In previous essays, I’ve attacked some of the country’s biggest corporations for their relentless greed, mistreatment of employees, and disturbing amorality. I think there’s little doubt underemployment, stagnant wages, and a disappearing middle class are largely due to the enormous power too many U.S. corporations wield today. Having said that, it’s important to acknowledge when a company gets it right. When they treat their employees with the dignity and respect they deserve. I worked for one such company. They were a business that implemented a culture of fairness and decency. More notably, they proved a big corporation could treat their employees well, and still be hugely profitable.
In November of 1998, I received a call from the staffing agency I belonged to. They asked me if I wanted to work as a temp for a company called Airtouch Cellular. I would start out in order processing. I said yes. That “yes” changed my life. At the time, I was 31 years old, and had no job, no savings, no plan. It was not a great time to be me.
“They awarded movie tickets and gas cards for motivation. As a comparison, at my last job, I couldn’t even get paper plates or clean drinking water.”
This was my first time working for a big company. I had no idea what to expect from Airtouch. I was just happy I wouldn’t have to wait to cash a paycheck like at my previous job managing a fledgling small business. From my first day, the environment at Airtouch was welcoming and inviting. The trainers were patient. The managers were encouraging. Veterans of the company reached out to the new hires to offer advice and assistance. Though I was a temp, I was never made to feel anything less than a full member of the staff. Even my manager treated me as an equal. I can’t emphasize how rare that is.
In larger companies, the relationship between managers and the staff they manage is often rigid, structured, and contentious. This adversarial relationship usually leads to a culture of hostility and negativity. It’s Us versus Them. Airtouch understood this, and reversed that template. For example, I would have one on one meetings with my manager, and they weren’t to review numbers or to talk about my failings. The questions were of the variety of-Was there something I wanted to talk about? Are you struggling with anything? What can I do to make your job easier? If my manager did need to discuss subpar work performance, I wasn’t threatened with write ups or possible loss of employment.
It wasn’t just the working conditions that made Airtouch special. They also had extraordinary benefits for their employees, including a generous matching 401k program, and stock options. I was able to pursue an MBA without going into debt, because Airtouch gave 100 percent tuition reimbursement. The medical insurance I received was incredible, and practically unheard of today. I barely paid out of pocket for any medical expenses. The company gave employees twenty-five dollar supermarket certificates, and other valuable gift cards for working voluntary overtime. They awarded movie tickets and gas cards for motivation. As a comparison, at my last job, I couldn’t even get paper plates or clean drinking water.
I worked hard for Airtouch, and they recognized, rewarded, and encouraged it. For the first time in my working life, I felt appreciated. I had fun at work, was good at my job, and determined to show the company I deserved permanent hiring. As a result of my commitment they bought out my contract from the temp agency the first chance they got. Then they promoted me. Have I mentioned what a great company this was?
A key part of my appreciation for Airtouch is how they valued all the assets I brought to them as an employee. They engaged my creativity and intellect. For instance, management knew I wrote sketch comedy as a hobby, and asked me to write humorous interoffice announcements for top level executives. I was asked to train new agents for tech support. I was made a supervisor in the call center, and a liaison between the company and the Better Business Bureau. The biggest honor I had was when they asked me to be their Custodian of Records. A huge responsibility. One which had me testifying in court when a wireless expert was requested. The company believed in me, and I made sure I came through for them.
The important lesson I learned working for Airtouch Cellular was this-Airtouch had a choice. They could have had a stricter environment. They could have easily gotten away with reduced benefits or less pay for their employees. Less opportunity for promotions. They could have, but they didn’t. Airtouch didn’t have to be an employee friendly company to work for. They chose to be. In return they got a workforce that was loyal and fiercely dedicated.
Was Airtouch Cellular perfect? Of course not, but they were genuinely good to their employees. There was a core of decency and integrity in their corporate culture. They dared to do what few other companies even want to attempt; sharing success with everyone at all levels of the organization. Not just the top. Unfortunately, Airtouch Cellular was bought out by Verizon in late 1999, and by early 2000 everything good about the company I knew and loved was slowly buried without a proper eulogy. Consider this essay that eulogy. One that long needed to be written.