who chaired the Pennsylvania Psychological Association's corporate awards committee.

Healthier workplaces not only have greater retention of employees, he said, but they're also generally more productive.

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