Creating a Great Place to Work

Griffin Hospital created an award-winning work environment by honoring its commitment to open communication. Our columnist explains how

The research and consulting firm Great Place to Work Institute recently issued its annual list of the best companies to work for in the U.S. In the past several years, I have interviewed leaders at some of the companies on the list, including Google (GOOG), Intuit (INTU), Cisco (CSCO), Paychex (PAYX), Baptist Health South Florida, and FedEx (FDX). While benefits are important, our conversations show that employee engagement is crucial—employees want to work in an environment where they have a voice. For one example of a company that has managed to create such an environment, consider No. 49 on this year's list, Griffin Hospital in Derby, Conn.

Griffin Hospital leaders tell me the secret to landing on the list for eight straight years is a policy of open communication and action with their patients, employees, and volunteers. They say their managers go beyond simply listening to actively soliciting input, and managers turn that information into tangible improvements.

Standing Up Under Pressure

In my interview with Griffin Vice-President Bill Powanda, he told me a memorable story of how the hospital's communications policy was put to the test. In November, 2001, an elderly woman was admitted to the hospital and died several days later. Ninety-four-year-old Ottilie Lundgren had become the nation's fifth victim of anthrax inhalation. Although the hospital's lab had confirmed the results through multiple tests, the FBI had yet to come to its own conclusions. Griffin CEO Patrick Charmel had called a meeting to inform the 400 day-shift employees of the situation. The FBI was adamant about delaying the announcement until after it had completed its own tests, a full six days after Lundgren had been admitted. Even then-Governor John Rowland got involved, requesting that the hospital cancel its staff meeting.

With all this pressure bearing down, Charmel and Powanda were beginning to wonder if holding the meeting was the right decision. They called a representative from the American Hospital Assn., who said that if their situation had been taking place in any other hospital, he would have also recommended that the meeting be delayed. But Griffin was different: "If you do not follow the open and honest culture you have created at Griffin, you will destroy in one day what has taken you 10 years to build." Charmel held a staff meeting as scheduled to communicate the facts of the case, the results of the tests, and how anthrax is spread.

Griffin went on to win an award from a local newspaper for its boldness and commitment to the public's right to know. Charmel's actions were "nothing short of heroic," according to the New London Day. A front-page story told readers what his colleagues already knew: Charmel had become a hero to his staff long before the anthrax crisis because he committed himself to making them all feel as if they played key roles in the hospital's success, which they most certainly do.

Griffin leaders like Charmel have set a precedent with staff and provide a model for behavior that all employees—managers, doctors, nurses, and administrators alike—strive to emulate. Every employee is considered a "caregiver"—even the security guards, parking lot valets, and chefs—and they all feel comfortable addressing Charmel directly with praise, concerns, or suggestions. If an employee believes the hospital is failing to put the patient first in any area of care, Charmel is the first to know; he makes himself as available as possible. He keeps the lines of communication open with the following practices:

A long day's walk. Charmel spends most of the working day in the hospital, but out of his office. He typically starts office work after 5 p.m. because he meets with people in their own departments all day; they do not come to him. This is the ultimate open-door policy.

A monthly orientation. Charmel welcomes new employees with a two-hour presentation every month. This orientation is mandatory for all new employees and volunteers, and Charmel does not miss it. First impressions count.

A biannual meeting for everyone. Twice a year Charmel hosts a "State of the Hospital" meeting for all employees and volunteers, where everyone hears exactly the same information as the board of directors: strategic information, market-share data, financial statistics, and plans for the future. Everything.

Regular updates. Charmel contributes to a daily newsletter, Griffin Today, which is distributed to 700 hospital workstations accessible to both employees and patients. The daily is supplemented by an electronic newsletter.

Old-fashioned correspondence. Charmel sends letters directly to the homes of employees and volunteers, about hospital, community, or medical issues as they directly affect them.

Many CEOs talk about creating a "customer-centric" organization. But the management at Griffin Hospital provides a working example of how it's done.

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