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When perusing recruiting campaigns in the apartment industry, you seldom observe organizations that downplay the employee experience. Great results, average culture doesn’t necessarily qualify as a sizzling tagline.

Yet while nearly all organizations claim that they are among the best places to work, it can ring hollow in some instances. Some companies might tout a “family” or “togetherness” atmosphere, but it clashes with their actions if they eliminate bonuses, suspend tuition reimbursement, or refuse to listen to employee feedback.

“Companies are very few and far between that say they care about their employees but then show it consistently,” says Elaine De Lude, vice president of LIVEbe Communities. “An employee appreciation week isn’t enough. It has to be every day, every interaction, showing that you care about your associates and care about what they have to say. It means that sometimes you change a process because an associate has a better idea.”

Fortunately, the multifamily sector generally rates higher on the culture meter because it’s such a people-centric business. But that creates stiff competition for organizations to distinguish themselves.

Here is a look at a few of the creative ways apartment operators hire and develop teams, and how they’ve carved their unique culture-centric niche in the industry.

The Strengths Quotient

Birchstone Residential takes a unique approach with associates in that the company keenly focuses on individual strengths and aims to cultivate those strengths in the quest to build a cohesive team. That’s in place of focusing on weaknesses and trying to mold associates into something that they aren’t.

“It’s a fabulous approach,” says David Deitz, president of Birchstone, the in-house property management team of Ashcroft Capital. “We celebrate our strengths, and we find that when people function out of their strength themes, they do it naturally. It’s not forced. People naturally live their lives out of their strengths—it’s just part of the person’s DNA and who they are as an individual.”

Deitz, who started Birchstone in August 2020 and has built the company to approximately 175 associates and a portfolio of over 8,000 apartment homes, got the inspiration for developing Birchstone into a strengths-based organization from the book “Strengths Finder 2.0” by Tom Rath. The book details a Gallup study that identifies the top 34 natural strengths all humans possess. The 34 strengths are categorized through a simple 10- to 15-minute online assessment.

“It really captivated me because Tom Rath discussed how, instead of looking at people from a perspective of weakness, you want to look at people from a perspective of strength,” Deitz said. “Using this model, we’ve found that our associates are energized to work for the organization because they’re functioning within who they naturally are as a person. It’s a beautiful thing because they can be authentic and true to themselves, and they don’t have to try to be somebody else.”

In action, Deitz uses the strengths-finder method to pinpoint key components within an associate’s leadership and professional skills. For example, at an executive level, he looks for people who exhibit a “beautiful blend and variation” of strategic thinking, influence, relationship building, and execution.

Birchstone uses the Gallup strengths-finder assessment at the corporate and regional level, but will soon extend it to on-site associates in an effort to further build and develop its teams. The strengths-finder process is merely a part of Deitz’s overall “people serving people” mantra, which empowers associates to be authentic and encourages all leadership actions to be performed with the company’s culture in mind.

“We want to be the type of company that is constantly growing and evolving in our leadership,” Deitz says. “We don’t want to be like many of the other companies, where their website says one thing, but what you see and what you experience behind the curtain in their culture is something completely different. Being authentic is pivotal.”

Think Beyond the Industry

De Lude understands that communities are often courting the same subset of potential associates within a certain submarket. As a smaller operator in the Baltimore/Washington, D.C., area, she understands that LIVEbe has to be unique to stand out.

“The difference for us is that we are willing to take people without experience for that next position,” she says. “Then we’ll groom them for their next opportunity—even if it’s not with us. We spend a considerable amount of time and resources in developing our people.”

That includes thinking outside the sometimes narrow multifamily box. Last year, De Lude and LIVEbe’s two additional executive-level associates utilized an out-of-industry coach for executive coaching. The three thought it was so impactful that they extended the expensive training to their community directors, which included an individual coach for each.

“From our manager with the least amount of property management to our most tenured—which is about 30 years—they each got a tremendous impact from it,” De Lude says. “I think that’s a big testimonial to looking outside the industry for these leadership resources. Because we can teach the technical parts of the job.”

LIVEbe also offers annual face-to-face meetings with residents, which helps gather authentic feedback and gives associates a genuine perspective that can serve as a blueprint for optimizing their customer service. Along with that, LIVEbe empowers associates to make decisions without always having to consult a corporate figure.

“Make a decision, and we’ll support you if it’s not right,” she says. “As long as it’s not a life-safety thing, we’ll be OK. Mistakes aren’t the end of the world.”

LIVEbe also has been successful in its brand messaging, as De Lude says many potential associates can “feel our energy and they want to be a part of that.”

Recruit Smartly—by Using Your Own Associates

At JVM Realty Corp., associates have become adept at spreading the word. The Midwest operator has one of the most popular associate referral programs in the industry, and employees reap the benefits. In 2019, the company paid more than $20,000 in referral bonuses and paid a similar amount in 2020.

"The program became popular back in 2018 when we modified our recruitment strategy," says Ashish Kapoor, vice president of human resources for JVM. "It was based on the idea that the best way to find a trustworthy and competent candidate is to ask our own associates for referrals."

The unique approach isn't limited to the hiring process. JVM is one of the few industry organizations to offer an on-call bonus to maintenance team members, shift premiums to leasing associates who work on the weekend, and provide retention bonuses for field associates. These bonuses increase by $500 each year and stretch as high as $3,000 annually.

"We also initiated a personal development plan program in 2018, which provides each associate the opportunity to discuss their hidden skill set, future goals, and their desire for opportunity and advancement," Kapoor said. "Every associate has access to the executive team and the CEO. They can freely speak with any member of the executive team, whether they have an idea, issue, or if they just want to have a general discussion."

Additionally, JVM has developed a roundtable program in which all associates can have confidential, open discussions with Kapoor in the HR office.

As an industry that serves residents on a daily basis, the multifamily sector is astutely aware of the importance of giving associates ample reasons to feel valued. These are merely a few of the cutting-edge hiring and employee-development procedures in the industry, which continue to get more creative in building unique teams.