Journey from ‘Sweat-Shop Mentality’ to Best Place to Work

Tony Bridwell doesn’t sugarcoat the previous state of Ryan LLC’s workplace.

“Our culture in the very beginning was very financially motivated, and it led to a sweat-shop mentality,” the tax services firm’s chief people officer said this week during Human Capital Institute’s Employee Engagement Conference in Denver. “You were publicly shamed if you didn’t work 10 hours on a Saturday. It was very heavy hours; we were focused on how many hours we put in. It was crazy high turnover and super low engagement.”

It was when one high-potential leader came into the CEO’s office, quit and said she had had enough that things started to change at the company, which has roughly 2,800 employees worldwide.

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“He was stunned,” Bridwell recalled. “When he asked her why, she laid it out, saying [it was the drain of working] 16 hours a day, seven days a week and even when I’m home I’m still working. She said, ‘I’ve come to realize there’s more to life than work.’

“It was one of those moments that everything clicked, and [the CEO] said, ‘I want to fix this, and I want you to help me get it right.”

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She did, and the two worked together on evolving thinking and workplace culture. Gone was a focus solely on number of hours worked. In its place was a clear purpose and mission for the company, as well as a focus on employee wellbeing, flexibility and work-life balance.

“We went from focusing on hours and output to actually looking at output as related to results,” said Bridwell, explaining that the company rolled out a program that allows employees to have flexibility to let them work when and where they need to, as long as they get their jobs done. At the same time, the company began to create a culture “in which we actually care about each other.”

To that end, the company has a “Ryan Shares Day” when the company volunteers at a certain cause one day during the year.

“We give all year long, but one day the whole globe comes together and we lean into one cause, and our cause is to fight food insecurity around the world. Fifty-four of our 70 offices were able to participate, nearly 4,000 hours were contributed, and we helped feed 251,000 people in one single day.

“That’s what happens when you lean into who you really are from a value standpoint and show you care,” Bridwell said.

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And the company continues to add on benefits in an effort to improve employees’ work-life balance and to increase engagement. Just last month, Ryan closed the office and shut down email for one week to give employees an “emotional well-being” summer break.

“It was something so bold, so outrageous, that it quite frankly freaked me out,” he said. “People were freaked out, too. They thought the world would stop spinning because they weren’t getting their email.”

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But the break was a hit and made a big difference in employees’ mental health, he said.

Overall, what’s been the result of the efforts to transform the culture over the last decade? A number of Best Place to Work accolades from Fortune, the Dallas Morning News, Glassdoor and others, and high engagement and satisfaction from employees.

“Wellbeing is awesome, but if your culture is wobbly, you’ll screw it up,” he said. “You’ve got to have a solid foundation if you’re going to lean into something as important as this.”

RELATED: HRE‘s Health and Benefits Leadership Conference will take place in April in Las Vegas.

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Kathryn Mayer
Kathryn Mayer is HRE’s former benefits editor and chair of the Health & Benefits Leadership Conference. She has covered benefits for the better part of a decade, and her stories have won multiple awards, including a Jesse H. Neal Award and honors from the American Society of Business Publication Editors and the National Federation of Press Women. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Denver.