Are “Best Companies to Work For” Really the Best?

Every time I see the results of any “Top Workplaces” survey, I grow very suspicious. Yet, I read on. Maybe THIS time a best company to supposedly work for found the magic formula, and actually is a great place to work. Because at times, I am surprised by some of the names on the list. For example, Enron was on Fortune‘s “100 Best Companies to Work for in America” list in 2000, one year before declaring bankruptcy. I’ll describe the challenges with these surveys, and why they may miss the real point to being the best.

The reality is, unless a company consistently makes the top of the list for multiple years running, and even then to some extent, these results are misleading. Survey takers are often under any number of influences that can skew results both ways, including but limited to, having a bad day, not liking their pay, working in a particularly great, or conversely, a particularly bad part of the company, they’ve been prepped, they suspect the results are not anonymous or are trying to be optimistic. After all, management told them for months how important a high score is.

Another problem with these surveys, or any similar “engagement survey,” is that the specificity required to produce results you can actually do something with, i.e. location, manager, division, function, job title, etc. ends up compromising the perceived anonymity.

Finally, the mounting importance companies put on the survey administration, results (or lack thereof) and subsequent action planning is misplaced. It can completely drain its resources for months with committees, action planning and reports on action plans, all with minimal impact. Dare I say, some great results may simply mirror the level of effort put in to preparing for the survey?

Besides, all that effort is missing the point.

And the point is this: if you want a “best place to work” or high engagement, manage performance. For supervisors, managers and others that lead people, manage them even more passionately. Put leaders in place that do the following:

  • Foster open communication and trust with their people.
  • Develop people predominantly through challenging team assignments or stretch projects.
  • Empower employees to act independently.
  • Set clear expectations.

Performance manage, and remove those that aren’t doing these things and place them in roles that are a better fit.

It’s fine to take these surveys to benchmark and track some general themes, but don’t be lulled into the trap of thinking survey data, results and action plans will change your culture or engagement. Focus on the real work that actually makes a difference: managing performance, and keenly choosing and developing leaders with the above qualities.

  1. This is very true in most to all companies. They have lost the ability to let the associates act independently and complete the job as they know it and not told how to do it and only that option. We have lost our way to treat people kindly and to notice by doing so will get more productivity, caring about their job, and just feeling like they accomplished something during their day and not feeling like just another day.


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