Corporate Cultures

Starting from Scratch

by Ray Knight and Rob Sanders

In our August column, we probed the dilemma of cultural disunity that seems to be pervasive in Native American casinos.  The tribal compacts with casino management operators typically, and understandably, include preferential biases for Indian employees, with the purpose of uplifting tribe members' self-esteem and ability to be productive.  The downside of these conditions, however, is that they inherently create resentment among non-tribal employees. 

Though there are no simple solutions to the dilemma, the authors outlined five important strategic principles that Indian gaming operations can apply to mitigate the cultural schism between the best interests of the tribe and the motivational needs of non-Indian employees: 

1)   Plainly explain to all employees, existing and new ones applying for jobs, that the casino's reason for being is to uplift the tribe and, by extension, if not for this, there wouldn't even be a casino for them to work in. 

2)  Install processes that ensure uniform and consistent application of stated policies, whatever they may be. 

3)  Build a strong casino culture that welds the employees together in a common bond. 

4)  Educate tribal members to understand the Western mentality, to know what makes non-Indians tick. 

5)  Systematically research the attitudes and perceptions of employees to measure understanding and acceptance (or lack of it) of tribal mandates and gauge the overall state of the casino culture. 

The opening of a new tribal casino in North Carolina affords an opportunity to observe these principles in action and construct a case study of the results.  Harrah's Cherokee opened two months ago in the scenic gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains.  Harrah's is in the beginning year of a 5-year management contract with the Cherokee tribe, one of the nation's largest with 11,500 members.  The casino has about 1,000 employees, with approximately 55% of them being tribe members and 45% non-tribal. 

Jerry Egelus, general manager, makes clear upfront that he has no "silver bullet" to deal with the cultural conflict.  However, he is very much aware of it and is taking active steps to address the issue.  "It's an extraordinary circumstance that requires extraordinary measures." 

To begin with, pre-employment screening is careful to spell out realistic expectations, including explanations not only about the nature of tribal preferences but the special conditions of working in a gaming environment (around-the-clock, open on weekends and holidays, high pressure, etc.).  Prospective employees are given a clear understanding of what they'll be getting into.  If they choose to pursue employment with Harrah's Cherokee, they must be mentally prepared to accept the conditions spelled out for them. 

Egelus sensed early-on that two-way communication with employees would be an important power tool in building the culture of the organization.  Six months before the casino opening, he began skip-level meetings with employees every week to keep them abreast of developments and hear what they were thinking and feeling.  From these meetings, he and his executive staff got early warning signals of the potential conflicts. 

After the hubbub of getting the casino open settled down, Egelus launched an in-depth audit of the employees' attitudes and outlooks.  Part of a strategy mapped out even before the opening, this internal research involves focus groups, one-on-one interviews, and a quantitative survey to find out what employees are thinking and how they're feeling about working in the casino (the research was being conducted as this article was written). 

The results will be used to map out strategies and tactics for reversing negative impressions that may be creeping in and building a positive corporate culture.  Exactly how that will be done, Egelus admits he doesn't know yet.  He's keeping an open mind, though.  "I expect that results of the research will have an impact not only on our policies, but very likely on our organizational structure as well." 

Egelus has one distinct advantage in that the Harrah's Cherokee culture is brand new.  It hasn't been around long enough for bad habits and attitudes to take deep root.  The right "extraordinary measures" applied now will help grow the cultural tree straight and tall. 

As he sees it now, Egelus believes two-way communication with employees will be the linchpin of cultural harmony.  Still to be resolved is how to unify tribal and non-tribal employees in a common cause. 

Harrah's has experience in tribal gaming and even has a division dedicated to it.  Harrah's four tribal properties regularly benchmark each other.  However, according to Egelus, the cultural, operational, and political dynamics are very different in each one, so that what may work in one property may not be appropriate for another.  Shared information is useful for background but doesn't necessarily provide off-the-shelf solutions that would apply directly to the Harrah's Cherokee operation. 

Egelus agreed to allow the authors to do a follow-up report in a few months on the cultural progress at Harrah's Cherokee.  Whether or not the follow-up report will reveal a "silver bullet" to remove the cultural dilemma in Indian gaming remains to be seen.  In any case, it's a good opportunity to chronicle a case study on the dilemma from the very beginning.

(This article appeared in the April 1998 issue.)