5 ‘Ridiculous’ Ways Patagonia Has Built a Culture That Does Well and Does Good

September 27, 2019

The outdoor retailer Patagonia makes iconic fleeces and hoodies, backpacks and Baggies. But its signature product may be its irreverent, unconventional, one-of-a-kind culture. It has an employee handbook titled “Let My People Go Surfing,” ads that say “Don’t buy this jacket,” and an ongoing commitment to give 1% of sales to environmental groups.

It can all seem a bit much, Dean Carter told a Talent Connect 2019 audience. He recalled when he went to the company’s headquarters in Ventura, California, for interviews to become the company’s head of HR. He walked past the solar array and the wisteria to the sound of children screaming and playing. The man at the reception desk was wearing a Hawaiian shirt and playing a ukulele and said, “Dude, I’m Chipper Bro.” Dean went to the cafe and saw a man feeding breakfast to his son, who was laughing and smiling and wearing oatmeal all over his face. 

And then he thought: “Where the hell am I?”

A week later, as the new VP of HR, finances, and legal, he began to find his answer to the question.  

Dean has said that founder Yvon Chouinard set out to build an “un-company” — one whose principal concern was taking care of employees, customers, and, above all else, the planet. Not a classic business model, but Patagonia does roughly $1 billion in sales each year and has 3,000 employees around the world.

The company has made its explicit mission to be a steward of the planet — “there’s no business,” Dean said, “if there’s no planet” — and Dean’s explicit mission is to be a steward to the Patagonia culture.

Here are five things that HR does to attract, hire, and retain the mission-driven employees they’re looking for at Patagonia:

1. Read resumes from the bottom up — you can learn more quickly if a candidate is right for your company

Patagonia is highly unconventional — in just about everything. So when the talent acquisition team at Patagonia reads a resume, they read them from the bottom up.

“Unlike most recruiters,” Dean explained in an article on LinkedIn, “we read bottom up instead of top down . . . getting right to the part that lists your interests, activities, and volunteer work. It’s the part that lets us know you enjoy the outdoors.”

The recruiters and hiring managers at the company want to understand how candidates put Patagonia gear to the test, what their connection to food, clean water, and healthy dirt is, and what work and homework they’re already doing to save wildlife and wild spaces.

“We’re not looking for culture fit,” Dean said, “we’re looking for culture add.”

It’s a more holistic approach to evaluating potential hires that arises from the company’s unwavering and ironclad commitment to its mission. And it’s a reminder to every organization that they are hiring human beings, not skill sets or eve experience.

2. Don’t just tolerate work flexibility — embrace it

As soon as you title your employee handbook “Let My People Go Surfing,” you’re deeply committed to flexibility. Patagonia understands that when the waves are up at nearby C Street or Rincon — or the powder is down in the faraway Sierra — that employees will set aside their work, grab their boards or skis, and head out. “We hire people who love being outside, people who love the outdoors,” Dean said. “So when the surf’s up, they’re going to be surfing anyway. If we didn’t have a Let My People Go Surfing policy, we’d have a lot of performance action plans.” 

Let My People Go Surfing turns out to be a hell of a retention play — Patagonia only has about 4% turnover each year. “I call us the Hotel California,” Dean said, “you check in but you don’t check out.” And it has 9,000 applicants for the few jobs that do open up.

Since Dean joined Patagonia, it has also rolled out a 9/80 work schedule that gives employees a three-day weekend every other week. Employees work nine hours a day from Monday through Thursday and eight hours on alternating Fridays. They get every second Friday off.

“Thank god it’s Thursday” has undoubtedly joined “Surf’s up” as a rallying cry at the company.

3. Offer benefits that reflect your values

Patagonia sees its mission as saving the earth and it goes out of its way to hire people who are completely down with that. So, after you’ve been a year at the company, you can take up to two months off, with pay, to volunteer with an environmental organization or project.

Every year, Dean said, about 150 employees go all over the world to pitch in and get their hands dirty to help the environment. On his leave, Dean said, he “cleaned up sea lion poop on the Channel Islands.”

The company has one other unusual policy that encourages employees to actively support the planet: “If they get put in jail,” Dean said, “we throw their bail.” That’s right. Any employee who gets arrested for peacefully protesting for the environment will have bail paid for themselves and their spouse by Patagonia. “We let them be the humans we hired,” Dean said.

4. Have at least one “jaw-dropping, ridiculous” way to support your values

The signature benefit at Patagonia does not directly address the question of how to help the environment — it addresses the question of why. The company has three different onsite childcare centers.

Dean mentioned one of the lawyers on Patagonia’s legal team who brings “baby Jane” in on his arm every day. His colleague puts the baby on the desk, does some work, and then gets on the floor with Baby Jane and plays. “What would I have given,” Dean said, “to have had that as a dad?”

Patagonia has offered childcare since 1983. The service is subsidized, but not free. The centers have bilingual programs and teachers who are trained in child development. The result? Nearly 100% of new moms return to work at Patagonia.

“We have the ultimate succession planning program,” Dean joked. “We start them at eight weeks.”

Patagonia views childcare as a bedrock benefit, one that can be tweaked or expanded but never abandoned.

Dean told the audience that every study ever done points to the irrefutable value of high-quality early childhood education. Which is why Dean was able to say in all seriousness: “At Patagonia, we consider our kids our best product.”

5. Reinforce your culture at every opportunity

“Culture matters,” Dean has said. “And you know when it matters most?  When you stick to it in the great times and the challenging times. You know, 2008 was not a good time for Patagonia and a lot of companies. But we didn’t cut health care, we didn’t cut onsite childcare, we didn’t cut training and development. That’s the test of true culture is when decisions you make are consistent. And I think that’s why our employees stick with us at just ridiculously low rates of turnover.”

Here are a few other ways Patagonia has underscored its mission and values:

  • In 2018, it sued the Trump administration to block the Department of Interior plans to vastly reduce the size of two Utah national monuments.
  • It pays for nursing moms to bring their baby and a nanny along on business trips.
  • It has acknowledged that Patagonia is part of the problem. Their products come with a lifetime guarantee and Patagonia encourages customers to repair old items rather than replace them. They have the largest clothing repair facility in North America and a truck that travels the United States repairing clothing — whether it was made by Patagonia or anyone else.

Dean noted that the company gets lots of attention and flashed magazine stories showing it to be the coolest company on the planet or the most innovative on the planet or one of the most influential

“This is what I care about,” Dean said, throwing up a slide that showed Patagonia as one of Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For. “This is what’s important — what our employees think. And they’re stoked.”

Final thoughts: “Do the right thing” can be the North Star for finding success

Dean has said that if everyone else is turning right, Patagonia is definitely turning left.

But the company’s iconoclastic ways are not about thumbing their nose at anyone else. They’re about following Yvon Chouinard’s philosophy of making every decision as though you know you’ll be in business in another hundred years.

Yvon Chouinard, Dean said, didn’t write Let My People Go Surfing to win the war on talent. Their bail policy was not something the company found in a white paper. And Patagonia doesn’t have childcare because it’s trendy — in fact, the percentage of companies offering that benefit remains small (8%) and static.

But every time Patagonia leans into its values, the company seems to thrive. Dean shared a quote from Yvon Chouinard: “Every time we’ve elected to do the right thing, it’s turned out to be more profitable.”

The product innovation, the stewardship, and the happy workforce all flow out of the profoundly simple goal at Patagonia: “Do well and do good.”

Watch Dean's full talk here:

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