Give The Benefits, Save The Benjamins

ESL Federal Credit Union is living proof that you get back what you put in, but you don’t have to break the bank doing it.

In 2014, the Great Place To Work Institute ranked ESL Federal Credit Union ($4.9B, Rochester, NY) No. 11 in its best medium-sized employer category. This nationwide ratingwas in no small part the result of the wealth of benefits the locally owned credit union provides its nearly 700 employees.

According to data from Callahan & Associates, as of midyear 2014, ESL employees bring in more than double the net income per individual than employees at credit unions of a similar asset size. ESL also maintains an efficiency rate 16% lower than asset-basedpeers and stays well within industry averages for salary and benefits.

Here, Maureen Wolfe, the credit union’s senior vice president of human resources and community relations, discusses several benefits strategies that have helped ESL stand out from the crowd.

Maureen Wolfe
SVP Of Human Resources And Community Relations,
ESL Federal Credit Union

How have your staffing strategies evolved over time? What does ESL’s workforce look like today?

Maureen Wolfe: Years ago, our hiring depended on whether someone had banking experience. Now, we don’t think about that as much. We want to hire for cultural fit and values and then train for skills.

We’ve found retail or service experience can be a good indicator of that. Also, the ability of applicants to demonstrate that they care about people helps us determine whether they are just looking for a job or are seeking a long-term career.

We have approximately 535 full-time and 145 part-time employees. About 70% of our staff is women. We tend to have a lot of part-time roles that appeal to people who might be raising children or have other obligations, but we also have many women in ourmanager and executive positions because we provide good training and promote from within.

Do you focus more on internal recruitment or external?

MW: We’ve filled approximately 84% of all employee and leadership job openings this year from within. We’re looking to stay above that 80% threshold for the foreseeable future because it keeps us focused on employee development.

That metric won’t ever reach 100%, however, because we want to consider all viable candidates, particularly when launching new areas of the business.

An example would be our business banking unit, which is in its fourth year. We had to emphasize experience when hiring to get that off that ground, but now our goal is to grow more talent from within.

How does ESL use employee assessments as part of its hiring process?


ESL FEDERAL Credit Union
data as of 09.30.14

  • HQ: Rochester, NY
  • ASSETS: $4.9B
  • MEMBERS: 329,087
  • EMPLOYEES: 680
  • 12-MO SHARE GROWTH: 2.67%
  • 12-MO LOAN GROWTH: 5.96%
  • ROA: 1.51%

MW: We ask applicants questions about their preferences, their likes and dislikes, and their potential fit with our culture. We want there to be a natural overlap, so although this isn’t a yes or no factor in hiring,the assessment does provide a way for an interviewer to probe a little deeper.

We custom built this tool for ESL nearly a decade ago after working with an industrial psychologist. In the years since, she has used our historic performance data to refine these questions so they more closely correlate to our desired employee traits.

What’s your current strategy for employee recognition and how did it develop?

MW: A decade ago, we weren’t in a great place. Our internal survey revealed we scored low in that area of employee satisfaction, so we’ve been working on recognition.

In 2009, we developed our own recognition program that includes five levels to thank employees for a job well done.

The top category of this program, ESL Honors, is a selective award given to 12 to 15 employees per year by the senior managers for significant or compelling contributions. We highlight these employees at our Employee Forum, which we hold twice a year,and nominees receive a cash award and keepsake trophy.

To give managers the ability to recognize employees in a timelier manner, they have a budget to purchase gift cards, movie tickets, or anything else they think their employees would appreciate.

On a peer-to-peer level, we have Kudos to You. This easy, no-cost program provides an easy way for employees to publicly acknowledge other employees through a posting on our intranet.

Recipients receive a written notification, an invitation to a VIP quarterly breakfast with senior managers, and a cash award.

We also have our Values In Practice (VIP) Awards, which celebrate and elevate ESL’s core values by highlighting stories that exemplify who we want our employees to be.

For example, we had two mortgage officers who worked through a complicated process to close a mortgage for a member who was using a grant from the New York Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance.

Employees nominate one another for this award, and recipients receive a written notification, an invitation to a VIP quarterly breakfast with senior managers, and a cash award.

Ninety percent of surveyed employees reported getting the training and development they needed to further their careers. How does ESL manage these activities so effectively?

MW: We started out as an organization that only did new-hire training for our tellers, member service representatives, and contact center staff. Now we have a strategy for management and our different departments.

We normally offer a set number of training hours by role during the first year of employment. After that, it’s based on what is going on at an organizational and departmental level. For example, if there’s an upcoming system implementationor other large project, that means more hours in the classroom.

We also require all our employees to create their own yearly performance and career development plan. This gives them the opportunity to talk with their supervisors about the professional path they want to pursue and how we can help them flesh it out.

Lastly, we have an administrative tool we call iLearn that offers various learning sessions. Everyone can sign up for these sessions, which include things like best practices for working in a multi-generational environment and how to improve communicationskills.

Next: Work-Life Balance And Part-Time Employees

What is ESL’s strategy for creating work-life balance?

MW: We offer things like a flex savings account to help employees save for child- or elder-care costs. We also deploy a number of nontraditional flexible work arrangements that include work-from-home scenarios as well as varying start and stop times.We even have some employees who have switched to a four-day workweek.

There is a process to qualify for these flex-work opportunities, but many who use them are top performers that we want to retain. We’ve found a little bit of flexibility makes them stay with us a lot longer.

We also have employees at our headquarters 24 hours a day, so we provide an on-site self-serve caf with salads, sandwiches, and light to-go meals that come from a nearby grocer. It’s open all hours and employees can pay at a self-checkoutkiosk.

What benefits strategies have worked well for part-time employees?

MW: Part-timers usually pay more out of pocket for medical coverage than full-time staff, but we need part-time workers as a part of our operational strategy and we want top talent. So probably eight years we decided to offer employees who work 28 hoursor more a week the same benefit on their insurance as someone who works 40 hours. That’s definitely made us much more competitive in the marketplace.

We also offer the same tuition reimbursement benefit for full- and part-time employees. In the past, part-time employees received half the amount of full-timers, but we consider this a crucial investment in their development and hope they’ll comeback to us full time once they finish their degrees.

What’s the credit union’s philosophy regarding paid time off?

MW: At our employees’ request, we increased our daily paid time off accrual rate across all roles and pay grades. Entry-level, non-exempt employees start at two week’s vacation and after five years that jumps to 15 days. Starting at six years,they get one additional day beyond that 15 for every year they are with the organization.

For salaried employees, they start at three weeks for the first five years and then follow the same extra accrual schedule, with 16 days at six years, 17 days at seven years, etc.

The cap for both is 30 days of vacation after 35 years of service. This is a lot, so we have to make sure people use it and we limit yearly rollover to a maximum of 10 days.

What primary outcomes is ESL looking for in its annual employee event?

MW: We invite all employees plus one guest to our Annual Celebration that takes place on a Saturday night in January. We typically have about 900 people in attendance each year and we essentially take over an entire downtown hotel. We have different ballroomswith their own themes, food, and types of entertainment, such as a band, a DJ, or casino games.

It’s not that expensive to do these things if you have the right strategy and manage your costs.

It’s not inexpensive, but we budget for it every year and see a tremendous amount of value from it in terms of building a team and creating pride in the organization.

How much money does ESL invest in its benefits and what are the results?

MW: The biggest area of financial return for us has been in reduced turnover, which generates a lot of savings and helps our bottom line. Our turnover rate is approximately 11-12%. It’s significantly lower than industry benchmarks, which go as highas the low twenties.

We don’t share all of our costs for these programs publicly; but, for example, our on-the-spot manager-employee recognition program only runs about $75 per employee annually.

It’s not that expensive to do these things if you have the right strategy and manage your costs, particularly with things like healthcare. People believe our benefits are much better than average, but our spending is in line with industry norms.

We’re also OK with making an above average investment in something we feel is crucial. For example, we’re one of the few institutions to still offer pensions along with a 401(k) because we think that is an indispensable tool when preparingfor a solid, secure retirement.

January 19, 2015

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