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Values in the Workplace

Northern Virginia Family Services presented its annual CARE awards.

Northern Virginia Family Services (NVFS), a nonprofit organization based in Oakton, spends most of its time helping out the little guy, working to provide housing, health care access, counseling, financial assistance and more to families in crisis. Once a year, however, NVFS steps into the business world and gives a hand to local companies.

The organization's annual Companies as Responsive Employers (CARE) awards, presented Friday morning at the McLean Hilton, bring attention to employers that provide their workers with family-friendly benefits packages and help employees maintain a balance between work and family life.

About 15 years ago, at the peak of a recession, NVFS saw a spike in family problems such as divorce, parenting issues and depression, most of which, said NVFS President and CEO Mary Agee, was related to job losses or unreasonable work hours.

"We sat back and said, 'Well, what can we do about this?'" she said. So the CARE awards were born. "This is one thing we, as a community-based organization, can do to highlight the importance of having a well-balanced workplace environment," said Agee.

This has become more important, she said, as more and more families have both parents in the work force.

Satisfied workers are also good for business, promoting productivity and employee retention, noted CARE Advisory Committee Chair George Lane III in his opening remarks at the presentation. He said NVFS hopes that if they draw attention to companies that accommodate their employees' needs, other companies will become aware of the need to create positive changes in the workplace.

Seventeen companies applied for the awards, said Lane, and seven were selected as finalists.

IN THE SMALL company category were the Military Officers Association of America, West*Group and Vanguard Research. West*Group won the award, although the company's president, Gerry Halpin, told the audience, "I think the other two companies were as good or better than ours, but so be it."

He did concede that West*Group has "always understood and tried to treat it— that our employees are our greatest asset." He mentioned that employees now have to pay 10 percent of the cost for staying on his family's ranch, since his daughter-in-law calculated they were spending about $169,000 per year hosting employees for free. He also said the company has donated millions of dollars to local causes such as Wolf Trap and Burke Lake, the latter of which he refinanced his house to support.

The recorded video presentation that was played before the presentation of each award also mentioned that West*Group announces surprise days off, holds on-site health fairs, sends employees to educational seminars and offers a comprehensive Employee Assistance Program.

The CNA Corporation, which had been nominated twice before but never won the award, beat out WETA to win the mid-size company category. "We depend greatly on the people we attract," said Robert Murray, the company's president and CEO, adding, "We depend very much on our environment to make them successful." However, he said, NVFS's survey "pointed out many areas where we still have opportunities to excel. And we're in the process of doing that."

The recording said CNA had been nominated for features such as flexibility of hours and holidays, generous vacations and sick leave, an interest-free computer loan program, on-site amenities and overtime pay.

THE COMPETITION in the large company category was tied between Sallie Mae and George Mason University. The two companies total scores differed by only 1.5 percentage points, said Lane. "Selecting a winner just for the sake of selecting a winner would be doing an injustice to both of these companies," he said.

Reasons for nominating Sallie Mae, said the recording, included reimbursement of child adoption expenses, subsidized back-up childcare, paid leave time for employees to volunteer in education initiatives and various on-site conveniences.

George Mason was cited for an employee recognition program, a Flextime and Telework policy, a work life task force and time off for volunteering.

Sallie Mae Vice President of Corporate Communication Tom Joyce and George Mason President Alan Merten each said a few words.

"I've never been so happy to see a tie," said Joyce, "because George Mason is one of our clients."

A Pacesetter award, reserved for companies that face unique challenges, was given to the Military Officers Association of America. Julie Waters, the association's director of human resources, pointed to close involvement with legislators in the capital as one of the "intangible things" that make the company's work environment stimulating.

Inova Health System beat Freddie Mac to the Torchbearer citation. This distinction is given to companies who are not eligible for a CARE award because they received one less than three years ago, but have made strides to improve their workplace in the meantime. Agee said it might be considered the most premier award granted.

Since winning an award in 2003, Inova has added long-term care insurance for the loved ones of employees and concierge services including on-site oil changes, car washes, film developing, laundry and dry cleaning, and massages.

"We're resolved to being a great employer," Ellen Menard, Inova's senior vice president for human resources and organizational development, said of the company's progress. "But, as in all relationships, you're never quite there."