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How a #NotNormal work culture can attract and retain local talent

Here's why Phenom People CEO Mahe Bayireddi says the HR tech company's mission and values are what unify and keep employees engaged — and how it embodies them in its traditions and Ambler Yards office space.

A sales and marketing hub inside Phenom People. (Photo by Roberto Torres)
This is a guest post by Mahe Bayireddi, CEO of HR tech company Phenom People.

The city of Brotherly Love is booming. Population is growing again with 1.58 million residents, home sales have risen 63% since 2010, and 43% of Philadelphians between the ages of 25 and 34 have a bachelor’s degree or higher. Thanks to an abundance of distinguished universities in and around the city, a surplus of educated candidates are flooding the area looking to join the thriving Philly tech startup scene.

In such a candidate-driven market, how do companies stand out from the competition and not only attract but retain their ideal talent?

At Phenom People, a growing Philadelphia-native HR technology company, we talk about what makes us different. We have a culture that celebrates all of the ways our company and each person working here is unique. Indeed, every employee begins their journey with us by sharing their favorite quirks, hobbies and talents that make them one-of-a-kind. We call them #NotNormals, and it’s become a cornerstone of our on-boarding process.

I believe creating these types of memorable moments is a big reason we’ve been able to double our U.S. headcount in just two years. With more than 500 employees worldwide — and an average tenure of two years — we know it takes more than a nice paycheck and great benefits to keep people happy at their jobs (although those things help, too).

Every day, we try to go beyond candidates’ expectations to give them what they don’t even realize they want in a job. We do this, in large part, by paying homage to our Philly roots. And it all starts with a story.

First, some history

I know startups: I cofounded three others in the past 15 years, including Nexus Software, BijaHealth and SnipSnap. Before Phenom, the most recent was SnipSnap, which grew to become one of the top mobile coupon apps, saving more than four million users $100 million in the first two years of operation.

With the lionshare of tech startups in Silicon Valley, people often ask me, why Philly? The answer is simple. Yes, it’s more cost effective, but the main reason is because it’s home. My family is settled here, and when we were trying to raise venture capital, we already had 30 people in Philly, making us rock-solid connected to the city.

Interestingly, Phenom is not located directly in Philadelphia. Our decision to make a suburb our global headquarters is unique in and of itself. In HR, people are our business, and being able to draw diverse employees from all over the tri-state area is a major benefit. Research shows that inclusive companies are nearly twice as likely to be innovative leaders in their market.

In addition, when we heard the rich history of Ambler Yards, our headquarters’ campus, we knew it was the right choice because it aligned perfectly with our own vision.

The land was once home to a successful employee-first business built by James Harvey Gravell, who rewarded his workers by paying off all of their debt and implementing a profit-sharing plan on their behalf. The karma and positive energy associated with this space is almost palpable, and you can’t put a price tag on that. We even have a plaque honoring the history of our location placed prominently outside our largest conference room as a reminder of its significance.

So, why does any of this matter? Because having a story — and not only sticking to it, but living it — is what really builds an employer brand and a successful team. Companies have to know who they are and what they stand for, and then create a culture that embodies those things.

The importance of core values

Making employees feel part of something larger than themselves is a powerful motivator, especially today. At Phenom, we do that by clearly defining our mission — helping a billion people find the right job — and our core values, which we incorporate on a daily basis. Core values enable you to outline what’s important at your organization and, ultimately, what you expect from your employees.

Curiosity, responsibility, intensity, self-confidence and positive thinking are the five pillars upon which our foundation is based. And we hire based on whether prospective employees exemplify these qualities.

To assess whether a candidate is a cultural fit, they have to make a video illustrating one of our values and why it’s important to them. This process adds to the candidate experience but also retains talent and fuels the employee experience because we cultivate an employee base with similar ideals.

The little things are the big things

You never have a second chance to make a first impression. Thoughtful personalization in which you create “moments” through every aspect of the candidate and employee experience can make your company unforgettable.

Seventy-five percent of our U.S. employees at Phenom are PA natives, and 25% of all employees graduated from a college in Philadelphia, so we celebrate the city in many ways to help the office feel like home. You can’t walk into our headquarters and not feel the Philly pride. All of our conference rooms are named after Philadelphia landmarks and areas — from the Liberty Bell to Love Park — and we have Philly-inspired art throughout. Similarly, we often provide local treats such as Philly pretzels, cheesesteaks, Peanut Chews, and Hershey Kisses to add local flavor to the office and special events.

New hires also see their own faces prominently displayed in our lobby during their first few days. These members are now part of the Phenom Phamily, and we want them to feel like it immediately. A surprise congratulatory video from their family or friends greets them to ease first-day jitters, along with their favorite candy and useful company gifts.

Fresh talent also goes through our three- to four-day Phenom Phundamentals course to learn about our product and get acclimated. Giving employees a platform to talk, ask questions and collaborate is essential, and this introductory program sets the stage for that kind of environment.

A collective mindset encourages employees to provide valuable feedback, including ways to elevate the employee experience after onboarding:

  • Reward and showcase employees who exemplify your core values — At Phenom, employees are encouraged to nominate staff members who embrace our values. Winners are announced quarterly, and their photos are displayed alongside the values they represent.
  • Invest in your employees’ skills and general wellbeing — We offer coaching sessions and workshops to help upskill talent, map career paths and nurture internal mobility. Similarly, programs that support health and wellness, such as our weekly Mindful Meditation sessions, can be instrumental in maintaining a productive, employee-forward culture.
  • Give back — Community outreach programs are another great way to engage employees in social responsibility initiatives. Phenom continuously supports local nonprofits including The Attic Youth Center, The Mattie N. Dixon Community Cupboard, Support Homeless Veterans and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Philadelphia. Take it a step further and support your employees’ individual passions. At Phenom, we donate to a charity of the employee’s choice on their birthday.
  • Have fun! — All work and no play leads to employee burnout and turnover. Plan outings to sports games and popular tourist destinations to strengthen team bonding and nurture a true work family philosophy. This summer we invited employees and their families to Hershey Park, which accomplished just that.

As companies grow in size and scope, it’s vital for them to remember their roots and purpose. Our own global expansion is creating exciting opportunities for employees looking to broaden their horizons or even relocate overseas. But we always come back to the same two things: our mission and our values. Ultimately, they are what attract, unify and retain employees.

Companies: Phenom

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