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Opinion: Staff engagement in community reaps multiple rewards

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In today’s job hunt, search criteria are different, so as hiring leaders we need to be thinking differently about talent attraction and retention.

For the third column in my series on The Talent Puzzle, I want to share some insights from leaders at local organizations that already are flexing a muscle many of us have not exercised in a while, and maybe never, but will need to begin over the next 20-plus years if we want to compete for talent.

Let’s take a look at how engaging your employees in the community can enhance their skill sets, increase their loyalty to their employer and feelings of pride, increase their engagement on the job, grow their connection to the community and their co-workers, and become your best talent recruiters.

So, with all the other pressures on organizations these days, why would these organizations prioritize employee community engagement?

“We encourage our employees to give back to our community,” says Jena Holtberg-Benge, general manager of John Deere Reman. “Our employees have skills that are valuable to others and they want to serve with sincerity with both their time and their talents. Those we serve give our employees a sense of purpose and develop them in wonderful ways for their careers.”

Here are a few others I asked:

“Across all of our four locations, we partner with four United Way agencies,” says Olivia Smith, vice president of culture strategy and execution at American National Insurance Co. “Volunteerism links so strongly to our company’s core values of respect, teamwork and service.”

Andrea Brady, community outreach and development manager at Great Southern Bank, says her employer has embraced employee community engagement for years and indicates it is the foundation for the company. 

“It may sound like a cliche, but we really do believe in our communities. Our communities reflect who we are,” she says. “We have a sense of ownership to make things better, and we support the initiatives that our employees support.”

“We try to balance culture and work. We try to take care of the human,” adds Stephanie Johnson, senior human resources business partner for Paddio. “We ask ourselves, ‘How can I live my life values while having a rewarding career?’ It’s just who we are. It’s the values we hold to our heart, and we want people who hold these same values.”

All indicate their employees return from volunteer engagements with new skills and, in some cases, even a new attitude.

Brady says she has witnessed it: “They come back as better leaders, hone their presentation skills, have greater compassion and empathy, and gain more knowledge about the things happening just a few blocks away.”

Johnson sees Paddio’s employees return from volunteering with new, nontangible skill sets, such as compassionate communication and a new understanding of their community.

“They become a more well-rounded employee,” she notes.

These business managers say volunteering together allows employees to make connections and acquire new skills – specifically, leadership, technical and soft skills.

But can community engagement impact employee retention by making them “sticky”? What I mean is, can it impact employee loyalty and pride? It appears so.

“I’ve lived that,” says Brady. “Having the ability to get involved helps develop who we are as individuals. It’s so rewarding.”

She says her experience is that volunteerism and community engagement improve employee loyalty.

What about impacting an employee’s work on the job?

Gary Gibson, president and CEO of City Utilities of Springfield, observed, “Employees return from volunteerism with a change in attitude – they have more pride in what they do every day and more pride in their employer.”

All five leaders confirmed that group volunteer projects provide opportunities for employees to meet each other and get to know employees from other parts of the organization.

John Deere Reman is coordinating a monthly project that involves five employees volunteering together. Holtberg-Benge says, “It makes for a different work environment. It generates a different level of caring. People understand the needs better and are more likely to help each other.”

During a time when talent attraction is critical, how can community engagement affect the ability to recruit talent?

“Our employees are our best recruiters,” says Holtberg-Benge. “Roughly 50% of our new hires are the result of employee referrals.”

Largely, the onus is on the employer to facilitate these opportunities. Employees are looking for that – whether that’s through incentives, like paid time off to volunteer, and support programs, such as John Deere Foundation’s Dollars for Doers. 

“The John Deere Foundation has committed $50 million over the next 10 years for our John Deere employees to direct funds to the causes they care about,” says Holtberg-Benge.

Overall, these employers say the investment is worth it.

Says Brady, “Community engagement changes people. It opens your eyes and your heart to what is around you.”

Greg Burris is president and CEO of United Way of the Ozarks. He can be reached at


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