Building Human Value Connections at Work: Best Practices from Great Places to Work

By Frank Mulhern, Northwestern University, and Erick Laseca - January 2011

Click here for a downloadable PDF of this research paper.


In a recent paper on a people-first approach to leadership, The Forum: Business Results Through People (hereafter referred to as The Forum) set forth the idea of the need for organizations to actively promote personal relationships and community at the workplace. That paper noted:

“The human value connection encompasses the links between people within an organization, and the links across organizations best represented by the interactions between employees and customers.”

That study also noted that interpersonal connectivity represents the “flow of performance” that essentially constitutes the way work gets done at most organizations. As the nature of work increasingly shifts more toward information and services, and less physical labor, interpersonal connectivity becomes even more important. In fact what is known as work is increasingly becoming the exchange of information among people, both within and across organizational boundaries.

The underlying tenet of emphasizing the human value connection is that close interpersonal relationships have enormous benefits to individuals and organizations. Friendships and other social ties foster higher levels of happiness, and from an organization’s perspective, are likely to have numerous benefits including higher employee satisfaction, higher levels of retention, and better employee and organizational performance.  This study sets out to identify companies who foster strong human value connections and conduct in-depth interviews with high-level managers to ascertain best practices.  Our objective is to uncover the key dimensions regarding what organizations do to build meaningful communities and enhance employees’ lives by actively generating strong interpersonal connectivity.

Participant Company Selection

The selection began by identifying companies that have been recognized for their treatment of employees and for fostering positive workplace experiences. The most popular listing of such organizations is Fortune magazine’s annual Top 100 Great Places to Work. In addition we consulted other similar listings as well as anecdotal reports in the trade press. Our intent was to identify companies from a broad range of industries spanning manufacturing and services, consumer and business-to-business, large and small, profit and nonprofit. We made no attempt to represent the company selection process as scientific with regards to sampling because 1) we were only able to report on a small number of companies, making the use of statistical sampling impossible, and 2) we wanted to compile a set of inter-related best practices and therefore wanted innovative companies that constitute those best fostering human value connections, as opposed to being necessarily representative of a broader array of organizations. A further dimension of participant selection was the willingness of organizations to allow us to speak to senior management so as to get an insider’s perspective on how employees were treated.

Over 30 companies were originally contacted about the prospect of participating. Some were not willing to participate; others were eliminated because, after conversing with them, we did not feel they were conducting practices that fell within the scope of human value connections as described above. The end result was seven companies. Three of the participating organizations are among the top 10 companies on the Fortune “100 Greatest Places to Work” list of 2010, including #1 SAS and #2 EdwardJones. We also selected three companies that were not on the list, because we knew they met the general criteria for earning a spot, but had structural impediments for being selected as one of the top 100 workplaces for this publication. In our opinion, all companies selected for publication in this study qualify to be ranked among the top workplaces and exemplify a common set of core values that allow them to be considered a best practice organization in people enrichment.

The final set of companies we interviewed includes the American Red Cross, McDonald’s, Mayo Clinic, Aflac, and for a small business perspective, Nick’s Pizza, located in the Chicago area. All but one of the companies were interviewed in person, on the site of the executive’s office; one company had to be interviewed by phone because of travel restrictions. Companies were asked to provide multiple informants who could be interviewed collectively or one at a time. All but one company provided two or more managers for interviews, and most preferred to have separate interviews for each manager.

A formal interview guide was prepared and used to direct the conversations. The five topical areas covered were:

  1. Company perspective on managing employees and enhancing their workplace experiences, particularly from the point of view of top management
  2. Employee perspective of the company, its mission and culture
  3. Specific practices implemented to foster stronger personal relationships among employees and, where relevant, among people across organizations
  4. Examples of successful and unsuccessful practices, and how the degree of success was established.

One of our most immediate and strongest discoveries was that the idea of human value connections cannot be assessed independent of other key dimensions of an organization. While our interviews focused on human value connections, much of the conversation was about aspects such as company mission, organizational culture, authenticity, and empowerment. Because, intentionally, participating companies are very diverse, we discovered some major differences in how they approached dealing with employees. However, despite those differences, we were able to coalesce key dimensions relating to human value connections that were common across many organizations. We present those dimensions in the next section, along with detailed examples from the companies.

Dimensions Relating to Human Value Connections

Throughout our research, we found seven common practices shared by most of the companies interviewed. These practices are the foundation for their success and the pillars on which every program, initiative or company policy is based.

Dimension 1: Infusing the Organizational Mission in Employees

People connect to each other when they share the same mission. Based on our interviews we conclude that fostering a powerful organizational mission is a strong community builder. People want to believe that what they do matters and when they are able to sense that others feel the same level of commitment, strong shared values develop and contribute to personal relationships. An executive form SAS mentioned that people want to feel they are doing something meaningful at work. That sense of meaningfulness comes from their organizational mission of solving customers’ problems.

A detailed example of infusing a sense of mission is Aflac. Deeply embedded in Aflac’s mission is an unwavering commitment to customer service. The company grew from a family organization of a few dozen people to a large corporation with thousands of employees spanning the globe. As the company has grown, their family roots have evolved to incorporate a larger population of employees but the company still manages to maintain the values it had as a family business. Aflac places great value on people and treats employees and customers as individuals. Behind their successful expansion is their mission of delivering high quality customer service. Guided by the “Aflac Way,” management makes sure all employees are directly or indirectly involved in serving customers, and this is defined by anyone who has a stake in the organization, including employees, vendors, and the traditional customers who purchase the product they sell. The mission is brought home to employees by management in their philosophy of treating employees well. At the core of the “Aflac Way” is the employee value proposition: “If you take care of the employee, the employee takes care of the business.” That said, employees who are valued and feel the support of the organization are more apt to be committed to meeting the corporate mission, which in this case is customer service.

The American Red Cross also provides a good example of the role of an organization’s mission in building human connections. The Red Cross deals with thousands of volunteers who contribute in providing help at times of crisis and disaster. Volunteers are not permanent employees and are widely dispersed geographically. As such, the organization needs to leverage its mission of serving people to create an organizational community and foster a sense of belongingness. One study participant noted that “People that work here do so for the mission and there is loyalty and respect for the cause.” This is facilitated by the nature of the work – people feel good about helping others. The strong sense of this mission helps volunteers connect to each other and build a powerful sense of community.

A third example comes from the Mayo Clinic. The Mayo Clinic builds its mission around serving the patients. They see all the employees as operating with the same value that “the needs of the patient come first.” All employees regard the wellness of the patient as the top priority, even among employees with no patient contact.

One study participant from the Mayo Clinic described an anecdote that took place when a documentary team was filming a series titled “Driving towards zero medical mistakes.” The camera crew stepped into a hospital room as a janitor was cleaning it. The journalist casually asked the janitor off-camera if he was cleaning the room for the next patient. The janitor replied “No – I’m saving people’s lives.” The journalist probed into the janitor’s poetic reply, and the janitor explained that one of the biggest dangers in healthcare facilities is bacteria and unsanitary conditions.  He added that unsanitary conditions may mean the difference between life and death for a patient, and this is why he felt as responsible for saving lives as ER doctors and first responders. This is a prime example of feeling involved in the mission of the organization and making significant contributions to its success.

Dimension 2: Authentic and Organic Loyalty

Loyalty has long been identified as a core attribute of successful organizations. Our interviews found that loyalty to an organization is tightly connected to human value connections. More specifically, we can go so far as to say employees really have loyalty to other employees more so than to an organization. Here, we see that human value connections have a powerful role in a company’s success. Organizations want loyal employees because, as noted by Richenheld in The Loyalty Effect (1996) when employees feel loyal to an organization, they work harder, they deal with adversity better, and they are less likely to resign.  Thus it is in the interest of an organization to foster loyalty as part of strong human value connections.

Of the companies we interviewed, the best representative of the role of loyalty in building human connections was Edward Jones. To illustrate how this firm can attain such a high level of employee loyalty, let’s take the Edward Jones approach to innovation through empowerment. The philosophy at EdwardJones is their value proposition that allows for corporate growth to come from anyone who can contribute a meaningful improvement to the business. They allow rookie financial advisors the same access to managing partners as 20-year veterans when it comes to pitching a new service or business idea with company-wide impact. Since EdwardJones began this policy in its early years, they have implemented countless programs from new hires and have given full recognition to the source of these new ideas, in spite of the financial industry’s typical model of top-down management. The inclusive nature of this organization eliminates internal competition for qualifying for incentives or recognition.  Incentives are awarded based on individual performance and there’s no limit to the amount of incentives awarded – the only criteria to qualify for an incentive award is to meet the predetermined objectives. The design of the reward system contributes to human connectivity by avoiding competition. Employees like to see their co-workers rewarded. The corporate culture fosters loyalty among the employees, and over the long term, to the company overall. This kind of loyalty can only be garnered through a genuine, systematic approach of empowering employees to become vested in the organization to the point where they genuinely gain from the firm’s performance, which are directly affected by their actions.

Dimension 3: Employee Empowerment

People build stronger relationships when they feel like they have some discretion and control of their work lives. The opposite condition – rigid restrictions in what one can or must do at work, stifles the building of interpersonal connectivity. All of the companies we interviewed exhibited proficiency in empowerment and some of the examples they shared were among the most innovative practices in this area. As a non-profit, a core competence of the American Red Cross is to empower its volunteers to make substantial contributions. As noted above, the Red Cross is able to build strong human connectivity by leveraging its mission. In addition, by empowering its volunteers – which it must do so succeed given its limited staff and resources –  the Red Cross facilitates community building. In fact, volunteers are so empowered that they sometimes have paid staff members reporting to them.  Volunteers also learn that they have to reach out to other volunteers to get tasks accomplished. By being empowered to do what has to be done, volunteers end up forming close relationships with each other.

Dimension 4: Trust and Respect

It is hard to overstate the role of trust and respect in the building of human value connections. People don’t become friends, or even agreeable co-workers, in an environment that lacks trust, or one in which people do not feel respected by others. The study participant from SAS noted that at their company there is trust among the employees and that leads to happy customers.

NetApp, a major supplier of hardware and software solutions is an excellent example of a company whose culture is based on trust and respect in their employees. At NetApp, culture is the clear business differentiator, not because of the bottom line but because of the higher purpose regarding the kind of environment and workplace they want to maintain. Their trust-based culture essentially depends on their employees to deliver cutting edge solutions, and trusts that employees will help the company meet its goals, despite a lack of clear accountability if employees fail to create innovations beyond their scope or responsibility. In other words, NetApp management cannot predict what their employees are capable of in the realm of new product development or innovative solutions that have yet to come to fruition, but they trust that employees are cognizant of the company’s need for innovation to remain ahead of the competition, and employees respond by not only delivering top innovations, but remaining loyal to the company with the potential for tons of money should they take their inventions and sell them to the highest  bidder. Their belief is to “be mindful not to be complacent and place innovation in the hands of all employees,” according to Kathy Hennessy, Senior Director of Organizational Effectiveness at NetApp. She believes in placing the trust needed for employees to feel they are collaborating with a company that respects their talents and will provide a long-term commitment to them if they reciprocate this value. Human value connections play an important role at a company such as NetApp because few innovations can entirely be created by individuals. Employees utilize a social network of a variety of employees, many of which are specialists in technical areas, to bring about innovative developments. The corporate culture must not just facilitate, but actively promote, having employees build strong personal relationships with each other.

Dimension 5: Career and Personal Growth

Employees build strong personal connections when they share ambitions for self-improvement, and jointly participate in personal and career improvement practices. The Mayo Clinic expressed an interesting way of thinking about this: “We want people to have multiple careers but all at the Mayo Clinic.”

Another company that actively fosters this is McDonalds. McDonalds has tens of thousands of employees around the globe. To avoid employees feeling stuck in dead-end positions, the company provides countless programs across all functional roles, and both corporate and franchise employees are eligible to participate. Their “Interviews for Development” program schedules interviews as though candidates were proactively seeking open jobs within the business. Throughout this process, “candidates” go through all the motions of a formal job interview and get written and verbal feedback from those involved about how they performed through the interview process, what they would need to develop in order to get the position they sought out, and what steps they would recommend to get there, including giving them resources to achieve this development. Another example of their strong focus on development is their comprehensive executive training program, which provides executives the leadership and business skills to become teachers to their staff. This training program includes outside vendors working with executives to develop mentorship, service and other leadership skills as part of their continued growth and improvement. Talent succession meetings are another example of McDonald’s focus on personal and professional growth. In this initiative, individuals with potential to progress to the next level are given 360-degree calibration in their career. This involves input from multiple colleagues for slate of candidates that are ready to progress to the next level in their careers, and takes place four times per year for very senior people. And their programs are not limited to senior management and executives in the corporate office.

According to Chief People Officer, Steve Russell, “if you need to connect to someone in the org, you just pick up a phone and make the contact.” He was adamant about the open door policy of the company, and as witnessed first-hand, none of the offices have doors, so there’s literally no barrier to connect with upper management.  They stressed how this type of communication is encouraged to promote good flows of ideas and dialog across the business, and the many other programs of this nature are proof that McDonald’s takes a serious commitment in developing their people. One can see that personal and career development programs help build a stronger community and contribute to human value connections.

Organizations placing a strong emphasis in personal development featured events and activities designed to enhance employees lives and create a stronger community. Aflac features sports leagues and fitness facilities. Some organizations hold events or retreats to allow employees to build social relationships with each other. For example, McDonald’s holds semiannual retreats for management.
Another aspect of career development that was frequently mentioned was reward and recognition programs. Several participants indicated that they used these programs to build involvement, excitement and generate internal conversations around the programs. McDonald’s features a Ray Croc Award that goes to the top 1% of restaurant managers. That program features a great deal of excitement and helps foster a sense of community for the managers who are very geographically dispersed. Edward Jones conducts an extensive travel incentive program which features no limit on the number of times an employee can win and up to half of the financial advisors can qualify for some rewards. Since there is no competition among employees for the reward, the program contributes to the sense of community in the organization as employees like to see their peers rewarded. This is particularly valuable for an organization with over 12,000 locations

There are also some examples of virtual events and forums to build relationships among employees. NetApp uses a social networking platform and encourages employees to share information on it to help each other, particularly new hires. Similarly, the Mayo Clinic features a Center for Social Media and a Twitter feed accessible to all employees.

An important aspect of building networks (virtual or otherwise) within organizations is that employees expand the scope of their professional network. From the employees’ perspective, this facilitates career moves within the organization and leads to more career opportunities. In fact McDonald’s maintains an internal networking system so that internal social connectivity contributes to career succession.  A SAS executive observed that it was the employees who did the best at internal networking that got promoted the most quickly. The role of human connections in career progression extends to outside the organization also. Edward Jones, well-known for being one of the nation’s most desired employers, finds that a large portion of its newly hired financial advisors come from referrals from existing advisors.

Dimension 6: Customer Service

Several of the participating organizations repeatedly brought up customer service and the importance of being customer-focused in response to questions about employees.  For example, a SAS executive noted, “Everything we do is with the customer in mind.” and “There is a direct connection between how we treat employees and how it affects our customers.”  Similarly, an Aflac executive pointed out that employees are made to feel that even if they do not have direct contact with customers, everything they do has an impact on customers, and a major emphasis on customer retention.  The Mayo clinic mentioned the importance of the patient-employee connection and the emphasis they place on putting the patient first, even among employees not involved with patients.  In fact, one study participant from the Mayo Clinic observed that “Most employees go the extra mile to serve patients because that’s what defines the organization.” McDonald’s, in its mission statement, identifies the customer experience as the first of its core values.

Overall, we can conclude that a prioritization of customers, customer service and customer experience is a major factor in developing strong human value connections. Quite simply, in order for an organization to be able to deliver on its promise to customers, it must set into action a chain of human interactions whereby the quality of the customer experience is determined by the connectivity among employees and between employees and customers.

Dimension 7: Community Involvement

Several organizations mentioned that their commitment to local municipalities, communities and charities played a big role in fostering strong connections among employees. The Mayo Clinic noted programs in disaster assistance as well as efforts to get employees involved in boosting computer literacy in local communities. McDonald’s includes “giving back to the community” among its core values. NetApp gets employees involved with a philanthropic program and other good causes, many of which originate with employees. Aflac promotes involvement of its employees in local charities. 

Community involvement affects human value connectivity much the same way a shared mission does (dimension one above). When employees cooperate in serving a community or charitable interest, they build social bonds that transfer back to the workplace. Participation in such activities helps employees feel better about themselves, their co-workers and their organization.


In our interviews with some of the nation’s best companies to work at, we have identified the elements that relate to employees being able to build strong personal relationships. Most of out attention has been on what organizations do to make this happen within the organization. In some cases, EdwardJones most prominently, relationship building extends beyond the organization and into client relationships. Our overall message is that for an organization to be a great place to work, there must be a thriving community – one built on the dimensions we have noted here.

The Forum has been advocating a people-first approach to leadership in several of its recent research papers. From what we have uncovered in this best practices study, it is not enough for top management to just think about people as individuals. They must also think about the social communities that are built in the workplace. These human value connections, as we have termed them, are essential aspects of people’s work lives. They must be fostered carefully to contribute to the quality of employees’ lives, and to make an organization a great place to work.