Why You Should Treat Your Staff Like Family

A highly personal approach to management helps this entrepreneur engage and retain her employees

Written by Alexandra Bosanac

Marja Hillis, the founder and chief executive of Molok North America, is privy to the details of many of her employees’ personal lives. It’s not because she’s nosey—many of them, right down to the most junior ones, volunteer the information.

Molok, which designs and manufactures semi-submerged waste collection bins, ranked #280 on the 2015 PROFIT 500 Ranking of Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies. (Hillis also took the #99 spot on the 2014 PROFIT/Chatelaine W100 Ranking of Canada’s Top Female Entrepreneurs).

Even Hillis doesn’t fully understand why she her employees are so keen to open up to her. It just works out that way, she shrugs. Take one of her newest employees. Her sunny demeanour shifts when she begins talking about him.

“I’m bringing on one young person who loves it here€¦ But I worry for the guy.” This employee’s girlfriend, Hillis explains, is a design student and she’s moving from their hometown of Mount Forest, Ont. (where Molok is also based) to Montreal because there aren’t any job opportunities locally.

Her immediate concern isn’t about whether the newly long-distance relationship will negatively impact his productivity. “I just want my employees to be happy,” she says.

Hillis treats her staff like an extended family, maybe even better than most people treat their real families. It’s completely genuine, she insists. “I am who I am and I don’t fake anything.”

It’s also proven to be a good management strategy. People voluntarily work on weekends, if the need arises. “I have never asked anyone, €˜Can you stay longer to finish?’ Never once.”

With just 20 employees, getting to know her employees on a personal level is considerably easier for Hillis to achieve, she acknowledges, than for many leaders. She worries about losing that as the company grows.

Regardless of how big you want your company to get, it’s important to set your culture early on so you have a model and traditions to work from later on. Here are some of the habits Hillis has developed (consciously or otherwise) that have enabled her to create a family-like atmosphere at Molok.

Schedule family mealtime 

Hillis hosts three major company events at her home each year—a barbecue in the spring and summer, and a traditional Finnish feast over Christmas, where she does all the cooking.

It’s a time for employees across the company to mix and mingle. But Hillis also uses it as an opportunity to talk about the company’s progress thus far. And the prevailing management theory of the moment backs her up—employees perform better when they know how their contribution impacts the whole organization.

Employees also get a chance to see what their colleagues have been up to. When one area is doing well, it reverberates through the entire organization. It’s also satisfying on some level to know that you’re in good company, and it builds trust, explains Hillis.

Treat them occasionally

At her Christmas gatherings, Hillis organizes a gift exchange, and carefully selects each present for her employees.

Keeping the channels of communication open through the year means she gets to know their likes and dislikes. “I know that [one] person had an auto body shop, our marketing coordinator is a sewer and that somebody else [was] a wine lover,” she says. “People got stuff that they actually liked.’

But Hillis also knows that not everyone likes or wants the same things. She’s planning to take the guesswork out of employee incentives by establishing a bonus system that would give each Molok employee cash to put towards a fun activity of their choice. It’s a practice at many businesses in Finland, says Hillis.

Go to bat for them

“I want our employees to stay with us forever,” says Hillis. But she’s noticed an exodus of young people from the company, and from the town in general. “There’s nothing in the area—no places where young people can go and meet others. We need more stuff in the area to keep young people here.”

Hillis plans on lobbying the town’s leadership on the issue at an economic summit scheduled in March. She’s hoping to convince them to introduce policies to entice more businesses to the town, so that the millennial workers of Mount Forest and surrounding communities will have a reason to stay.

Whether Hillis will be successful remains to be seen. But her willingness to listen to her employees—and to advocate for them on the public stage—certainly isn’t in doubt.


Should bosses engage with their employees’ personal lives? What’s the best way to show staff you care about them? Share your thoughts and experiences by commenting below.

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com