Corporate Cultures

Two-Way Communication

by Ray Knight and Rob Sanders

Communication.  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.  These include:

  • 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.”
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.

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 harmony.

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.)