McGough Construction’s workplace culture can be summed up in four words: “Do the right thing.”

CEO Tom McGough Jr. knows it sounds like a marketing gimmick, but the missive has been guiding the family-owned company for 60 years.

As the St. Paul company — which is working on the University of Minnesota’s new ambulatory care center and the Minnesota State Fair West End Market, among other projects — has grown, McGough and other top managers have had to try harder to make sure the message gets through from the hiring process to the project sites.

“We have tried to strike a balance between empowerment and structure,” he said, making sure they hold large meetings with their 300 employees, but also small informal town hall gatherings to ensure management is meeting workers’ needs and also to get their feedback and ideas.

Often, new companies have a clear vision of their service or product, their target market and how much money they need to reach their business goals.

Yet while many owners might have an idea of what type of boss they want to be, they haven’t translated their idea of workplace culture into their business plans. They should, said McGough and other executives at companies that made the Star Tribune’s Top Workplaces list this year.

Several talked of employee-centered cultures based on managers giving workers the right tools to make decisions and meet goals.

In 2013, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Business and the George Mason University School of Management found that companies that considered both “emotional culture” such as pride and connection, as well as “cognitive culture” — teamwork and results goals, for example — not only had more satisfied employees but also better client outcomes.

Leaders create the “emotional culture” from the top down, they said. How the top executives interact every day with employees sets the tone. However, it can also be created through structural actions such as flexibility in schedule and allowing employees to give their vacation days to a colleague in crisis. The initial research was done in long-term-care settings, but follow-up surveys in industries from financial services to real estate found the same results.

STAR Services in St. Paul provides services for people with disabilities and consulting for other agencies and families.

Jennifer May, vice president of operations, said managers try to use the “person-centered” philosophy they apply to customers toward employees as well. The philosophy is especially important in the constantly changing environment they face. Regulations change, available services change and it’s hard on employees to switch gears as often as they do.

“You need to be the best you can be at home, the best you can be at work and the best you can be in the community,” she said.

Management’s job, she said, is to provide the training and resources “that allows them to pivot.” Then managers also need to make sure to maintain the “intentional culture” that allows employees to help each other.

“There’s no water cooler silliness,” and the company sponsors video game days, scavenger hunts and kayaking outings, May said. Employees are encouraged to work as a team — for example, if one person needs to leave early for family reasons, someone else will fill in with the expectation that his or her duties will be fulfilled.

Mainly, she said, employees look after each other.

“You can be professional and still be fun and friendly,” she said.

At InterDyn BMI, a reseller of computer programs to companies, the culture is well defined, said Carol Ericson, the company’s chief operating officer.

Managers adhere to a system called “servant leadership,” Ericson said.

CEO John Hendrickson built his own philosophy, based on his Christian faith, that put the customer at the top and the leadership team at the bottom. That means managers need to “remove obstacles and get things out of the way so … workers can do the best possible job without too much bureaucracy.”

BMI, based in Roseville, worked with a consultant so that the culture was maintained as the company grew, including training and development programs.

“I think frankly that one of the pieces that BMI really works hard to accomplish is letting employees know that they matter to us,” Ericson said.

Joe Spillman, president of ECA Marketing in Eden Prairie, said top managers “work very hard at trying to keep the culture positive.” At his company, that means empowering employees to figure out the best way to meet their goals. The company markets products to insurance and annuity brokers and then maintains those accounts.

Communication is key both to the business and making sure employees get the support they need, said Stephanie Dahl, the company’s chief operating officer.

Jodi Boldenow, a co-owner of Industrial Door Company Inc. in Minneapolis, said management support and transparency is key to her family business.

“You can have a product, you can have bricks and mortar, but people are really the secret sauce,” she said of how the company values employees and their families.

Not that everything is warm and fuzzy. The company has created a mix of freedom and accountability into the structure. Basically, each unit knows the numbers to hit. Then the department has flexibility on how to meet the goals.

“People either really enjoy our culture, succeed in our culture, or find their way out the door,” Boldenow said. “The high level of transparency and accountability isn’t for everyone.”

But the other side of the coin is that top management understands that respecting individuals means providing them the means and training to do their jobs.

Boldenow finds her employees’ success humbling.

“We don’t have a perfect recipe, but over the years, we keep working on it,” she said.