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4th Annual Compassionate Employers Awards

Treating employees like gold can create a rich, harmonious workplace environment

Story by Lee Reinsch

November 2017

The discovery that employees are human isn’t one that should take an anthropologist.

While they perform a particular function while at work, they leave for the day and head home. They have children, they have parents, and they have other interests which occupy their free time. They get sick, they get injured, and occasionally they face unexpected adversities.

So a little understanding of the trials and tribulations employees endure can go a long way. Just ask the employers selected for this year’s 4th Annual Compassionate Employer Awards, presented by Kaukauna-based Community Benefit Tree and New North B2B magazine.

“Providing or creating an atmosphere that’s enjoyable and where people know they’re appreciated and valued is just going to turn around and perpetuate that down the line with the customers,” said Doug Dobbe, owner of Strategies, Ltd. of Appleton.

Strategies, along with G&G Machine of Kaukauna, share the spotlight on compassion in the workplace among northeast Wisconsin companies in our 2017 Compassionate Employer Awards. Here’s why.

Late in 2014, Dan Schwalenberg realized that something felt ‘off.’ The formerly capable 49-year-old single father found that he had to drag himself through the day. Extreme tiredness took over his life.

“I didn’t feel like myself,” he said. “It started with fatigue. I was having to push myself to get through the day.”

Depression, anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia and brain fog made their home inside Schwalenberg’s body.

“My cognitive functioning was slowing down. It was harder to process information, like a slow computer,” he said. “It may sound strange, but that was my reality.”

Over the course of 2015, his health plummeted. He had to step away from his job in purchasing and scheduling at G&G Machine in Kaukauna.

“My body shut down. I wasn’t capable of much of anything, besides eating and lying in bed or on the couch. I had very limited functionality physically and mentally,” he said.

At the height of his condition, he reduced his life to his dark house, with multiple layers of sheeting over the windows to block the sun. He’d become sensitive to light, touch and noise, and he couldn’t tolerate stimuli of any kind, not even books, radio or TV.  He barely had enough zip to check in with his dad for five minutes a day on the phone.

“I knew I was getting sicker every day, and the doctors had no idea what it was,” Schwalenberg said.

Specialists eventually diagnosed him with Lyme disease, but finding the right treatment took many months after that.

Schwalenberg said G&G Machine has been extremely supportive throughout his illness and recovery, even continuing his health insurance for nine months.

“I would call G&G when I felt I could handle a 20-minute conversation to let them know where I was at,” Schwalenberg said. “Every time we talked, they were like ‘We miss you. You play a large role here. We’re waiting for you to come back.’ That in itself was tremendous support. It helped me to stay together and keep moving forward because I didn’t know if I’d survive this disease.”

G&G President Mark Stumpf has known Schwalenberg for years. “He’s a good employee and a good person,” Stumpf said. But he added that he’d be flexible with any employee who needed it.

“When you find a good employee, you don’t want to lose him,” Stumpf said.

Schwalenberg’s work hiatus lasted nearly two years. Without an income, bills mounted. That’s when his father went to Kaukauna-based Community Benefit Tree. They organized a benefit fundraiser, and ultimately friends, family and coworkers helped raise almost $50,000.

Schwalenberg says he’s getting stronger every day. After 23½ months off from work, he went back to the office part-time in late September. G&G Machine allows him to work when he’s strong enough and to stay home when he’s not.

“My employer has been there every step of the way,” he said.

A tree of hope

G&G played a big role in Schwalenberg’s celebration of support, the name for the benefits organized by Community Benefit Tree.

“We call them celebration of support because they’re celebrating that person’s life and that family support,” said Community Benefit Tree founder and executive director Heidi Frederickson. “Community Benefit Tree helps family supporters organize those fundraisers and support the family financially and emotionally when they’re going through a medical crisis.”

She said the agency helps the family organize a team of supporters who do the fundraising.

“We teach them how,” Frederickson said. “There’s a wide variety of tools we empower the family’s supporters with to be able to have a successful event, raise more funds, and be a huge financial support for the family.”

Frederickson and her volunteers work with fund initiators on various aspects of staging a celebration of support benefit, such as the family’s website, providing avenues to donate funds online, social media and graphic design.

“We take care of all the bookkeeping, the raffle license and the tax-exempt status,” she said. Frederickson called Community Benefit Tree a nonprofit medical crisis support center.

“We help with the emotional, spiritual resources,” she said. “We’re a resource connector, and we educate.”

Providing comfort from pain

Strategies, Ltd. employee Heather Flanders lives with chronic back and neck pain. There are times the pain is so bad that she leaves work in tears, according to her coworker, Scott Jupp, who nominated their employer for the 2017 Compassionate Employer Award.

Leaving work has been alright with her employers, Doug and Renae Dobbe. They grant her all the leeway she needs with her schedule. Flanders said it makes her life much less stressful.

“We’ve always been very flexible, letting her work when she can work,” Doug Dobbe said.

They provided her with a standing desk so she wouldn’t have to sit all of the time, easing some of her back and neck pain. They allow her to work from home and come and go as she’s able. They don’t frown when she leaves early due to her pain.

“We’ve been proactive, and it was something we would normally do for any of our employees,” Renae Dobbe said.

Many of Flanders’ work duties providing sales support can be done remotely, and she gets them done, her bosses said.

“It’s not uncommon to get emails from her late at night. She might be feeling good and she will shoot an email off to a supplier, inquiring about a project, and when we come in in the morning, things are moving along,” Doug Dobbe said. “She’s very conscientious and just one of those employees you can give a little more flexibility to and know that things are going to work out.”

Jupp, who serves as the sales manager at Strategies, said accommodating their employees is in the Dobbes’ nature.

“That’s just the way they’re wired,” Jupp said. “The Dobbes are genuine people. The flexibility they’ve granted Heather is not very common for an employer.”

Jupp has been on the receiving end of his bosses’ generosity himself. He and his wife are in the process of adopting a boy from western Africa. It’s not inexpensive. So the Jupps decided to hold their own fundraiser – featuring a cookout, auction and raffle – to help pay for the various legal and agency fees.

Jupp thought the professional-looking tent and serving center setup that Strategies uses for its own promotional events would be a nice touch, so he asked if he might borrow it.

“I said we want to do some pulled pork sandwiches,” Jupp said. “(Doug) said, ‘I’ll do one better – I’ll smoke the meat and we’ll come cook while you do your event.’”

One of Doug Dobbe’s hobbies happens to be Southern barbecuing. He even has a portable meat smoker.

“They came to our event and served all our friends and family that day,” Jupp said, indicating the event helped to raise $10,000. “That was pretty humbling.”

Not just a team

Doug Dobbe said they refer to their employees as the Strategies family.

“Renae and I have really worked hard to try and make the atmosphere here one that people enjoy coming to, whether you’re an employee of ours, a customer of ours, or a supplier,” he said. “We want the facility to be nice, but we also want our people to be nice. There’s enough crabby people in the world.”

He said often the chemistry of players on a championship sports team is just as important as talent, and the team at Strategies has chemistry.

“Renae and I are big believers in the Golden Rule – you treat people the way you would like to be treated,” he said. “It doesn’t always come back, but for the most part, if you do the right things consistently, really good things will happen.”

His business case for compassion goes further.

“If you take care of your people, they’ll in turn take care of your customers, and when you take care of your customer, really good things happen,” Doug Dobbe said. “People come back because of your consistency. They find you’re fun to do business with.”