Do a quick Google search for “Best Places to Work,” and you’ll turn up an astonishing 92 million results, including Fortune Magazine’s Top 100 Employers, Working Mother 100 Best Companies, and Best Places to Work in Federal Government. Scroll down and you’ll see a best companies list for just about every major city in America.
For the organizations lucky enough to find a highly coveted spot on these “Best Places to Work” lists, it’s a public relations triumph. However, I’m not sure what the acclaim really signifies. Nor do I know what it means for the people who actually work in the organizations that work in these “best” organizations.
Too many toxic workplaces
Here’s why I’m confused. In past years, I’ve spoken with friends and business professionals at firms that have been listed. The context of these meetings has focused on discussing problems in their workplaces, ranging from supervisors who intimidated subordinates through disruptive bursts of anger to those who have harassed, lied, discriminated and excluded people from normal business interactions for reasons including race, religion, and sexual orientation.
Despite their employee-friendly policies and stated commitments, some of these firms’ leaders told me about colleagues at all levels who wouldn’t listen to problems or entertain dissent, creating toxic environments that sometimes resulted in legal claims. More than a few have faced public relations disasters that occurred when they ignored alarms sent by their own employees in their avowedly open workplaces.
For these business professionals, their actual experience at their workplace diminished any luster of their companies’ best workplace awards. Some shared with me that they felt stifled, encumbered and just wanted to get through the day, completing the basic requirements but nothing more.
Their imagination, excitement, commitment and engagement had been extinguished by the charged, and often, toxic environments in which they worked. They wanted to survive until better opportunities surfaced. Sadly, many ultimately left their award-winning employers’ workplaces despite the prizes, perks and other benefits offered to them.
Employee-friendly policies are a good start
Many leaders truly want to make their workplaces great places to work, and they focus on implementing system-wide policies that are fair, if not generous, concerning wages, benefits and job-enriching programs. Clearly, these factors are key ingredients for providing an attractive workplace.
But economics usually determine what organizations can or can’t do: Firms operating in high-margin businesses have greater latitude to spend more on employees, while outstanding organizations that deliver great services and products in leaner margin businesses are more restricted. In recent years, most employers have had to manage through punishing economic conditions that have made it challenging, if not impossible, to add new benefits and programs, let alone keep offering the ones they already have.
Steep decline in job satisfaction
However, what determines how work is done day by day is as much a function of how people are treated as how they are compensated.
According to a recent survey by The Conference Board, just 45 percent of workers are satisfied with their jobs, down significantly from 61 percent in 1987. Much of the dissatisfaction seems to stem not from the benefits provided, but rather from the workplace environment and the way they are supervised by their managers.
People “get” that we are living in harsh times. What they don’t get is why they have to endure both harsh times and mistreatment at the same time. In my view, employees shouldn’t have to endure abusive and unfair treatment in the course of doing their jobs, and organizations should not tolerate this behavior which creates unproductive and, even, legally risky work environments.
Changing behavior isn’t easy, but it pays off
However, make no mistake about it: Changing individual patterns of conduct is far harder to accomplish than building a fitness or day care center or installing a new cafeteria plan benefit. Money alone won’t be enough to change the organizational culture. Such changes require a steady commitment to behavioral standards that are managed with the same overall rigor as compensation and benefit plans. It also requires holding managers accountable if they fail to meet these standards.
The good news is that changing conduct is less costly than employee benefits. The challenge is getting the focused commitment of senior leadership.
That’s why I’m proposing that someone give an award for the best place to get work done – rather than merely the best place to work. My guess is that more employees would choose to stay at the “best places to get things done” than any other best workplace category.