UNC Kenan-Flagler Sustainability Blog

Employee Happiness: an Engaging Internship at The SJF Institute

September 16, 2011 By Joel Thomas

By Mia Farber, MBA 2012   sjfi_logo_solid_bg

Hearing Zappos’ CEO Tony Hsieh talk about creating a culture of happiness in the workplace as guest on the Colbert Report last week  resounded strongly with me, given the concept of employee engagement to which I have been exposed in the past year and believe to be an important part of any successful workplace.

Hsieh shared his principles and desire to create a happy work environment at Zappos both for employees and customers by drawing a direct connection to overall success and productivity; an idea that was first presented to me in UNC Kenan-Flager Business School’s MBA815B: Strategies in Sustainability course taught by Professor Carol Seagle, PhD.

This lecture-based course featured a different speaker each class who shared important lessons about the implementation of environmental and social strategies at each of their unique employers, such as Dow Chemical, Interface, IBM, and the Durham-based SJF Institute.

Representing SJF Institute, and an expert in the field of employee engagement, Anne Claire Broughton explained the importance of investing in employees through trainings, home-buying and childcare assistance, in addition to employee stock ownership plans and other employee wealth building strategies. This holistic perspective of the work environment attracted me to SJF Institute’s work and I was fortunate enough to intern as an MBA Associate with them over the summer. SJF was originally founded to foster the creation of sustainable jobs, and today is comprised of the non-profit SJF Institute, which works to accelerate entrepreneurship, SJF Ventures, an affiliated venture capital firm seeking high impact returns, and the affiliated angel investor network, Investors’ Circle.

SJF takes employee engagement seriously both among its own staff and with the companies it advises. This summer, SJF Institute published Broughton’s stellar report Employees Matter: Maximizing Company Value Through Workforce Engagement, profiling two dozen companies that employ unique engagement strategies, such as Dancing Deer Baking Co., which provides full benefits even to its part-time employees and Full Sail Brewery, which recognizes the importance of work-life balance by providing employees with flexible schedules and telecommuting options. Broughton’s report also highlights the importance of fostering a culture of mutual respect and trust, which I was exposed to immediately upon starting my internship by taking part in a team-building session with SJF Institute staff. Our meeting aimed to foster healthy work relations by gaining a better understanding of our team members’ pasts and present realities, preferred styles of communication, and areas of opportunity. By learning about these intangible personality traits, I was not only welcomed as a member of the team, but was able to carry out my own work more successfully by knowing in advance how to work most effectively with each of my new team members.

A second strategy outlined in Employees Matter is the idea of celebrating success, which can often been overlooked, but provides genuine motivation for a team by taking the time to recognize achievements, no matter how small. Celebrating milestones was a great part of working at SJF over the summer and helped me to see the many employee engagement strategies outlined in the report in action. Those interested in learning more about employee engagement strategies can download the full report online or follow Broughton’s Employee Engagement Blog to stay up to date. As for me, having had such a great experience at SJF Institute and feeling like I was part of team that recognizes the importance of healthy, happy employees and continually works to improve conditions to be as effective as possible for its clients, I know exactly what I’ll be looking for in a workplace environment upon graduation this Spring.