How earning workplace awards is a great recruitment tool with Dawn Bunting

October 24, 2022

Dawn Bunting, Director of Human Resources with SEP, shares how they have leveraged workplace awards to hire students, developed employee forums, and create a Forever Home for the employees at SEP.

Dawn Bunting is the Director of Human Resources at SEP in Carmel, IN.  SEP has not only earned several workplace awards but they have maintained them for over a decade.

Dawn has been with SEP for just over 1 ½ years, and she noticed early on that SEP was someplace special. SEP is a software engineering and consulting firm located in Carmel, IN.  Their business evolves and changes often, but one thing is for certain, they value their employee’s input, ideas, and ownership of the organization. 

We discussed several areas in which the employees at SEP have leveraged their award-winning workplace status.

Tell us about SEP’s recruitment strategy and how that has been impacted by you becoming an award-winning workplace.

Dawn explained how SEP focuses on hiring students that recently graduated college, for 2 reasons:

  1. They can grow and develop the recent college grad through the professional development and training offered by SEP.
  2. Because now more than ever, it is more challenging to find skilled hires

SEP is finding success in recruiting strong talent from Indiana colleges. Sure, they could recruit candidates from neighboring state colleges, but they have found that these students are selecting Indiana as a place they want to live after they graduate college and raise their families.  

Those experienced hires tell Dawn that they are learning about opportunities at SEP by searching on lists such as Best Places to Work in Indiana and Top Workplaces in Indianapolis. Candidates are telling her they go to those sites specifically because they are looking for companies that have earned this distinction. 

Dawn took this strategy a step further and applies this to recruiting college students as well.

“They might not necessarily know what it is, but it sounds really good and it sounds even better to their parents. And students really listen to their parents when they’re trying to land or pick their first organization right out of school.”

Employees volunteer as Talent Scouts with SEP to attend career fairs at the universities. They proudly wear their SEP gear that has Top Workplaces and Best Places to Work logos, as they have maintained these awards for over 10 years! You can bet that this distinction comes up often during discussions at these career fairs.

“We don’t take it for granted,” Dawn replied when I congratulated her for consistently maintaining an award-winning workplace status. In fact, the week of our interview, SEP was launching its employee engagement survey with Top Workplaces in Indianapolis.  Just before our interview, Dawn sent an email out to employees announcing the survey would be released soon. 

How has earning these awards provided you with credibility in your industry and local area, as well as impacted your recruitment strategy?

I had the pleasure of meeting Dawn months prior to our interview and just as she shared during our initial conversation, she reiterated during our interview how earning a best workplace award gives you “Street Cred”. SEP has benefited from the positive street credibility not only from candidates, but they are finding it helpful to include this within RFPs as well.  

“It’s all about street credibility”, Dawn replied. 

As you are hiring talented tech professionals, what do you do to keep the RIGHT people, and how are you continuing that through your onboarding and retention strategy?

Dawn had so many great examples to share of how SEP engineers are not just engineers. They own many roles inside the company. They are members of the onboarding committee, SEPs Talent Acquisition team, Talent Scouts, vending machine committee, and social committee.  The list goes on and on. Employees are not appointed to these roles, they gladly volunteer for them.  As opportunities for improvement are uncovered, employees raise their hands to not only suggest the idea but to take it and run with it! Dawn says that when people feel that invested in their company, they love SEP even more.

How’s that for employee engagement? No wonder they have won these awards for so many years!

Another way the employees of SEP are owners is through their ESOP. SEP grants shares to employees annually, and they do not shy away from the opportunity to celebrate when employees are awarded shares. They utilize this time to be transparent with the employees on how they are earned and awarded, 

“Nothing is secret here. That’s the deal. There are no secrets.” 

Your employees went through significant changes when you recently moved into your new building. What focus did your leadership team have to ensure your employees’ concerns were met during this time?

SEP’s new building is gorgeous! I can say this because I’ve had the honor of visiting their facility. And I can say that it is evident they built this facility for their employees through the special touches they included in every area.  

Dawn proudly spoke of how amazing their leadership team was through the process of not only designing the facility but through their plans to bring employees back to work after the COVID shutdown. They met frequently as a leadership team to ensure they were doing the right thing by bringing employees back. They wanted to make sure they were doing it for the right reasons, not just because they had an awesome, new building. 

Their consensus is, “We do our best work when we’re together.”

And so, they set forth to design a plan to return employees in a safe manner, but also in a way that made the employees comfortable. This is one of many ways SEP includes forums in their communication with their employees as they wanted to ensure they had a way to allow employees to ask questions and provide feedback. Through this, they created the FOREVER HOME Slack channel for employees to post questions they had about the new building.  Here they learned employees wanted to be as comfortable in their office space as they were at their home office. The executive leadership team decided to give every employee $500 to make their workspace their own when they came back to the office. 

As an organization that has won so many awards, it does put a task back on the leadership team to always keep striving for continuous improvement. So, tell me what your leadership team does to recognize that this is something that they need to do, and how they always can focus on continuous improvement.

Dawn and the team at SEP use employee engagement surveys as their focus for continuous improvement.  She finds benefits in conducting both the Best Places to Work in Indiana survey and the Top Workplace in Indianapolis survey as they ask different questions, and they garner the strengths and weaknesses of both surveys. They evaluate all responses as this is just one of the ways SEP focuses on continuous improvement. 

Another way is they conduct a SWOT analysis with all senior directors annually and evaluate their responses along with the Top Workplaces and Best Places to Work surveys. Also, they learned through their employee engagement surveys that employees wanted more communication from leadership. As a result, they generated a weekly communication to be distributed to all employees, which they look forward to receiving because again, SEP does not have any secrets.

With an organization that is very receptive to giving feedback, how do you keep track of the response rates with your employee engagement surveys, and how important is it to your organization to achieve certain targets with those rates?

During the administration of their employee engagement surveys, Dawn looks at the response rates daily. Their response rate for Top Workplaces in Indianapolis last year was 88.6%! During COVID they did drop to their lowest rate she was aware of at 78%, but this was not typical as they average between 86-90% annually.  She does send notices to their employees during the time the engagement survey is open to give frequent updates on their current participation rate. 

Does SEP set a participation rate goal? No, they have not had to because they have consistently maintained a high response rate. Clearly, their employees value the opportunity of providing feedback. 

Dawn recognizes that survey fatigue is real. Therefore, they make sure to not overlap their employee engagement surveys and to add a buffer of time in between the surveys. She understands seasonality and workload can impact how employees respond and finds doing two different surveys at different times gives them more data about their employees.

What process does SEP follow to share the employee engagement survey findings with employees?

Again, SEP loves its employee forums and uses them to share employee survey findings with all staff. In addition, the leadership team announces what they plan to work on and employees make suggestions for opportunities for improvement. 

Employees will then request to work on specific areas and SEP leadership will reply, “We can do that. How do you want to do it? We will support you.”

Is the enthusiasm still there or has it become an expectation that you will win each year?

They definitely appreciate that they have won so many years, especially their Talent Acquisition Team as they use it for marketing and recruitment. But the employees, appreciate it because they know it’s their opportunity to give their feedback.

And give their feedback, they do! Their employees took it one step further and requested to have input on the Employer Questionnaire that SEP submits.  This is a questionnaire that addresses specifics about the organization such as benefit plans, employment practices, wellness initiatives, etc. 

What do you feel sets SEP apart that puts you on this level of consistently winning these awards year after year?

“The people truly care. They feel a true ownership. I’ve never been at a place where they do so much and care so much.” 

They put strategies in place to support their efforts to maintain these awards, such as:

  • Dawn and the team at SEP have been very intentional about the work they do to maintain their award status. They feel this isn’t just something they want to do, it’s something they need to do to bring the RIGHT talent into their company. 
  • Employees are involved. Marketing is involved. This isn’t just an HR initiative.  
  • They make this a constant focus so that they continue to get better every year and not become complacent.

One excellent example of their intentionality and applying their continuous improvement strategy towards their organization is through their robust intern program. This structured program lasts 10 weeks. Students end their internship with great experience and what was probably the longest interview of their lifetime. Not only does SEP get to preview what kind of employee they would be but this also gives the interns a chance to see if SEP is a place they may want to work when they graduate.  Those rates are very high. In fact, 8/10 new employees were sourced through their internship program. Why not 10/10? Well, some of those interns worked there as a sophomore or junior and were not yet ready to commit to a full-time opportunity. Talk about bragging rights for a recruitment program!

In closing, I ask all organizations being interviewed for this Award-Winning Workplace series this question…What is your success story that you want the striveHR audience to know about SEP and how you have not only earned but maintained an award-winning workplace status?

It didn’t take Dawn long to answer by saying, “Our employees truly own this place.”

It sounds simple, yet SEP clearly demonstrates this in every activity. From receiving an ‘I own this place’ gift each year that they work there, to their ESOP program, to the employee-driven forums, SEP has figured it out when it comes to having a strongly engaged workforce. 

striveHR Recommendation

Just as SEP keeps monitoring its participation rate for its employee engagement surveys, I encourage you to do the same. Consider setting a participation goal, otherwise known as your response rate.  This is the number of employees (or percentage) that complete your employee engagement survey.  I recommend to clients to strive for a 75-80% response rate. Many survey administrators will require a minimum participation rate in order to be eligible for consideration on their lists. Not only does this keep you in the running to make the list, but this also gives you a stronger response from your employee rates. You will find benefit from hearing from a larger population of your employees.  However, encourage your employees to respond, and invite them to share their feedback but remember, never bribe your employees to participate. 

Connect with Dawn

Dawn (Deck) Bunting, SHRM-SCP, SPHR | LinkedIn


Did hearing this success story motivate you to learn more? Check out the 6 Perks to Becoming an Award-Winning Workplace.

If you would like to nominate your organization to be interviewed on our blog, contact striveHR to start the conversation. 

Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links.  This means I may earn a commission should you choose to sign up for a program or make a purchase using my link. It’s okay – I love all of these companies anyways, and you will too!


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Hello, I’m Angie

I help business leaders and HR professionals improve their workplace culture and increase employee engagement so that they can focus on running their organization.

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