Sometimes it takes a traumatic work experience to inspire the creation of a company — to make sure that experience doesn’t happen again. That’s the story of CEO Rick Hammell and his team at Atlas.
Rick recently stopped by The BragWorthy Culture Podcast to talk about the origins of Atlas and how its internal culture reflects the way in which Atlas wishes to be of service to its customers.
Atlas helps companies to compete in the global economy, with the idea that businesses should employ whoever they want, wherever the talent exists. Atlas is the largest direct employer of record (EOR). It uses an expertise-enabled technology platform that delivers flexibility for companies to expand across borders, onboard talent, manage compliance and pay their global workforce, without the need for a local entity or multiple third-party providers. The platform is designed to deliver improved user experiences and provide self-service capabilities and real-time insights that lead to improved business outcomes.
The Origin Story
Rick’s story with Atlas begins with a government contract as head of HR for a contractor who was starting in Saudi Arabia, Singapore and Japan simultaneously. The payroll provider he usually used didn’t do business in Saudi Arabia, so Rick had to do some research to try to figure out how to pay his people in these countries.
He found a company that said they could handle what he wanted and Rick decided to go with them. He didn’t realize that this company was going to outsource the payroll functionality to another organization. At the time, however, Rick didn’t know this and continued to onboard employees for this project.
When the first payroll was due, nothing came through. He was getting calls in the middle of the night asking about the pay. There were spouses wondering how they were going to pay their bills. This made a deep impression on Rick. “The one thing you never want an employee to worry about is pay or benefits,” he says.
Because the company Rick had hired was the middleman, it couldn’t provide help and the pay problem was prolonged. Eventually, employee morale was at a breaking point and the solution was to create their own entities within these countries to power payroll. When other companies heard about this solution, they called Rick and said that they were having the same problems and asked, “Can we use your entities, too?”
This was Rick’s lightbulb moment that led him, 18 – 24 months later, to set up a business model that could fix the problem. He sold his house and used all the proceeds to create the platform, so that no one who wanted to employ people in other countries would have to go through what he went through on that original project.
You Can’t Do That
Of course, creating this kind of platform does carry a fair amount of risk across legal jurisdictions that Rick at first wasn’t familiar with. But he was committed to doing it correctly, in full compliance with regulations and laws.
The competition was saying that there was no way this could be done — in part because no one was doing it. Eight years later, all the competitors are trying to figure out how to go direct, have more control and ditch the third-party outsource model.
Focus on the Employee Experience
Rick remembered those pained phone calls from that original missed payroll and wanted Atlas to be entirely focused on the employee experience. First, it needed to work, which included finding out how to do business in these different countries, how their social security and pensions worked and how to move money without penalties. Then they needed to track what was customary (expected in a given country or culture) and what was statutory (required by law). These standards had to be incorporated as well. Once these processes were discovered, they needed to be streamlined. That’s been Atlas’ formula from the start until the present day.
“When a company partners with us,” Rick says, “we’re helping them create and be part of the overall culture they’re looking to establish by being a competitive employer in that market. One of the pieces of the puzzle is how to make things simpler for everyone.” Rick figures that Atlas is doing its job if its clients are free to focus on growing their business instead of worrying about payroll, benefits and compliance.
Practicing What You Preach
Atlas is an American company but it operates in over 160 countries and supports 98 languages. That means that the service it provides to other countries is a service it needs itself: making sure that it can support its 500 worldwide employees in their respective cultures and time zones. That includes having an “employee relationship coordinator” in the time zone and country of a given employee that can speak the language and navigate the special vocabulary of pay and benefits.
This also means that Atlas is putting company leadership in these regions. These leaders are sitting at executive-level meetings to support global expansion.
Rick views the building of Atlas as an ongoing process. His staff are used to him quoting his grandmother: “A closed mouth never gets fed.” He wants his team members to feel that their voices are important and that if they don’t speak up, nothing that’s broken can be fixed.
Another aspect of hearing those voices is hearing conviction and diversity. “If we have 100 different ideas, we want to hear some real passion behind those 100 ideas, even if we only end up going with 10.”
Another quote Rick references often is, “If you think you’re doing your best, do the best to someone better.” Beware of being stuck within limiting beliefs. When you believe in yourself, you believe that there’s an opportunity to be successful and you’re going to push yourself to the limit.
Rick shared a story about a famous experiment with mice in which they were put in water to test how long they would swim before getting out. Some mice died after a given period but those that were pulled out after 15 minutes, dried off and then put back in the water, those mice kept swimming for 17 hours! They had remembered that if they swam they would get rescued.
Rick believes it’s the job of leadership to let teams know that even though they may feel that they are at their limits, they were hired because of their potential. They have the capability to “keep swimming.” By bringing this out in their staff, by pushing them, Atlas leadership wants to show them what it takes to be the best to someone better.
Check Out the Full Episode
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