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Wendy Gong, another Hallmark employee in Hong Kong, says workers there get many of the benefits available to employees in Kansas City. In an e-mail to The Pitch, she writes that employees can be reimbursed for the cost of outside training, "which is totally unexpected" in other Chinese companies.
"Hallmark is a good company," she writes, "no matter in Kansas City, Hong Kong or China."
In January, when The Pitch first requested access to Hallmark employees and to Don Hall Jr., spokeswoman O'Dell said she would not make anyone available. But after The Pitch spoke to or left messages for about 50 current and former employees, she agreed to set up a meeting.
At 3 p.m. on Friday, April 25, O'Dell has assembled three Hallmark managers in the Crown Room. She says they have not been told what to say and are free to "speak their minds." O'Dell and the managers sit at a round table in the center of the empty cafeteria. With light streaming in from a bank of windows overlooking Crown Center, the gold-crown-shaped lights that dot the ceiling are turned off.
All three managers give a similar description of a working environment where talented artists mostly enjoy their jobs. Jeff Manning started 25 years ago as an artist at Hallmark and worked his way up to director of Creative New Ventures. "The people and talent here are exceptional," Manning says. "Coming from art college, you see that this is the best of the best."
The managers defend Hallmark's evaluations policy, arguing that it's necessary to keep the business afloat. Cassie Atteberry, a human resources manager, says the reason some employees complain about the harsh evaluations is that Hallmark hires only top candidates, who might not be used to criticism.
Tara Morrow, who started at Hallmark writing cards 12 years ago and is now vice president of writing and editorial, quickly agrees with Atteberry. "People come here from art school or from other companies where they've been a big fish in a small pond," she says. "But then they get here, and the talent pool is so high that now they're struggling."
"The way that I think of it," Atteberry explains, "is that if you tell somebody they have food in their teeth, it's not nice. But don't you want somebody to tell you when you have food in your teeth? In the same way, don't you want somebody to tell you when you're not doing well at something?"
When The Pitch asks the managers about the morale in an office where a quarter of the workforce has been lost, O'Dell interjects. "Let me just jump in here, because we didn't talk about this before," she says to the managers. "The desire to be a smaller and more nimble company was part of our business needs, and I think we can all agree to that."
The managers nod. "We're a consumer-based organization, and we need to respond to the marketplace if we want to thrive," Manning adds.
Some employees do complain, Atteberry says, about the jobs that have been eliminated while Hallmark maintains generous benefit programs. "Employees say, 'Well, how do you have all of those things and then still let people go?' I tell them, 'Well, that's not the same thing.'"
Those benefits include the farmhouse in Kearney that employees can use for daylong retreats and meetings. The Victorian home, used by Hallmark since 1991, includes a studio for ceramics, woodworking, blacksmithing, weaving and papermaking. Such benefits are necessary, Atteberry says, to help employees come up with creative ideas. In October, for instance, the finance division took its new hires to the farm to brainstorm ideas on how to do things differently. "You just can't put people ahead of the health of the company."