From the Front Lines of Transformation at Recology

Julie Bertani-Kiser, CHRO at Recology, shares lessons from an employee-owned company on the role of engagement and transparency in driving successful strategy implementation.

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You may know Recology as a leader in managing solid waste in the most sustainable way possible. But you may not know about this century-old company’s holistic approach to employee engagement.

Headquartered in San Francisco, Recology is one of the world’s most advanced resource recovery organizations, with more than 40 operating companies along the West Coast in California, Oregon, and Washington. Recology collects recyclables, organics, and garbage from more than 895,000 residential and 116,000 commercial customers in 134 individual communities. 

The Recology mission represents a fundamental shift from traditional waste management to resource recovery. Its vision of “a world without waste” is clearly reflected in its systems and technologies. Recology regularly reports among the highest landfill diversion rates in its industry. The organization also frequently hosts interested parties from across the globe looking for innovative insights into best practices for handling all forms of waste.

In addition to state-of-the-art infrastructure and diversion success, Recology also sets a very high bar for employee engagement, an accomplishment aided in large part by the fact that it is 100% employee-owned. 

“We differentiate ourselves from the Wall Street culture,” said Julie Bertani-Kiser, Senior Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer at Recology. “As a mission-led, employee-owned company, ownership is embedded in our culture. Our employees intimately understand the connection between teamwork and high performance, placing value on sharing in joint successes and building long-term sustainable solutions.” 

Recology started its journey toward employee ownership with the origins of the company in the early 20th century. At that time, garbage was collected in San Francisco by “scavengers,” or individual collectors—primarily immigrants—who made a living by collecting refuse and reselling or repurposing anything salvageable. 

By the 1920s, there were nearly 100 of these scavengers operating in San Francisco, collecting refuse with horse and cart. Eventually, the scavengers joined forces, forming two distinct companies. Those two companies would eventually merge in the mid-1980s to form a single company, which would ultimately become known as Recology.

In 1986, the company decided to formally bring employees in as owners through an Employee Stock Ownership Plan. That decision established Recology as one of the top 20 largest 100% employee-owned companies in the United States.

Bertani-Kiser noted that employee ownership alone does not translate to higher engagement. For example, leaving employee owners out of high-level strategic planning can cause engagement problems, as Recology found out from firsthand experience.

Recology typically relies on a robust strategic plan to drive business practices and acquisitions, she said. The first of these plans was crafted about 10 years ago using a third-party consultant. When the first strategic plan was unveiled, however, the executive team realized almost immediately there were problems.

“It didn’t go over well,” Bertani-Kiser said. “The consultant didn’t fully understand our business, and as a result, the plan did not resonate with our employees. We realized then and there we had to do things differently.”

In the second and third iterations of the strategic plan, Recology employee owners were directly involved from inception to planning and implementation. “We involved about 50 managers and staff to craft the second strategic plan,” she explained. “The team worked hand-in-hand with Recology leadership, providing direct guidance on the major areas of focus.”

Recology repeated this process in the most recent strategic plan, and it has now become part of the culture of the organization. Over 90 employee owners shared their experience, knowledge, and creativity to create Strategic Plan: 2019-2023. Over the next five years, an implementation team of more than 50 employee owners are charged with ensuring that the company lives up to the expectations outlined in the plan. “The current strategic plan is an ongoing, collaborative effort that epitomizes the company’s zero waste philosophy and employee-ownership culture,” Bertani-Kiser added.

But even this inclusive process is not enough to ensure high levels of engagement, Bertani-Kiser said. To measure the success of, and support for, the strategic plan, the company conducts an annual culture survey. This very brief questionnaire asks only four questions: whether the employee would encourage other people to join Recology; if he or she values employee ownership; if the employee feels confident the company is diverse and inclusive; and whether the employee feels appreciated for his or her contributions. 

Bertani-Kiser admitted the Recology survey may seem short compared to other engagement surveys, but the company’s experience has been that it gets to the heart of what’s important. And a shorter questionnaire is simply a better fit for a company that has a lot of employees working in the field rather than in an office.

To foster a high response rate for this questionnaire, Recology provided mobile resources like iPads and laptop computers for field employees to use to complete the survey. 

“Many of our employees are not at a desk with a computer and access to email. They spend their days in trucks or along the sorting line at a recycling or organics facility. It makes communication more challenging. We prioritize meeting our employees where they are to ensure feedback is representative and comprehensive.”

Bertani-Kiser said the lessons the company learned through the development of its strategic plans can be applied by other companies as well.

“This iterative process is valuable insight for any company,” she said. “It comes naturally for an employee-owned company like Recology to include employee owners throughout the process because that’s our culture. However, if you consider effective strategies for employee engagement, I think you’ll find similar indications across the board. Employees have a desire to provide input on organizational direction and are more engaged when they play an active role in the decision-making process.”
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