This is a guest post from HR leader, Allison Lane. It's the second in a series exploring the results of rankings, how to get there and evaluating whether you should. Allison led SAS’ rise to consecutive No. 1 ranks on the Fortune “Best Companies to Work For” list and led the efforts from 2009-2015. This year, SAS ranked #8 on the list. Following up to her earlier post on How to Get to #1, this week I talk to Allison about the elephant in the room. Is it worth it? Here’s our honest conversation about which road to take.
Susan LaMotte (SL): Thanks for your insightful post about getting to #1. I think so many companies aim for that goal and really wonder what happens when you get there. But I’m struck by the actual process. So many companies spend an incredible amount of money planning for and applying for the list—even hiring outside consultants to prepare applications. Is it worth it?
Allison Lane (AL): Let’s get one thing straight. The Fortune Best Companies list is not JUST about the list. Landing on the list is the cake topper. The real cake is knowing your employees in a dynamic carousel of recruiting, retention and productivity. With the Fortune Best Companies list, employees’ views on a survey drive two-thirds of the score. The other third is your company’s responses to a questionnaire.
Even with consultants, a company can only influence so much. And survey results could change recruiting efforts, shift retention programs, flag productivity issues, highlight needed development areas, stall future employer branding efforts or underline priorities that only management can tackle.
SL: Fair enough. As you know, we're obsessed with research at exaqueo. So what does the survey look like?
AL: The confidential survey asks for employees' views on management’s credibility, job satisfaction and camaraderie with their coworkers. Questions get at topics like:
- Are communications open and accessible?
- Is there fairness in hiring and promotions?
- Are you proud of the work you’re doing?
- Are you proud of how your organization is contributing to the community?
- Is there a sense of “family” or “team”?
- Can you be yourself at work?
SL: Those are good questions, but how can you really get a true understanding with just a survey? It’s like an engagement survey. You can ask employees if they have a best friend at work or if they’re engaged, but don’t you need to dig in and understand why to get the real truth?
AL: You have to be willing to look deeper. For example, if mostly managers say they feel appreciated but individual contributors reflect a score 10 points lower. Or, if only sales people feel they’re adequately compensated but admin and support departments don’t. Well, you have some work to do.
SL: If you do pursue the list, what’s the value of doing so regardless of where you place?
AL: Transparency: Employees are more productive when they’re valued, they’re challenged and given the freedom to do their jobs well. The value of pursuing the Fortune list is finding out if employees truly feel valued and challenged. And if not, what stands in their way? I also think you should let employees see all or portions of your application. When employees start to understand your efforts, they’ll offer their own stories. For example, the Great Place to Work asks for how you’re inspiring employees that their work is more than just a job. By sharing some of your responses, employees will share more great stories of being inspired by their work. These stories are great fodder for internal communications, HR/recruiting and customer engagement. I say pursue the list because you know want to hear your employees’ voices, and act on them. If you land on the Fortune Best Companies list, then AWESOME. Celebrate. Thank your employees for enhancing and protecting a culture that drives your company’s value.
SL: One of the things I have a hard time with are perks. They seem to be so heavily valued in the survey (and touted in the news media) and that’s not fair to companies with a widely dispersed workforce that can’t, say, have an awesome gym or food court at every location.
AL: The assessment is about perks that are thoughtful. If you are providing “perks,” make sure employees think they’re relevant and appreciated. A very dispersed workforce can’t use a tricked-out gym at company headquarters. But they may appreciate a stipend for their local gym. Free on-site healthcare only matters when the healthcare is stellar. Nobody values “free and mediocre.”
It may seem that companies in certain industries can’t rise to the top of the list. Manufacturing, construction or retail. Yet, more than a few of companies in these industries with strong and unique cultures have had phenomenal successes. Camden Property Trust, IKEA, REI, Sheetz, The Container Store, Wegman’s, Stryker and many more.
SL: Our research at exaqueo though shows employees always value perks much less than other job criteria like their manager or boss, learning and development or the colleagues they work with. Do you think the process overvalues the tangible, seemingly sexier benefits over the more staid, but more valued things?
AL: I trust that the panelists at Great Place to Work take great pains to score the elements that employees value. They are adept at seeing standouts perks – and perks that are specific to each company’s employee base. The top 10 regularly reflects that.
SL: Which leads us to the question many companies might ask: ‘Why should we apply and why shouldn’t we?’
AL: The bottom line is that it’s worthwhile to have a third-party assessment of your management’s credibility, hiring practices and camaraderie. The bonus of pursuing the Fortune Best Companies list is that the assessment comes with the possibility of a national accolade, recognized by customers, potential and current employees and other stakeholders. You get to decide how to manage the recognition.
If a national list isn’t for you yet, start with a local list for local impact. There are many well-respected local “Top Workplaces” lists, including those at Chicago Tribune, The San Diego Union-Tribune, The Baltimore Sun, and many more based by city, state or country.
However, I’ll reiterate. The real importance is knowing your employees. So, you can skip the Fortune pursuit and just open the conversation and allow employees’ voices to be heard. The best way to get there is through an independent assessment of your management’s credibility, hiring and camaraderie. Whether you have challenges or great opportunities, employees will open up more to a third-party.
SL: I think the independent piece is so important. No matter how hard HR tries (and I can say that because I've been there!) employees will never be completely honest in engagement surveys or town halls--anywhere where they think someone might be watching. But feedback in any form is always a good place to start.
Thanks for sharing your insight Allison. Where can people reach you if they want to talk more?
Susan LaMotte is the founder of exaqueo, a workforce consultancy that helps companies build cultures, employer brands and talent strategies. Contact exaqueo to learn how to better compete for talent by building honest, authentic employer brands and powerful talent attraction and retention programs.