How to Bust a “Best” List

“Best Places to Work’ lists can be lies. Here’s how you can bust through the happy talk and get to the truth.

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! Editors think they are doing the public a big favor by naming ‘best’ workplaces, but of course, such lists are typically more aligned with advertising and revenue strategies than readers’ priorities. Here’s how to make an end run around the editors and corporate spinmeisters to find out: how good are these ‘best’ companies, really?

  •   Read the comments sections.  “Flextime Flourishes in Accounting Industry” was a big wet kiss from the New York Times to the Big Four accounting firms, which of each have staffs devoted to bragging about how great their work-life programs are. Unfortunately for PR types, the 54 comments that follow the Times article tell quite a different story.  Most lists and articles have comments sections. Don’t just read the story. Go back a week later and read the comments. That’s where the truth outs.
  • Join, which is like Yelp for employees. You can find out how well employees anonymously rate the culture and leadership of their companies.  Ernst & Young, which comes off like nirvana in the NYT story, rates a mediocre 3.4, or “ok” at Glassdoor.  Be fair: if you use the ratings, contribute to them, too.
  • Search for complaints at 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.
  • Finally, 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 magazine “100 Top Companies for Working Mothers” list. 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.

Image courtesy of Morguefile contributor dpawatts.


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