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Shelter from the Squall: Companies find value in empathetic listening

SBJ Economic Growth Survey: The Perfect Storm

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Not long ago, filling company vacancies was a lot like a bass fishing derby. A TV camera would pan from boat to boat as fishers cast and reeled in one big fish after another. The supply seemed inexhaustible.

The fish are no longer jumping. In fact, since COVID-19 and the “Great Resignation,” coupled with near-full employment numbers, the channel has flipped to something more like “The Dating Game,” where employers line up in their best suits to attract the eye of a strong prospect.

Maybe the best comparison is The Weather Channel, where the climate sets the programming lineup, and with little notice, anything could blow a company’s way.

In the most recent unemployment numbers, released in mid-July by the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center, the state’s jobless rate stood at 2.8% – the lowest seasonally adjusted figure ever recorded in the Show-Me State. 

Meanwhile, the U.S. labor force participation is 62%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, down five percentage points from its high.

According to the World Economic Forum, the “Great Resignation” is not over. In fact, a full fifth of workers surveyed say they intend to quit their current job in 2022. Of these, two-thirds say they are looking for more fulfilment in the workplace.

Maybe on their way out the door they offer the blithe “It’s-not-you-it’s-me” of the departing beau. But unless employers are making an effort to communicate with and listen to their workers … well, it may be them.

Locally, officials with three companies – Campaignium LLC, Digital Monitoring Products Inc. and Burrell Behavioral Health – say they are taking employees’ concerns – and even their innovations – to heart.

Case studies
Marketing agency Campaignium has 29 workers, most of them full-time. Emily Alloway, director of human resources and inclusion, says culture is everything for the company.

“One of the first questions I get asked about is benefits,” she says. “Pretty much the second question is always, ‘What’s your culture like?’”

That’s a question Alloway loves to field.

“That has been a high focus since day one for the partners,” she says. “They’ve really stuck by that ideal of inclusivity and being a supportive and understanding workplace.”

A few years back, Campaignium began asking workers to say what benefits they most desired. Those benefits range from offering 16 weeks paid maternity, paternity and adoption leave to allowing flex time that lets employees put family first.

Alloway says the partners at the helm of Campaignium, David Church, Jeff Paulette and Larry Paulette, care about their workers.

“We’ve put things in place to try to minimize stress levels and mental health worries in our business,” she says.

Another local company, Digital Monitoring Products, has about 400 workers and is growing, according to Mark Hillenburg, vice president of marketing.

“It’s a challenging market for sure – a lot of jobs open, not enough employees, we all see that,” he says. “It does make it incumbent upon the employer to do some things a little differently and communicate better.”

DMP wants its workers to become part of the culture, Hillenburg says.

“We like to see people come on board and have a career here,” he says. “That’s a little different than what the main crop of employees are looking for, it seems like.”

DMP tries to create an environment where workers can grow and develop their skill set through internal training, Hillenburg says. He adds that DMP uses a concept called hiring for attitude, based on a belief that almost any employee can be trained to do a task, but determining whether a potential worker has an attitude to embrace DMP culture is more difficult to assess.

DMP also offers an array of benefits, like free health care in an on-site medical clinic and a free home alarm system.

Hillenburg says listening is a key value at DMP. Members of the leadership team regularly conduct employee interviews with randomly assigned workers who are not their direct reports. They get a chance to ask what the company should start doing, stop doing or keep doing and if there is anything that could be done better. Feedback is shared and changes are implemented.

“We’ve made a number of decisions based on that that makes the company better,” he says.

Just this month, based in part on worker feedback, DMP is rolling out a plan that allows all employee benefits to begin on the first day of employment.

“We think it’s going to be popular,” Hillenburg says.

Burrell Behavioral Health employs 2,000 workers across 18 Missouri counties. Chief of Staff Dee King says a recent employee engagement survey had 93% participation, and 71% of respondents said they believe changes will be made based on their feedback.

King says Burrell has responded to feedback. A full, across-the-board compensation review was completed, and competitive pay increases resulted, as did a minimum wage bump. Combined, these represented a $3.4 million investment affecting 1,000 workers, as Springfield Business Journal reported in September 2021. Burrell also increased insurance benefits, like upping the number of free annual counseling sessions from four to seven.

“I feel like Burrell does such an amazing job of recognizing that to best care for our communities, we have to care for our team first,” she says.

Burrell also has a clinical innovation team that welcomes employees to present ideas for new programs in the system. A recently established eating disorder program is one program that came from an employee idea offered through the committee.

“Providing outlets for employees to share feedback led to real innovations,” King says.

Meaningful exchanges between employees and leadership could help to stem an outward flow of workers. Nationally, 66% of workers report they would leave their job if they felt underappreciated, according to 2022 research by data firm Zippia. Of those who quit their jobs in 2021, 54% reported they did not feel valued by their organization, and 40% left their jobs without having another offer in hand, according to management consulting firm McKinsey & Co.

The Pew Research Center had similar results in a survey of workers who quit in 2021; 35% said feeling disrespected at work was a major reason for leaving, and 21% said disrespect was a minor reason. Other top factors included low pay, no opportunities for advancement, child care issues and lack of flexibility in work hours.

The Labor Department reported that despite recession worries, 4.2 million people quit their jobs in June.


The results of an empathetic, listening culture show up in increased productivity, Alloway says.

“When your employees are happy and healthy, they work harder.”

She added there is a fine line – it is important for workers to buckle down and do their job.

“Our employees get their work done because they feel appreciated, valued and supported.”

At DMP, Hillenburg says the most meaningful metric is the success of the business. Worker feedback helps to keep DMP profitable, he says.

At Burrell, King says CEO C.J. Davis often repeats this saying: To be perfect it is necessary to change often.

“We evaluate, re-evaluate, try things. If what we try does not work out, there’s no fear or shame in that,” she says. “We just get up and try something new.”


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