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Being the Best Boss for the World

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This post was originally published on B Lab's Best for the World publication on Medium.

Starting a small business comes with plenty of challenges. For example: what happens when you’re not quite as small any more? We spoke to Nora Livingstone of Animal Experience International (a Best Overall and Best for the Environment honoree in 2015) about what happened when her company hired its first employee.

Animal Experience International is a Certified B Corporation that connects people who want to volunteer with conservation and animal welfare projects looking for help around the world. “We make sure that [the projects] are by the community and for the community,” said Nora Livingstone, CEO and co-founder of AEI. “We want to work with them, rather than us just flying in and saying, ‘We know how to help.’”

When Livingstone spoke with us, she had just finished up the latest round of check-ins with her volunteers and contacts in Nepal after a second earthquake hit the country. “We made contact with everyone this morning,” she said. “Everyone’s ok, everyone seems to be in good spirits.”

Only in its third year, AEI now places around 150 volunteers a year on five continents, up from only twenty placements in 2012. Livingstone was thrilled at the growth, as was her co-founder, veterinarian Dr. Heather Reid — but suddenly the workload was more than the two could handle on their own.

“It made sense to focus on client relationships, which meant we were going to need three people, not two. When it got busy, Heather and I sort of looked at each other, like, ‘Is this when we hire somebody?’” But as an anthropologist and a veterinarian starting their first business, neither was sure how to go about adding employees to their two-woman show.

For a company focused on creating positive experiences for people, the main question was how to be ethical employers. “We really wanted to be good bosses,” Livingstone said. “The whole idea behind what we do is that we want to help animals without hurting people. We wanted to make sure that this wasn’t the exception — that we were supporting the people working for us at home, not just the people we work with abroad.”

In search of guidelines for how to treat workers right, Livingstone and Reid turned to the B Impact Assessment. When they had taken the BIA as part of their 2013 B Corp certification, they had not been eligible to go through the Worker Impact section — now, they returned to the Assessment with an eye towards instruction, not evaluation.

“We sat down and said ‘Let’s make sure our foundations are strong,’” Livingstone said. “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel; let’s just not get into bad habits at the start.”

Livingstone and Reid used the B Impact Assessment to structure their policies not in order to gain a higher score, but to make sure they were getting a comprehensive viewpoint.

“I love [the BIA], with the asterisk that it’s eternal,” Livingstone said, laughing. “But I love that it is. I think that it’s so important that you go into the minutiae of everything. The assessment process is why we value being a B Corp so much. It really makes you think about the entire process of the company.”

Going through the Worker Impact section introduced Livingstone and Reid to practices they might not have considered — including ones that go beyond what’s required of them by Canada law. As a Canadian business, AEI was automatically offering two weeks time off and healthcare for full time workers, but the BIA introduced the soon-to-be bosses to the concept of offering additional paid time off for volunteering — a practice directly in line with the company’s mission that Livingstone hadn’t considered.

“Something else that we didn’t even think about before was how to nurture education for our employees — both professional development and, in the long term, even going back to school,” Livingstone said. “We wanted to make sure that was an open door.”

Similarly, going through the BIA again prompted Livingstone and Reid to discuss issues that they’d never actually talked through. “With wages, we wanted to make sure everyone was paid the same amount and we wanted to pay them ethically, but it was never anything that Heather and I had directly discussed,” Livingstone admitted. “I always thought, ‘Of course we would,’ but it was so important to actually talk about it.”

The number one takeaway Livingstone had when it came to being an ethical boss was about creating policies for employees. “We wanted to make sure that there was transparency throughout the company, and there was the open door,” she said, highlighting the importance of taking what had been shared knowledge between two partners and making sure it was accessible to newcomers.

“We didn’t want there to be assumptions that the boss has the employee doesn’t know about. We really wanted to make sure that even if Heather and I were hit by busses, or went nuts, our employees would be protected and AEI would continue to be AEI,” Livingstone told us. “We’re new at this. We don’t know what mistakes we’re going to make yet.”

We asked if we could speak to her new employee Avi to get his perspective, and Livingstone laughed sheepishly. “He’s actually on paid vacation right now,” she said, “And I told him he’s not allowed to check his work email.”

Preview the Worker Impact section of the BIA or sign up for your own free B Impact Assessment account. For more ideas on how to improve your company’s worker impact, check out the B Corp Handbook or our free online Best Practice guides about creating an employee handbook, worker benefits, and employee wellness.

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