The best companies not only acknowledge that every employee has a life outside the office walls, but go to extraordinary lengths to foster it

The waiters at Philadelphia's White Dog Cafe will never care about their jobs as much as owner Judy Wicks does. White Dog is her life. The waiters? For many, their art is their life -- painting, writing, and composing, not refilling water glasses. Others have families that come first. But instead of resenting those outside interests, Wicks celebrates them. At the cafÉ's annual Anniversary Howl, employees exhibit their art, read their poetry, explain their volunteer work, and introduce their new babies.

Deb Sloane has worked at White Dog Enterprises Inc. for 5 years now, and she has painted for 10. She showed slides of her work at last year's Howl, a four-hour party that included short films, trash sculpture, and fire breathing, as well as an explanation of the company's numbers and its community work. "There's no way I could have a straight job and do my painting," Sloane says. "At most places, the company comes first. Here, there's a balance."

Outside worries, frustrations, interests, and accomplishments all affect performance on the job, and nowhere is that more obvious than in the plight of working parents. In response, many companies now offer "family friendly" benefits, like flexible schedules, parental leave, and child care.

A few great companies have taken it further. They have stopped seeing employees' competing interests and responsibilities as problems to solve. Instead, they share them, helping workers learn English, take care of their aging parents, put their children through school, and improve their community.

White Dog's employees participate in a company-run mentoring program for inner-city children. They also volunteer to help feed homeless people and cook and serve benefit dinners for community-service agencies. Some workers have traveled, with the cafÉ's financial assistance, to sister restaurants in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Romania on cultural exchanges.

All that helps Judy Wicks fight the turnover endemic to the restaurant industry. More than 25 employees now sit down to the annual Old Dogs Dinner, which honors three-year veterans. Recently, 10 employees received Silver Bone Awards for four years' service, and 3 got silver cuff links for five years'.

White Dog designed its programs for the free spirits restaurant work attracts. The employees of Wilton Connor Packaging Inc., in Charlotte, N.C., have quite different priorities. The company has hired a large number of recent immigrants through a Catholic refugee service, and some of them need help with more mundane details, like language and laundry.

Teachers from a nearby community college come to Wilton Connor to teach English and high-school-equivalency classes. Leslie Walter, the human-resources director, helps employees deal with landlords, doctors, and government officials. Because many of its employees live in apartments without washing machines, Wilton Connor bought a washer and dryer and hired a launderer. The company arranges transportation, too. Three vans pick up workers every morning and take them to work, stopping to drop children off at day care. By taking advantage of the local government's funding support for classes and transportation, Wilton Connor has kept costs to a minimum. According to chief financial officer Guy Forcucci, employees have responded with the kind of "loyalty you can't measure."

For many employees, life means family. For their employers, integrating work and family begins before babies are born, with comprehensive health-care coverage. While increases in premiums have led many businesses to pass increases along to employees, Hemmings Motor News, in Bennington, Vt., still pays 100% of employees' health and dental premiums.

Hemmings's commitment to family continues with a family-leave policy much more generous than the one recently mandated by the federal government. The government calls for up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for the birth or adoption of a child or other family events and excludes companies with fewer than 50 employees. For 10 years Hemmings workers have been allowed to take 6 weeks of leave -- maternity or paternity, for birth or adoption -- at two-thirds pay, continue with six months' more unpaid, and afterward return to work part-time, if they choose.

That's more than some companies can afford, but the most basic accommodation to employees' outside lives doesn't have to cost anything. Flexible scheduling allows parents to tailor their jobs around child-care availability. Hemmings is open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. some days to provide that flexibility. Employees can work part-time -- two weeks on, two weeks off -- and receive the same benefits as full-timers. The rhythms of magazine production permit Hemmings to be flexible, but even traditional manufacturers can accommodate family needs. At Wilton Connor, the hours are 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., so parents can meet their kids after school.

The other critical component for working parents is child care. That doesn't have to mean an on-site facility. Where good independent care is available, great companies offer resource-and-referral, subsidy, and dependent-care-assistance programs.

But sometimes on-site child care is the answer. After Ridgeview Hosiery Inc., in Newton, N.C., surveyed available care and decided it wasn't good enough, the company built the only AA-rated center in town. The ratio of teachers to children is lower, and so is the cost -- and workers are right next door. That means a lot to Denise Burgess, a production worker with two children in the center, four-year-old Brittany and two-year-old Cassie. "If they're sick, I can go over to give them their medicine. If they get hurt, I'm just seconds away, not hours."

After a survey of its young and mostly female work force, Lancaster Laboratories Inc., in Lancaster, Pa., opened an on-site child-care facility in 1986. Now the company is helping employees face the next family juncture: aging parents. A year and a half ago it built an on-site day-care facility for 25 senior adults. The center is run by the same contractor that handles the children's day care. Lancaster subsidizes both programs, so employees pay 20% to 30% less than outsiders who use the centers.

The Kauffman family demonstrates how valuable such benefits have become. Three-year-old Jared and 11-month-old Justin, the sons of Lancaster employees Jon and Donna, both attend the children's day care, and the family spends lunch hours picnicking in the sun, a priceless perk. For Jon's father, who is sick and may one day need day care, "the center would be ideal," Jon says. "After I got my Ph.D., my classmates went to big companies like Du Pont, and I wondered if I had made the right choice, going to work for a small company. Now when I talk to them, they're amazed at the benefits I have."

Some imaginative ways companies help meet their employees' family concerns require very few resources. Ridgeview Hosiery, through a project with the city government, brings school guidance counselors in to talk with parents every two months on company time. Diane Burgess sees her son Jason's grades, and the counselor relays Burgess's concerns to Jason's teachers.

George Tash, CEO of G.T. Water Products Inc., in Moorpark, Calif., went to the other extreme. Frustrated with the quality of public schools, he opened a small schoolhouse that's free to employees' children. There a Montessori-trained teacher and his assistant teach the basics to 17 students ages 5 to 13. With visiting teachers, the kids study karate, French, piano, and science. After school they join other kids for theatre, dance, and sports.

When Kristi Moore joined G.T. Water Products, one year ago, she hesitated to take her son and daughter out of public school. She asked her son's teacher for advice. "That clinched it," Moore says. "She said to me, 'Brandon is lucky if he gets four minutes of my time in a day.' "

Does Tash improve his bottom line by providing an on-site school to employees? It's hard to say. Kristi Moore took a pay cut to work at G.T. Water Products because of its reputation for good benefits. And there is some soft-numbers evidence to suggest that when companies help workers take care of their families or fulfill personal goals, they attract better workers, cut turnover and absenteeism, and increase productivity.

But the CEOs of most of those companies have very personal reasons for their programs. Lancaster's human-resources director, Margaret Stoltzfus, says she often gets calls from company owners interested in on-site child care and asking for hard numbers. "I don't have hard numbers," she says. "We believe this helps retention and recruiting, but the CEO, Earl Hess, did this from his heart. He grew up on a farm, with a mother and father at home, and he wanted to provide the same benefit to others, as far as possible."


G.T. Water Products

Moorpark, Calif.

Plumbing-products manufacturer

28 employees, $3.5 million in sales

Provides on-site school with extended care before and after; $1,500 adoption assistance; flexible scheduling; benefits for part-timers.

Hemmings Motor News

Bennington, Vt.

Old-car magazine publisher

90 employees, $19 million in sales

Gives six weeks' family leave at two-thirds pay plus six months' unpaid leave. Has flexible scheduling; dependent-care assistance plan; benefits for part-timers.

Lancaster Laboratories

Lancaster, Pa.

Research-and-analysis lab

475 employees, $25 million in sales

Provides on-site adult day care and child care; employee fitness center; program for emergency counseling; dependent-care-assistance plan.

Ridgeview Hosiery

Newton, N.C.

Sock and hosiery maker

275 employees; $35 million in sales

Offers program to bring school counselors into plant every two months to talk with parents on company time; subsidized on-site day care; employee-assistance program.

White Dog Enterprises


Restaurant and retail store

100 employees, $3.4 million in sales

Celebrates employees' outside interests. Encourages employee participation in social action. Offers health insurance and vacations for veteran waiters.

Wilton Connor Packaging

Charlotte, N.C.

Commercial-packaging maker

200 employees, $8.6 million in sales

Offers on-site laundry; English and high-school-equivalency classes; door-to-door transport for workers, children's clothing swap center; flextime.