After a COVID hiatus in 2020, the ETHIE Awards program returned in 2021 with four recipients—ESL, Excellus, ITX and the Regional Transit Service. Elevate Rochester (formerly the Rochester Area Business Ethics Foundation), produces the award program each year, providing the award criteria, application, judging and celebration of recipients. Each member of the ETHIE Award Class of 2021 brings their own approach to corporate culture and upholding high ethical standards. Elevate Rochester held the ETHIE Award celebration virtually on Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021.
ESL lives its values by literally sharing growth with community
Three years ago, an ESL relationship banker helped a distraught member whose wife had just passed away. He said his wife had always taken care of everything, even the plants. He didn’t know where to begin. The banker told him, “You’ve come to the right place. I not only can help you with your financial questions, but bring me a clipping of your wife’s plant and I will have it here in case it doesn’t make it at home.” The banker helped the member through a truly difficult time, and kept his wife’s favorite plant alive and well … just in case.
Since then, every time someone asks about the plant, the banker recounts the story and offers them a clipping. To date, she has given out 38 clippings from the plant. Recently, the member returned to the branch to visit the banker, saying, “I’m not sure if you remember me, but I brought you a clipping of my wife’s plant. It looks like that one right over there.”
She responded with, “Of course I remember you. In fact, that IS your wife’s plant!” The banker proceeded to tell the member the story of all the people who have received clippings from his wife’s plant. He was so happy that he started to cry. He said he knew his wife was happy, too, knowing her favorite plant was being spread with such love.
What kind of corporate culture produces such compassionate bank officers? In this case, it’s one that emphasizes core values, rewards ethical behaviors and demonstrates extraordinary commitment to the community it serves.
ESL Federal Credit Union is a full-service financial institution serving more than 384,000 members and 13,300 businesses. More than a century old, ESL employs more than 870 in greater Rochester, and holds more than $9 billion in assets. The bank’s standing in the community, and among its employees, is ample evidence of a years-long effort to support a solidly ethical corporate culture.
ESL has set expectations for all employees to embrace five Core Values—Caring About People, Accountability, Teamwork, Integrity and Initiative—which were set forth by employees through a series of internal focus groups and surveys.
As a regulated financial institution, ESL is bound to the compliance standards of its governing body and deposit insurer, the National Credit Union Administration. But even beyond those industry standards, ESL has established a superb corporate culture and a sterling reputation in the community.
The company has established a number of channels to recognize employees who exemplify ESL’s Core Values. The Values in Practice Award is a monthly recognition that garners each winner a breakfast with the CEO. Departmental Honors recognize excellence in job performance, while On-the-Spot Rewards enable managers to give small tokens of thanks to awardees. ESL Honors top the ESL recognition pyramid. They are used to recognize about a dozen employees each year who excel in their position, have made a significant contribution to ESL and demonstrate excellence, service and/or leadership.
Job satisfaction at ESL is high. In a recent survey, about 93% of employees agreed with positive statements about the company’s mission, vision and values, with a 75% employee response rate. In addition, semi-annual, all-employee forums enable everyone to learn about how the organization is performing, meet new colleagues and share how employees are putting the ESL Core Values into practice.
ESL’s commitment to the community is impressive. The bank paid out more than $25 million in grants throughout the Greater Rochester community in 2021, which is just part of the more than $65 million total since 2018. Housing is a particular focus of ESL’s efforts, including help for down payments, rent assistance and foreclosure prevention.
ESL’s leaders credit the organization’s culture for enabling the bank’s remarkable growth over the years. Just like a treasured plant that is cared for, clipped and shared, when growth has a purpose, it thrives and can benefit an entire community.
Excellus challenges employees to serve with compassion, openness, honesty
Peggy Crist is a customer care advocate for Excellus BlueCross BlueShield. Each time she answers her phone, she never knows what to expect, but her mission is unwavering—to help members of the health plan to navigate the health care system. Some days, her work is more involving, more personal.
“I received a call from a member who had recently been diagnosed with a chronic condition,” Crist remembered. “She needed to see how much her treatments and medicines were going to cost. She was scared. I was the first person she told about her diagnosis. We talked about her life and her family. We cried together. Then I looked into her medications.” Crist paused.
“With much relief to both of us, they were all covered with minimal costs. She thanked me for ‘being her angel’ that day. I still think about her,” Crist recalled.
A division of The Lifetime Healthcare Companies, Excellus BlueCross BlueShield is a nonprofit health plan with 1.5 million upstate New York members, with a mission to help people live healthier and more secure lives through access to high-quality, affordable health care. The organization’s more than 4,000 employees benefit from Excellus BCBS’ expression of its organizational culture, The Lifetime Way. It’s a commitment that’s well ingrained, thanks to the continual implementation of its 7-Block Strategy, which aims to:
• Engage our workforce
• Exceed stakeholder expectations
• Focus & finish
• Drive affordability
• Improve member and community health
• Grow profitably
• Advance provider partnerships
Using those seven strategic points, Excellus BCBS helps employees to reach operational success, and rewards those who demonstrate initiative, innovation and excellence. In fact, every employee is rated through related performance appraisal system competencies.
To recognize and reinforce its corporate values and behaviors, Excellus BCBS employees like to begin meetings with a Lifetime Way Minute. Employees are also encouraged to recognize each other when they observe co-workers exhibiting the Lifetime Way values and behaviors of passionately serving our customers, challenging and empowering each other to deliver excellence, embracing and driving change, caring about each other, being proud of what we do, having open and honest conversations, and having fun.
Each year, Excellus BCBS measures progress through an Ethical Culture Survey, which assesses employee perceptions of their culture. The Excellus BCBS Ethics Office reviews and analyzes results to plan initiatives to further improve their culture. Managers attribute the consistently strong results from the survey to continual cultivation of The Lifetime Way, along with training, education and communication.
In the end analysis, all of Excellus BCBS’ efforts toward improving its culture is to continually advance the member experience. “Passionately serving our members is part of our customer care organization’s DNA,” said Alex Levi, vice president Customer Care for Excellus BlueCross BlueShield. “We aim to provide an experience for our members that is low effort, worry free and full of compassion. Our members have a significant impact on our advocates as they help navigate the health care system, often in very challenging circumstances.”
Employees such as Peggy Crist are definitely up to that challenge.
Software developer ITX pursues perfection, settles for Mastery
At ITX, adherence to a values-driven culture paves the roadmap for success. One of the company’s values, Mastery, asks team members to embrace imperfection. As ITX President Fred Beer explains, “We pursue Mastery, recognizing that we may never truly attain it. It’s the best way to learn and improve.”
“Everything we do, every decision we make, is grounded in our values,” Beer stated. “We examine problems and solutions as being workable, rather than right or wrong. Approaching it that way allows you to have conversations when things aren’t working. We are human beings, so we make mistakes, and saying that up front creates the opportunity for people to raise up when things aren’t going right, because that’s what you have to do to live your values. You can’t fool yourself into saying that they’re always being lived, because they are not.” That attitude, Beer asserts, is the basis of honest conversation, discovery, and lasting improvement.
Founded in 1997, ITX helps mid- to large-size companies solve complex business challenges through custom software development. Headquartered in Rochester, ITX also has a globally distributed workforce of 250+ product professionals and technologists who design, develop, and support websites, mobile apps, web portals, and application programming interfaces (APIs) among their full complement of service offerings.
By “applying time-tested methodologies to help our clients build trust, loyalty, and advocacy with their customers,” the company says, “ITX connects our community by shaping the future of the digital landscape.”
Beer cited an example from company history that involved a botched project estimate. “A number of years ago,” he recalled, “a sales rep put together a quote that left out a chunk of the estimate, then presented it to the customer, and got the customer’s signature on it. When we realized there was a piece missing, our attitude was, we treat this as a team. Our sales rep made a mistake, but that person represents the company, so we all made a mistake,” he recalled. “If anyone has made a promise, we’ve all made a promise, and so we’re all accountable to that promise.”
Today, both the sales rep and the client are still with ITX.
The company is no stranger to longevity. With an average employee retention rate of 5.1 years, ITX clearly is a leader in keeping people engaged. The tech-industry average stands at 3.0 years.
The framework of ITX’s ethical culture is defined by the company’s two related sets of guidelines:
• 5 Values—the last of which is, We thrive together, not only as a team but in partnership with our clients; and
• 5 Ways We Deliver Value—Clarity of Vision and Path, Steady Diet of Done, Stewards of Client Resources, A Smooth Journey and Pride.
The company invites its team members to begin living the lists of 5 during a two-day onboarding seminar, Life@ITX, which is led largely by their two top executives. Their involvement underlines the importance of the culture and its tenets.
Not only does ITX foster a highly ethical culture, they put everything on a permanent record. The ITX Yearbook annually chronicles client work, along with showing how team members have lived the company’s values through delivery of client value. It’s 150 pages of stories that illustrate client challenges and the ways that ITX teams confronted and solved them.
ITX’s 250+ team members may be scattered internationally, but they remain united by the strong values that are emphasized and practiced in so many ways. ITX has garnered resulting recognitions—earning Rochester Top Workplace recognitions in 2019 and 2020.
Assembling team members who fit the plan is not done by chance. “We actively look for people who match our culture,” Beer explained. “Before we extend an offer, we have a commitment conversation, with the candidate in which we share what we expect from the candidate, and what they can expect from ITX. It’s all about our values and how we live them, and we ask people to commit to that. More often than not, people say, ‘Yes, that’s where I want to be.’”
RTS puts integrity, respect, performance at the front of the bus
On a warm morning in June 2021, RTS bus operator Larry Logan arrived at a Wayne County customer’s home for a regular run to a dialysis appointment. The customer didn’t appear to be waiting, but just as Logan was considering his options, he became concerned. Something at the front door of the apartment building didn’t look right, so he left the driver’s seat to investigate. As he got closer to the door, he saw that the customer, who lives in the upstairs apartment, was severely ill and had crawled down the stairs in an effort to get the bus operator’s attention and medical help.
Logan immediately called for assistance. As he waited with the customer, her landlord arrived, and an ambulance soon followed. This was an extraordinary day for Logan, but it wasn’t a unique one. It was the third time in his driving career that he had been in the right place, at the right time, and in each instance he lived the guidelines of the RTS Way—to assist a customer in need.
As the public transportation provider for an eight-county area, Regional Transit Service (RTS) employs more than 900, and serves in excess of 15 million customers each year. To keep their team members engaged and delivering excellent service, RTS has built a strong culture of ethics and accountability. The RTS Way is one of the methods they use to guide employee behavior.
While six specific values serve as the backbone of the company’s culture, The RTS Way identifies 17 specific behaviors that are connected to those values. In the case of Larry, going about his routine on a spring morning, a number of those values apply, such as:
• Integrity—Take pride in your work and be accountable
• Respect—Demonstrate kindness when interacting with others
• Performance Focused—Act on opportunities to make a difference and exceed expectations
All of the behaviors specified by The RTS Way drive the organization’s culture and expectations of employees, who receive training focused on the specific behaviors and recognizing others when they exhibit them. A recognition process begins when employees recognize the behaviors in others and present them with an RTS Way Card, a copy of which also goes to the RTS marketing team for use in the employee newsletter, and on monitors and posters at RTS facilities.
As a provider of public transportation, RTS takes plenty of opportunity to show corporate citizenship, with an understanding that the work they do has an effect on the economy, environment, businesses, health care, education, recreation, poverty, the RTS culture and the basic infrastructure of access. RTS is one of five public transit systems in New York state that has committed to meet the goal of operating a zero-emission bus fleet by 2035.
During the pandemic, RTS has used its unique capabilities and resources to help people in the community who most need it. The company worked with United Way to deliver personal protective equipment to non-profit organizations; provided free transportation for families with infants to critical doctor visits; assisted Foodlink in delivering Summer Meals Program food to neighborhoods; and held COVID-19 vaccination clinics at the RTS Transit Center.
Each and every morning throughout the year, RTS drivers take to the byways of an eight-county region to provide transportation, backed by maintenance workers, administrators and more. In that endeavor, they are guided not just by traffic lights and road signs, but by the ethical framework of The RTS Way. That makes the road smoother for everyone.