Three Companies That Embody the Culture of a Top Workplace
Every year, The Washington Post seeks to find the Washington D.C. area’s top workplaces. In partnership with the employee engagement firm Energage, LLC, the paper conducts a survey of employees across hundreds of companies to identify the best workplaces and learn what makes them so special. What ultimately makes a top workplace seems, at first glance, a tricky question to answer even with the data.
Honorees can be large government contractors, small nonprofits, or regional chains. They can work in tech, law, real estate, construction, and the service industry. They can be legacy, startups, or a business pivoting toward a whole new direction. But when you sit down to talk with these companies, patterns begin to emerge.
We spoke with representatives of three Top Workplace honorees: Giant Food, a supermarket chain with more than 160 stores across the D.C.-Metropolitan area; the Chenega Corporation, Alaska’s most successful Native Village corporation; and Northwest Federal Credit Union, a nonprofit credit union operating in the Virginia and D.C. area. Despite their varied fields and expertise, there proved a common mission threaded throughout each’s corporate fabric.
Going beyond the value proposition
Every company has a publicized set of values, and if you’ve spent any time in the corporate world, you’ve no doubt heard some repetition in their recital. Giant Food, for example, has five core values: integrity, courage, teamwork, honesty, and care. Those may sing a familiar refrain, but what differentiates Giant Food from its competitors is that these values aren’t just dusted off during a recruitment push. They serve as the tools with which the company builds its every decision, interaction, and arrangement.
As Robin Anderson, Giant Food’s VP of Human Resources, told us in an interview: “A lot of times, people think, ‘It must be the money. It must be the benefits.’ But people want to feel good about where they work. When [our people] say that they work at Giant Food, they know that they are well-respected in the community because of our commitment.”
During its 80-plus years in operation, Giant Food has built a workplace that consistently fosters that commitment. For customers, the company balances sustainability with innovative approaches like Giant Delivery and same-day orders, while viewing growth and skill development as fundamental to the employee experience. Ms. Anderson is a prime example herself, having started with Giant Food right out of college and working many different jobs toward her current position.
Such values can’t be cultivated in silence though, so Giant Food facilitates inclusion and ownership by supporting open, two-way communication. “We try to be as transparent with communication as possible,” Anderson said. “Whether you’re the clerk pushing the carts in the cart corral or our division president, we make sure that everyone knows what’s going on and why it’s happening.”
Chenega and Northwest Federal have also built workplaces that don’t gild their values for the display case. They are actively driven by them. Deep roots in the tight-knit culture of an Alaskan Native tribe means Chenega inherited a family-first principle that is integrated from “the top down and back up,” as noted by Military, Intelligence, and Operations Support (MIOS) President John Campagna. As we’ll see, Northwest Federal’s mission to serve and transform lives permeates its sense of social responsibility and the relationships it builds with its members.
Maintaining a sense of place
Each of these Top Workplaces has also built a sense of identity indivisible from their communities. Unlike a globe-spanning conglomerate, these three are extensions of the people and cultures they serve.
Giant Food and Northwest Federal’s connections to the diversity of the Washington-Metropolitan area instructs how they devote their volunteer time and resources. Giant Food’s charitable efforts are aimed at three causes at the heart of its communities: fighting hunger and food insecurity, aiding pediatric cancer research, and supporting the military.
Northwest Federal promotes a “Pay It Forward” initiative, providing its employees with a stipend to champion a cause of their choice, as well as a volunteer work initiative. With the COVID-19 pandemic preventing people from volunteering outside the home, Jean Cain, Northwest Federal’s Senior VP of HR and Talent Development, volunteered her time to make candles at home for an Alzheimer’s research fundraiser, an effort her company subsidized with paid time off.
Meanwhile, Chenega serves a dual mandate of creating financial resources for its Native shareholders and helping the Chenega people maintain their culture and way of life. As Mr. Campagna told us in his interview, this Native tribe has faced incredible hardships in the past. In 1964, their village was wiped out by a tsunami formed by the Prince William Sound earthquake. Over one-third of their population lost their lives. After resettling, in 1989 they suffered an ecological disaster when the Exxon-Valez oil spill washed up on their shores, a tragedy compounded by the absence of a local oil-spill response team.
Today, thanks to the tribe’s outsized strength and perseverance—and support from the corporation—the village of Chenega operates many municipal services, maintains a system of power generators, and has developed a local oil-response system, a protective measure serving not only the Chenega people but anyone who lives in that part of Alaska or cherishes its natural beauty.
“The most remarkable thing about Chenega is its people—and I’m not just talking about the employees, but also the native shareholders. That culture of people that want to give. They see us as an extension of their family,” Campagna said. “That strength of character and the commitment to succeed is visible throughout the entire corporation because that’s what our shareholders reflect upon us. They’re inspiring people.”
Different markets, a common mission
Just as there is no one-size-fits-all model for a Top Workplace, there is no one answer for what these companies seek in their employees. When speaking with their representatives, they mentioned varying qualities such as loyalty, service orientation, cultural fit, and the desire to start a leadership journey. But one quality each company sought was the desire to learn, grow, and live well.
To that end, each workplace demonstrates a tremendous dedication to education, enrichment, and the betterment of their employees. They promote education and growth opportunities, while providing benefits that pay more than lip-service to the idea of balancing work and life. And none pass up the chance to have a barbeque or party and just enjoy each other’s company.
This dedication, of course, pays dividends for the company, too. Their success is catalyzed by the efforts of employees who wish to advance and work toward a goal larger than themselves or even the company. It’s a relationship embodied in a story Ms. Cain shared with us.
When the government initially rolled out small business administration (SBA) loans, many small businesses found it difficult to secure the funds. Many banks turned away borrowers in fear that such loans would not prove financially viable, and the deluge of applications bottlenecked banks fielding too few processors. But the employees of Northwest Federal rose to the challenge. As an institution, they decided to provide loans for any qualified borrower, whether they were a member or not, and fifty additional employees trained to manage loans, including those from other departments. When the Feds turned on the portal, they worked diligently and through the night to ensure local small businesses got the funds they needed to keep from shuttering their doors.
“I love that story because, to me, it’s so typical of how this organization is. They are doing the right thing to help people, not just because it’s about making a lot of money,” Cain said. “It’s about making sure that we align who we are and what we say to what we do. We keep our values as our guidepost for how we manage our business on a day-to-day basis.”
Though each company works in different markets, has different values, and comes from different communities, it’s that sense of social and personal responsibility that each employee brings that makes it these three honorees Top Workplaces.