List or Lie?

Here’s how ‘best places to work’ lists are put together – and what editors don’t want you to know. 

The annual  carnival of “best places to work” lists has just kicked off with Fortune magazine’s  “100 Best Companies to Work For.” The list celebrates benefits and activities that are often unrelated to productivity or career advancement.  Boston Consulting Group lets you do work for Save the Children. Zappos.com strives for a culture that’s fun with a little weirdness.

Hooray for BCG and Zappos and the other 98. But what do these very fringe benefits have to do with the point of working: getting paid well and equitably; having opportunities to advance; and growing  professionally without  compromising your underlying motivation for working – supporting and enjoying your family and your life? 

Here’s what the editors of Fortune and scores of other publications don’t want you to know about their lists: they focus on soft benefits because they don’t bother with the hard numbers.

I’ve previously written about the shady methodology of many “best place to work” lists.

Who am I to criticize? Someone who helped start the entire craze for such lists. I’ve been designing and managing “best places to work” lists since 1998, starting with the Top 25 Companies for Executive Women list for Working Woman magazine. Right now, my firm, Wilson-Taylor Associates, Inc., is in the middle of the Accounting MOVE Project for the American Society of Women Accountants and the American Woman’s Society of CPA’s.

Here’s what editors don’t want you to know about their lists.

So easy, even monkey can do it! 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.

We get a free list, you get lots of sales leads. You’d think that big outfits like Fortune would put plenty of reporting muscle into their lists. You’d be 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. Brilliant marketing on the part of GPTW – but you sure don’t hear Fortune editors bragging about their clever swap.

Employee input is rigged. 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.

That’s why one of the most reliable elements of ‘best places to work’ lists is the public feedback posted after the company wins. Scan the marshmallowy profile of the winning company – but scour the public feedback. That’s where you’ll get the truth.

Image courtesy of Morguefile contributor beglib.

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  1. […] It doesn’t matter if you have a public relations department capable of keeping your company on “best places to work” lists, racking up awards for pronouncements made by top executives, regardless of the reality experienced […]



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