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Workers' happiness rubs off on customers, earnings

| Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

In the past five years, the financial industry has taken a drubbing.

Plunging profits, allegations of improper behavior, customer backlash against rising fees and layoffs have challenged the industry.

But various sources list one bank as a best place to work, and its practices may provide a blueprint to other companies on how to keep workers engaged even during tough times.

Umpqua Bank, based in Roseburg, Ore., has earned accolades not only for its profitability and business practices, but also for its community commitment and employee loyalty.

It has $12 billion in assets and reported $101.2 million in net earnings last year, an increase of almost 37 percent from 2011.

“We hang our hat on our culture,” says Michelle Van Allen, head of training for Umpqua. “We've been very honest and transparent with the public and with our employees when we've faced challenges. We make sure we keep our people looking forward to the future.”

One of the biggest incentives for employees isn't the pay, but the volunteer service program that pays full-time workers for 40 hours of community service and part-time workers for 20 hours of service, says Eve Callahan, senior vice president of the bank's Connect Volunteer Network. Last year, 2,175 bank employees volunteered 46,730 hours to 1,757 organizations in four states.

Many of the entries in the bank's database of 3,000 nonprofits come from Umpqua employees who add charities that appeal to their interests, Van Allen says.

“The whole thing has just taken on a life of its own,” and employees say the volunteer service is the employee benefit they value the most, she says.

“We have a 93 percent participation rate in our volunteer program,” she says, noting that's about triple the national average for other employer-supported service activities.

Barbara Baker, executive vice president in charge of cultural enhancement, says the bank shows its commitment to the towns where it has branches through its community service, and that helps deepen the commitment of employees to their employer.

Another key for Umpqua that other organizations can learn from is the bank's consistent commitment to recruiting, training and retaining workers who are willing and able to live the company culture, Baker says.

“Some people may think we're corny, but we think it's a fun environment,” she says. Fortune gave the company kudos for its morning games and motivation huddles.

Applicants are not only screened for skills and cultural fit, but they must get “four thumbs up” from four Umpqua employees in various departments and at different levels, Baker says.

“We have very defined questions to find out if the person is a good fit,” Van Allen says. “It's not just a guess on someone's part. We're very specific.”

Beyond that, Baker says she also looks at “job satisfiers” as potential employees. When she asks an applicant for a teller position what that person most likes doing in a job, Baker says she's looking for answers such as “helping solve problems” or “helping other people.”

“If they give those kinds of answers, then I go ‘Bingo!' I know that's exactly what we're looking for in that position,” she says.

Once hired, employees receive continual career development opportunities, which workplace experts often cite as a key way to engage and retain talent.

“In our annual review, the biggest discussion is about advancement,” Baker says. “We're asking them, ‘Where are you going?' ”

The commitment to careful screening of applicants and the career development opportunities that help retain workers are “why we say that Umpqua is hard to get into and hard to get out of,” Baker says.

Twitter: @AnitaBruzzese

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