Culture Club: Get Your Staff to Love Their Jobs


When you walk into your business, are you greeted with smiling faces and the hum of busy, happy workers, or are you met with glum faces and yawning? It’s obvious that a positive company culture helps to keep employees productive and dedicated to the success of your business, but creating this type of environment may be easier said than done. A successful culture has more to do with management philosophy than expensive perks. No matter what size company you run, you can create a great culture without breaking your budget. Just ask Philip H. Levy, PhD.

Levy is the co-CEO and president of YAI/National Institute for People with Disabilities (YAI/NIPD) Network. His organization was named one of the Best Places to Work in New York City in 2008 by Crain’s New York Business, and Best Company to Work for in New York in 2007 by the New York State Society for Human Resource Management. YAI is a health and human services not-for-profit organization serving infants, children, adults, and seniors with developmental and learning disabilities.

Levy has been with the organization nearly 40 years and has helped shape the organization’s management philosophy. He and his brother Joel oversaw the growth of YAI from three employees to 5,600. The organization serves 20,000 people, whom they refer to as consumers, everyday. While Levy’s organization is a not-for-profit, his philosophy behind the employee culture translates to any type of business. Levy tells us how he lead his company to become one of the best places to work.

Daria Meoli: What makes YAI such a special place to work?

Philip Levy: I think it’s a special place to work for a number of reasons. One is that even though today we are the largest not-for-profit in the country serving people with developmental learning disabilities, we still operate it like a family business, where people have the opportunity to provide input and participate in the decision-making process. As a result of that, they have a feeling of ownership.

We have weekly staff meetings in every one of our 450 programs where the employees and their managers discuss challenges, needs, and decisions that have to be made, and everyone has an opportunity to provide input.

Every person in this organization meets with their supervisor on a regular basis to have regularly scheduled supervision. That’s a major commitment of time, but our belief is that if employees sit down with supervisors—even if it’s only once every other week—in a planned way with an agenda, you’re part of the decision-making process. When our managers meet with employees, the meetings are divided into three sections: business (status report on what is being done, challenges that are being experienced, new issues, etc.); process (how things are being done, interactive issues, personnel issues, etc.); and humanistic (how is the employee feeling about their job, as well as any issues in their personal life that are impacting their job performance).

I started here as a direct service person [an employee who works directly with customers] 40 years ago. I was able to create a philosophy that was based upon my actual experiences working with our consumers and having an appreciation of the challenges that our consumers experience. Our management philosophy is something we call participatory management.

Here’s an example of how we implement our philosophy. This year, we decided not to do our large holiday party because of the economic environment. But I didn’t just make that decision—we met with people and asked groups of employees what they thought and they said we shouldn’t do a big party at a hotel as we have in the past. Because part of the philosophy is connecting with people, we’re going to do an open house here in our offices. I’ll be there in an apron and I’ll serve food and pour them drinks.

Another thing that makes us special is that we are a mission-driven organization and everything goes back to the mission. We always tell our employees, ‘if a situation arises that you aren’t sure how to handle, when in doubt, go back to the mission and that will help you answer the question.’ Our mission is to help people with disabilities and their families to be as independent, as integrated, and as productive as possible. When our employees keep that in mind, 9 out of 10 times they will make the right decision.

DM: It seems it would be easier for your employees who work directly with consumers to be mission driven. How do you inspire back office and support employees, such as the accounting department employees or receptionists, who don’t deal with the company’s mission first hand?

PL: Before anyone is hired, they hear about our mission in the interview process, no matter if they’re an accountant, a cook, or a direct service professional. When they’re hired, they go through an orientation process that includes watching a video. After they are on board, we encourage our staff to visit our programs, so that they see what we do for our consumers and experience how our mission affects others. We want to make sure that people who work in our accounting department do not think that they’re working in just any accounting department, but they are part of our mission. We explain to them that whatever they do, it impacts the ultimate mission and they should make their decisions based on that. In many organizations, people don’t really have a sense of an organization’s mission. That’s a problem.

DM: How do you foster high standards of professionalism throughout your organization?

PL: Take, for example, our direct service professionals — the title becomes very important and I think that’s part of our success. We don’t call them direct service workers; we call them direct service professionals. We believe that everybody who works in our organization needs to view themselves as a professional whose goal is to help us actualize our mission. From the very moment they begin with us they are treated as professionals. They then act as professionals. If we involve employees in the decision-making processes, and make it clear that they are stakeholder and not just employees, then they feel a sense of ownership. That sense of ownership allows them to perform at a different level—with enthusiasm.

We’re also equally committed to building a brighter future for our staff as we are for our consumers. For example, we promote from within whenever possible and we support continuing education. We believe in job enrichment and job enlargement. If someone is not ready to be promoted yet, but they are ready to take on additional responsibility gradually, we’ll work with them on that. And I think that’s why we have the highest rate of retention in our industry. We give them greater training, more supervision, and a career ladder so that they believe that they have an opportunity to move up. Now, why would they believe that? Well, if the CEO and president started out as a line worker, it’s possible.

DM: When hiring new employees, do you look for specific qualities to match your company culture? If so, what are they?

PL: My feeling is that most people will be able to be competent in doing their job, based upon their training. But, you need the right kind of person – a person shares our values. We are a very value-driven organization. We look for people who are positive and optimistic. We look for people who like autonomy, but at the same time are still able to take constructive feedback. Everybody looks for people who are honest and ethical; but I think what’s unique about us is we’re looking at people in terms of their values. We also have a very diversified work force. We believe diversity strengthens us.