Busted: 'Best Places to Work' Lists
If most ‘best places to work’ lists are to be believed, most of corporate America is headquartered in Lake Woebegone, where all the employers are above average.
You don’t have to be much of a skeptic to wonder what the real truth is behind the sunny quotes and breathless editorial comments: Foosball! Free coffee! Shuttle buses around the corporate campus! All the Cheerios you can eat!
Lists sell magazines, and newspapers, and attract readers online. That’s the driving force behind them. Here’s how to see past the hype and glean some useful information from all the happy talk.
First , some quick backstory. I’m the Deep Throat of ‘best’ lists because I helped start the trend – back in1998 I designed and subsequently managed six cycles of Working Woman magazine’s Top 25 Companies for Executive Women list. The methodology I figured out was sturdy enough to form the platform for industry ‘best’ lists my firm, Wilson-Taylor Associates, Inc., manages. So of course I think that our methodology is the best. We combine demographics, qualitative questions and phone interviews to understand a company’s programs, culture and how all that effort actually adds up to a great place for women to work. And we cover our basic costs with an administrative fee.
Others, I am sad to say, are not as thorough. Here’s a quick field guide to “Best Places to Work” lists.
It’s Easy! The first thing most companies want to know about a list is not “how credible is your methodology?” but “how much time will it take for us to fill out your survey?” That’s why many survey companies emphasize how quick and easy it is to fill out their questionnaires. A U.K. survey firm offers its services free to many U.S. newspapers. I took a look at its survey. The firm brags that it takes only 20 minutes to fill it out. Lightweight process, lightweight results.
Tune your B.S. detector to: The original questionnaire. Click to the website of the survey company and look for the section that invites companies to participate. If it brags about how quick and easy it is, you can discount the list.
It’s Free! You’d think that big outfits like Fortune would put plenty of reporting muscle into their lists. You’d think wrong. Here’s the tradeoff Fortune makes: The Great Place to Work Institute runs the project, Fortune gets the exclusive results for free, and GPTW gets hundreds of sales leads for Brilliant marketing on the part of GPTW – but you sure don’t hear Fortune editors bragging about their clever swap.
Tune your B.S. detector to: How the research partner makes money. Look at its website. If the big selling point is that there is no cost to participate, then clearly income is coming not from administrative fees but from upselling reports, sponsorships, events or somewhere else. Does that color the results? What do you think?
We ask employees what THEY think! Some surveys claim to collect job satisfaction feedback from employees. To do that, they have to send out emails to employees. Who controls the email list? Human resources and public relations staffs. Do you think for a minute they will send out a survey to employees without first informing those employees how they might consider responding? Of course not. They’d be fools not to.
Tune your B.S. detector to: Glassdoor.com. This is like Yelp! for employees, with insider reviews of company culture, salaries, and what questions are asked during job interviews. If there is a huge gap between the “best” list happy talk and the unfiltered employee opinions on Glassdoor, believe Glassdoor.
We’re repeat winners! Or, repeat offenders. Working Mother Media has been embarrassed several times recently when companies on its “Working Mother magazine “100 Top Companies for Working Mothers” list were the subject of discrimination lawsuits, among them, PriceWaterhouseCoopers.
Tune your B.S. detector to: the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Under the Obama Administration, the EEOC has gotten much more assertive. As the recession ground on, age and gender discrimination complaints rose, and the EEOC brought and won more complaints. Simply plug in the company’s name in the search box and you’ll see if it has been charged with any complaints or had to pay fines. And, Google the name of the company plus ‘discrimination’ or ‘lawsuit.’ You will turn up gems like the Novartis gender discrimination case. Novartis was just pleased as punch to land on the. Working Mother included Novartis partly on the basis of groundbreaking innovations like “lunch and learns” on pediatric issues from sleep to nutrition at firm headquarters, with a dial-in option for moms who can’t attend in person.” Wow! Not so impressive, though, when you learn that the company had to pay $250 million in punitive damages for discriminating against women employees.
Lists aren’t completely useless: they tell you what companies are determined enough to polish their reputations that they are willing to at least apply. It’s up to you to do what the editors won’t: dig for the whole story. Tell us about your experience with "Best Place to Work" lists.
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