What Makes a 100 Best Company? It Depends!

Tomorrow I'm off to the Great Place to Work (GPTW) conference in San Diego. GPTW is the company that administers Fortune's "100 Best Companies to Work For" and "50 Best Small and Medium-Size Company" lists. And although I try to make it to this conference most years, this time I'm particularly curious about it, because for the first time in quite a while GPTW has changed up its process for getting onto these lists. So, while I think I get the gist of the new process, there is likely to be much to learn. (I also look forward to a lot of entertaining sessions, in which CEOs of the winning companies strut their stuff, and other leaders share their success stories; I know there will also be plenty of food and caffeine-fueled breaks for chatting with interesting people from companies on the list and companies that wannabe, from all over the country and, sometimes, the world.)

What's always been interesting to me about the Fortune lists is the large component of employee feedback involved. The most significant element of the applications--score-wise, at least--is a confidential employee survey. This year, it seems, GPTW is putting an even greater emphasis on this feedback, requiring organizations to reach a certain threshold of positive employee responses before they are even eligible to apply. (GPTW may have intended this, in part, as a kindness to would-be contenders, because the employer's part of the application process is extremely lengthy and yet--since it counts for only 1/3 of the final score--can be pointless in the face of unhappy employees.)

In fact, GPTW has elevated the role of employee feedback still more with a new certification system, through which companies with strong showings on the employee survey get "certified;" for one year, they can display a sort of GPTW stamp of approval on all their internal and external communications.

This emphasis on employee feedback is in keeping with a slew of specialized "best place to work" lists administered by other organizations--local and regional lists, industry-based lists, etc, as well as crowd-sourced lists like Glassdoor's, which are all either completely based on employee feedback or have feedback as a large component.

This approach makes a lot of sense, intuitively. It's democratic. It's Yelp-like, egalitarian. It gets inside what it can really mean to work at a company. At the same time, it does raise questions: if a great workplace is judged largely by intangibles--by what it feels like to work there--how sustainable is it? How easily could a crises, or a change in leadership, change employees' day-to-day experiences? Plus, how much of the good feeling at these companies might be built around a sort of clubbiness--a culture of fitting in? Do employees of different backgrounds feel like they are members of the same club? Are they even be invited to join? I don't know the answers to these questions. I raise them because I am always struck by the difference between best company lists like these and those administered by another giant in the field, Working Mother Media.

Working Mother Media has its own series of lists, including the annual "100 Best Companies" list (which does not, as some people assume, focus solely on working mothers) and others: "Top Companies for Women," "Best Companies for Multi-Cultural Women," and "Best Law-Firms for Women." All of these are very different from the Fortune-type lists, in that they include no employee survey component at all.

Instead, they rely on data. A lot of data. It's not so much about how a given workplace feels that matters, it's about what policies and programs are there to help and support employees in their work-life balance and (especially in the case of women) their opportunities for advancement. Working Mother applications ask hundreds of questions on dozens of topics, from leave policies to demographics at every organizational level. And the questions drill way, way down. For example: "What percentage of full-time, non-exempt employees is provided with access to informal or formal flextime? Full-time exempt employees ? Part-time employees?" Then: how many people actually used this program? How many men? How many women? How many of each among exempt employees? Nonexempt? Part-time? You get the picture...

In contrast, the employer portion of the GPTW application is largely open-ended. There is a relatively brief section with specific questions on policies, and virtually no drill-down on demographics or usage. Then there are well over a dozen completely open-ended questions, covering broad topics such as professional development, hiring practices, and recognition programs. These are scored very closely, don't get me wrong. Plenty of companies with excellent employee survey feedback don't get on the list because they don't have enough to say about their programs and policies in answer to these questions.

But this approach also makes the definition of a great company more of a gray area, amorphous and open to interpretation. In my last post, I touched on this, exploring the idea that there is no one blueprint for a great place to work. The flip side, however, is that this approach might make it that much more complicated for employers to figure out how to make their own workplace great. Perhaps some strong, egalitarian policies and practices, along with the culture to support them, are a good place to start?

It would be interesting to see how companies like Google and W.L. Gore would fare on the Working Mother application. Do their wonderful cultures serve to support the widespread use of strong, progressive policies promoting work-life balance, inclusion and advancement? Or are they substitutes for such policies? And if their employees are happy and engaged, does it matter?

Robin Hardman is a writer and work-life expert who works with companies to put together the best possible "great place to work" competition entries and creates compelling, easy-to-read benefits, HR, diversity and general-topic employee communications. Find her at www.robinhardman.com.