The Digital Labs team in the Information Services Department at Navy Federal Credit Union work together on a project.

Navy Federal: How the Largest US Credit Union Keeps Employee Experience Shipshape

October 21, 2020 Employee Experience
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By Sarah Fister Gale

Most employers measure employee tenure in terms of years. According to estimates from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers average about four years at a company before finding another job.

At Navy Federal Credit Union, the largest credit union in the U.S., careers are quite often measured in a decade or more. "I’ve been here for five years and I’m still considered new," said Laura Hastings, manager of HR projects and process improvement.

She attributes the high rate of retention to the organization's focus on employee experience. While many companies aspire to improve employee experience, Vienna, Va.-based Navy Federal achieves this goal in part by making it every manager’s responsibility. “We constantly look at our processes and the way employees are impacted by them so that we can make everything better,” Hastings said.

The credit union, with more than 22,000 employees, also has a mission everyone in the organization can get behind. Established in 1933 to serve the credit needs of members of the U.S. Navy, the non-profit credit union now serves more than 9 million customers across the Navy, Army, Marine Corps, Air Force, Coast Guard and Space Force as well as civilian employees in the U.S. Department of Defense, veterans and their families.

“It’s meaningful work and many of our employees are also service members,” said Kyle Helmstetter, manager of talent development and communication for the information services department (ISD).

Serving those who have served the country is woven into what credit union employees do. Even if they aren’t customer facing, all of the company’s messaging, training and social responsibility efforts tie back to supporting the military and veterans. "Connecting employees to the work of our members is an important part of the employee experience," Helmstetter said.

It appears to be working. Ninety-three percent of employees said Navy Federal is a great place to work, landing it at No. 19 on Fortune's 2020 list of 100 Best Companies to Work For, a 10-spot jump from the company's ranking in 2019. With a focus on career mobility, manager involvement in employee development, and a willingness to listen to the voice of employees, Navy Federal is keeping the wind in the sails of its employee experience.

Internal Mobility Aids Retention

Helmstetter, who works at the company's headquarters in Virginia, has spent eight years working with the ISD team, though he said his path is not a common one. A big part of Navy Federal’s culture is giving employees opportunities to take on new roles in other departments. This approach benefits the credit union by creating a more agile workforce that can easily take on new assignments, and it benefits employees who aspire to build a career in the organization, he said. "No one is ever pigeon-holed in a single type of work," Helmstetter said.

Members of the Information Services Team at Navy Federal Credit Union work together on an IT project.
Members of the Information Services Team at Navy Federal Credit Union work together on an IT project.PHOTO: Courtesy Photo, Navy Federal Credit Union.
Helmstetter pointed to his own team as an example. ISD is the company’s IT group, however most of the people on his team don’t come from IT backgrounds. "We’ve pulled people from customer care and marketing departments," he said. Most come with 60% to 70% of the skills they need to tackle the role. Helmstetter makes sure they get the training and mentoring to fill in the gaps. “They learn new skills and grow their current skill set,” he said.

For him, the key to great talent is finding people who are problem solvers and advisors rather than people who just respond to requests. "If someone says they need us to stand up an eNet site, we use that as a place to start a conversation," he said. "I want people who will take the time to figure out the challenge so they can find better solutions."

Related Article: Why IT Is Moving Beyond Service to Employee Experience

Choose Your Path With Managerial Support

That commitment to employee development won over Andre Jasquith, a business intelligence analyst in the company’s contact center in Pensacola, Fla. Jasquith, who has an engineering degree and an MBA, spent 12 years working in large corporate environments before joining Navy Federal in 2012. As soon as he made the switch he saw the company's commitment to his personal success. “No one tells you what your career journey should be, they just lay out the pieces and let you connect them,” he said.

Jasquith was initially doing analysis in the savings and membership department, but after two years he wanted to move into contact center operations. “It was a smaller department but it is the heart of the company,” he said.

Navy Federal Credit Union's Contact Center Building in Pensacola, Florida.
Navy Federal Credit Union's 490,000 square foot building in Pensacola, Florida, completed in May 2020.PHOTO: Courtesy Photo, Navy Federal Credit Union.

The department didn't have an opening at that time, but Jasquith shared his ambition with his supervisor, which set the wheels in motion. His supervisor arranged for him to shadow two analysts in that department to see if he liked the job and to understand what it entailed. Then he paid for Jasquith to take an eight-week virtual course at MIT to learn Sequel querying, a key skill needed to work on that team. When a position opened six months later, his supervisor recommended him and he landed the role. 

That kind of support is a common part of the Navy Federal culture, Jasquith said. Managers regularly talk to employees about career goals and what support they need to get there. That includes suggesting training, introducing employees to managers in other departments, and suggesting opportunities that will help them meet their goals, even if it means losing a great team member. “Every leader knows that it’s about supporting the greater good,” he said.

They are also committed to reskilling, he said. Supervisors encourage employees to set time aside for training and development every week as part of their commitment to their long-term development. "They want you to keep your career goals in mind so you don’t get stuck in the weeds," Jasquith said.

Employee Feedback Spurs Process Changes

Helping employees move up through the ranks is an important part of the employee experience, said Hastings. So her team looks for ways to make that process more efficient. It starts with listening to what employees are saying.  

Hastings’ team gauges employees' reaction to new programs and listens to identify problems with existing workflows. Earlier this year, it led them to rethink the credit union's job application process.

At the time, internal and external candidates were all funneled through the same standard workflow: they submitted an application, and if they weren’t qualified, they received an automated email thanking them for their time and directing them back to Navy Federal’s career portal to apply for other positions.

When the process improvement team spoke with internal applicants about the experience, they heard the generic response and link to the career page was frustrating. So Hastings' team rebuilt the application process to add a workflow specific to internal applicants.

Now when an employee applies for a position, they receive frequent automated messages letting them know where they are in the review cycle. And if they aren’t selected, they receive a message suggesting they talk to their supervisor about how to develop a plan to get to the next level in their career, along with links to relevant training resources, including content on how to write a resume and hone their interviewing skills.

“It was a small project with a quick turnaround but we got a lot of positive feedback,” Hastings said. Paying attention to the employee experience at every touchpoint can uncover small but meaningful ways to improve. 

Related Article: How the CIO and CHRO Will Rethink Employee Experience Together

Leadership Training Eased the Way for Remote Work

Helmstetter noted that the corporate culture and commitment to employees made it easier to create a remote work culture during the pandemic.

Prior to COVID-19, his team was already rolling out a leadership coaching program to bolster the skills of its managers and leaders. The program included a 360-degree review process, one-on-one mentoring and coaching circles, where leaders from across the company get together to share stories and learn from each other.

Helmstetter also hosted leadership meetings where he provided talking points and branding strategies around employee experience that managers can share with their teams. "Employees may not know that we are consciously working on the employee experience, but we are telling those stories all year long," he said.

All of these pre-pandemic efforts to bolster leadership skills paid off when employees were forced to go virtual in March 2020. Leaders had developed skills and created support networks to help them find the best ways to engage and support their people.

Related Article: How Workplace Managers Can Help Prevent Employee Burnout

Helmstetter’s team is continuing these efforts by looking for new ways to support the IT team while they work remotely. That includes creating and acquiring more virtual training modules to help employees maintain their skills, and to fill any gaps that have emerged as a result of working remotely.

The content is intentionally broken into small chunks that can be completed in 10-30 minutes to make it easy to fit into their already busy days, he said. And employees are free to access any courses that interest them. “If someone wants to move into leadership, the leadership training is there for them to use,” he said. The library of content also offers IT training and certification courses as well as soft skills training around management and communication.

"We want employees to take ownership of their careers," Helmstetter said. 

As the credit union develops its plan to bring employees back to the office, HR leaders like Hastings are keeping everyone in the loop and making sure they know that employee health and safety will be the top priority. “We want to be proactive in our messaging so we can stay ahead of the conversation,” she said.

All of these efforts have helped Navy Federal win high marks from employees. In its 2020 evaluation from Great Place to Work Institute, 93% of employees said the credit union is a great place to work and 95% are proud to tell others they work for Navy Federal. Pre-pandemic internal engagement surveys showed that 94% of employees said they would recommend the credit union as a place to work, and the same number of respondents reported they would like to be working at Navy Federal a year from now.

Many companies talk about creating a great employee experience and include it on their lists of priorities. But Navy Federal has figured out that a great experience isn’t a task on a checklist. It’s embedded in everything they do, said Hastings. "That is why I will be here until I retire," she said.

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