by Ray Knight and Rob Sanders
Constant two-way communication. That’s the cornerstone of Jerry Egelus’
strategic plan to build a unified corporate culture at Harrah’s Cherokee.
He applies numerous tactics and resources to keep management and employees
connected and in touch.
When we wrote about Harrah’s Cherokee over a year ago, Egelus was in
the formative stage
of mapping out his cultural development strategies. Harrah’s
had just begun a five-year relationship
to manage the tribal property nestled in the scenic Smoky Mountains
of North Carolina.
He was essentially starting with a clean slate. Of the 1,000 employees
in the casino, only a fourth of them had prior gaming experience (on a
tribal property that existed before Harrah’s took over). Barely a
handful of the employees – about 30 – were imported from other gaming areas,
and many of them came from emerging market environments. It was as
close to a clean start, unhampered by prior bias, that is likely to be
found in the gaming business.
Egelus deduced early on that communication was the glue that would bond
the culture. He launched an aggressive and comprehensive multi-tiered
system of internal communication to keep employees informed and to get
continual feedback from them.
In the past year, Harrah’s Cherokee has installed numerous conduits
to connect management and employees – and employees with each other.
In all communications, customer service is a continuous thread. Much
time is spent on relaying to employees what customers are saying about
their experience at the casino, good and bad. This is a keystone
of the Harrah’s heritage.
Pre-employment screening to describe clearly to prospective employees the
special demands of the casino environment (odd hours, working on holidays,
constant pressure, etc.) and the preferential treatment, by compact, of
tribal members in hiring and promotions.
Dedicated manager for internal communication issues, assisted by a graphic
artist and part-time help from one of the public relations executives.
Skip-level “buzz” meetings between Jerry and small groups of employees
to create a constant dialog between the various levels of the organization
from top to bottom. Senior-level staff also conduct similar meetings with
front line employees and supervisors.
Weekly lunch-with-the-boss meetings – three weekly sessions between Egelus
and separate groups of frontline employees, supervisors, and managers.
Other senior executives conduct similar meetings.
Open “rap” sessions that all employees are invited to attend and comment
or ask any question, no holds barred, of Egelus and others on the senior
management team. Meetings are held in the Kudzu Café, the
employee dining room.
Closed circuit television system in the Kudzu Café that displays
messages about marketing information, promotions, outstanding “Shining
Star” employee accomplishments, customer research results, and other news
about activities and events at the property.
Communication Central departmental bulletin board system with specific
boards for specific topics, e.g., the Hero Board detailing activities in
an “outreach” program that encourages employee involvement in community
service volunteerism and charitable projects. Another board called
“ViewPoints” serves as an open-display suggestion box; management responds
to each suggestion with postings on the board.
Bi-weekly meetings of the Cherokee Leadership Team of upper management
team to address communication and cultural issues.
Quarterly Leadership Team update meetings to review directions and results
of the group’s projects.
Bi-monthly all-employee “pep rallies”themed with a specific focal point
principle of the culture and give employees a frame of reference, a business
context to understand the focus on the fundamentals of success in gaming.
One recent theme was “Policies and Procedures – why we have them, what
they are, how we fulfill them.”
But what of that worrisome issue of the built-in bias afforded to members
of the tribe? The resentment it stirs in non-tribal members has dogged
virtually every tribal gaming operation we have been exposed to.
No one seems to have found the magic answer to dealing with it.
Egelus doesn’t claim to have found the silver bullet, but he believes
it is less of problem at Harrah’s Cherokee than most places. He has
tried to establish equitable employment practices and prove fairness through
action. Non-tribal employees may not like the preferential treatment
for Cherokee Indians, but they know the rules are administered fairly.
Harrah’s emphasis (at all their properties) on treating people with respect
and seeking mutually agreeable solutions on issues adds to the relative
Egelus is quick to give credit to the tribe itself, both the gaming
commission and the tribal council. They have been very supportive,
he says, contributing to a trusting, non-adversarial relationship that
promotes cross-cultural understanding and minimizes conflicts. That’s
a luxury often denied other tribal casino operators.
(This article appeared in the April 1999 issue.)