Playing for keeps: How one company is tackling talent retention

Dasher executives Sharon Ryan and Cynthia Tolsma spent years observing the workforce at Harrisburg-based Dasher Inc.

“Though we consistently pay higher wages and offer comprehensive benefits to low-wage, economically fragile employees, we have concluded that doing so does not measurably improve employee retention, or drastically improve quality of life” said Ryan.

The company, which untangles complex information on behalf of its clients, needed to rely on its problem-solving skills to make those improvements.

Sharon Ryan, left, and Cynthia Tolsma are co-authors of the book, “The Talent Pool.” In the book, the two executives at Dasher Inc. in Lower Paxton Township offer a model for how to attract and retain employees. PHOTO/MARKELL DELOATCH
Sharon Ryan, left, and Cynthia Tolsma are co-authors of the book, “The Talent Pool.” In the book, the two executives at Dasher Inc. in Lower Paxton Township offer a model for how to attract and retain employees. PHOTO/MARKELL DELOATCH –

After searching in vain for a proven system, the Dasher management team developed its own model, the details of which can be found in a new book, “The Talent Pool,” by Sharon Ryan, Dasher’s CEO, and Cynthia Tolsma, its chief culture and engagement officer.

Identifying the issue

Based in Lower Paxton Township, Dasher partners with insurers and other organizations that serve people on Medicaid in areas such as enrollment, patient care and claims processing, according to its website. Clients range from global companies, to small businesses and nonprofits.

“Anyone who wants to send a message reliably and effectively is a potential client for Dasher,” said Ryan.

Ryan and Tolsma noticed many of their teammates were dealing with serious life challenges rooted in economic fragility. Recognizing that reality was the first step toward arriving at a solution for retaining those employees and growing their skills.

Communicating is a huge part of what Dasher does, so mapping out routes for employee success was a bit of a no-brainer.

“In the book, we describe our own path and the steps we took to help economically fragile people become economically stable,” said Ryan, noting that economically fragile people seek to maintain their dignity by trying to conceal the serious problems they are having, which can ultimately cause them to lose their jobs. “Through observation and conversation, we learned more about the impacts of having no safety net and the stress of managing daily crises.

“We learned that we had to go slowly, tread lightly and go much broader and deeper in providing support for this talented group of people if we were going to help them actually achieve their goals and be successful,” said Ryan.

In the end, Dasher addressed personal financial wellness, along with the health and well-being of each employee. But it was not mandatory.

“We don’t force anything on people. Changing life behaviors is difficult and each person has the freedom to engage with what’s being offered at their own pace, or opt not to participate,” said Ryan.

Another important part of the solution is to avoid being patronizing, according to Ryan.

“In our experience, low-wage, economically fragile people are very aware of the precarious existence that they have and mostly consider it undignified. That is why the idea of maintaining the individual’s dignity and pride flows through everything we do,” Ryan said.

How it works

The “Team Member Prosperity and Success Model” described in the book has helped Dasher, with a staff of 60, increase productivity and reduce turnover, while at the same time put economically fragile workers on the path to economic stability.

Part of the model goes beyond traditional benefits of health, disability, vision, dental insurance, 401(k)) paid time off. According to Ryan, Dasher pays a substantial portion of employee benefits so that workers can afford to opt for insurance coverage. “Offering health insurance in ways that make it easier to use and have access to benefits for those working at least 24 hours a week gives us an advantage in attracting and retaining workers,” said Ryan.

Financial wellness is also a part of Dasher’s model and includes a free wellness tool called SmartDollar and a starter emergency fund. Employees are incentivized to save $1,000, with $400 coming from Dasher.

“In order to save $600 a year and earn matching deposits from Dasher, it takes $12.50 a week deposited from an employee’s paycheck,” said Ryan.

Dasher has also instituted a “Gotcha” program in which employees accumulate points that they can turn in for cash. Co-workers can nominate a co-worker for a Gotcha award when they see someone performing acts of kindness, like helping a colleague.

Dasher also offers employees a daily routine for inspiring happiness and reducing stress. Dasher’s wellness practice offers four components: meditation, movement, thinking of others and writing in a gratitude journal.

Nontraditional benefits gain steam

Tim Fatzinger, president and CEO of the United Way of the Capital Region, said that offering non-traditional benefits is wise in an era where workers are sometimes hard to come by. His organization implemented a workforce development program two years ago.

“Twelve employers are currently part of the program and we are looking to expand that,” said Fatzinger, adding that an integral part of the program is building financial literacy with a long-term goal of self-sufficiency. The United Way might help by providing necessities such as transportation to a worksite by working with partners such as the Center for Community Building, which can facilitate access to public transit and ride-sharing services.

Kristen Rotz, president of the United Way of Pennsylvania, said that the United Way as a whole is becoming more involved in helping people in the community take care of essentials that might otherwise be a barrier to work, like child care and transportation.

“There are opportunities to innovate and get more people into family-sustaining jobs,” she said, indicating that now is as good a time as any to be thinking outside of the box. Unemployment is at historic lows and companies are hunting high and low for workers,

Real-world results

Since implementing its model, Dasher has seen higher employee retention rates.

“We retain more than 90 percent of our workforce in a very competitive market,” said Ryan.

Dasher also benefits from its focus on a socially responsible workplace, she added.

“We believe that every human being is of equal value and deserves to be heard,” Ryan said. “What’s more, we know that creating a company culture based on these principles leads to economic success, for both the business and its employees.”