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Here’s what makes an employer one of the “best companies to work for”


December 19, 2019   by Jason Contant


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We’ve all seen those “best companies to work for” lists (and perhaps even longingly wished we worked for one of them).

What does it take to be one of those companies? While there is no one formula that can capture the idiosyncrasies of these companies and the telling ways they motive employees, there are some common themes, according to a recent blog published by Harvard Business Review.

Michael O’Malley, managing director at business management consultant firm Pearl Meyer and the co-author (with Bill Baker) of Organizations for People, spent the last three years researching the best places to work in the United States. They looked at smaller and large businesses (from 250 employees to over 7,000,) in both the private and public sectors (including financial services). After researching, interviewing executives, meeting with human resources departments, conducting focus groups with employees, touring facilities, etc., the authors found the five common themes:

  • Put people first – The best places to work provide people with life satisfaction as opposed to job satisfaction alone. For example, one grocer, in addition to going “far beyond minimum wage” offers full health insurance coverage, matches dollars on all employee retirement saving plans up to 4% of income and pay profit profit sharing that ranges from 2-6% of worker salaries. Anyone who works at least 20 hours a week, including part-time workers, have access to these benefits. As a result, many people who work for the store have done so for generations, including several children of long-time employees.

Other companies go a step further, offering supplemental programs such as stress-reduction workshops, nutritional consultations, financial planning, and grievance counselling services. In an extreme example, one employer moved an employee from a third-floor apartment to a first-floor one after the worker had an auto accident, “placing possessions just as they had been before and providing technology to stay connected during the recuperation process. (The employee had only been working there for a short period of time).”

  • Help workers find and pursue their passions – Some companies find ways to rejuvenate employees by helping them identify their “calling.” Doing so not only increases productivity, it makes people feel happy – lucky even – to be at work, O’Malley wrote in What the “Best Companies to Work For” Do Differently, published Dec. 12.

The methods vary, but can include things like special programs or sabbaticals. One insurance company offers employees $1,500 per year to explore “whatever they choose” as a passion.

  • Bring people together on a personal level – Some organizations make a big deal out of significant dates, such as birthdays and anniversaries.

One company treats birthdays as paid holidays. Another provides new parents with a custom onesie, art books and toys, as well as a baby briefcase to help them keep their newborn’s details organized.

A third company sponsors monthly outings to baseball games, comedy clubs and off-Broadway shows.

  • Empower people to own their work – Allowing employees to control aspects of their work empowers employees to think and act like owners. “Employees who have the leeway to rearrange, modify, and improve their assignments feel possession over them, and once this happens, their mindsets begin to change,” O’Malley wrote. “Instead of focusing on what cannot be done, they become preoccupied with what can. As a result, they are more easily able to grow, innovate, and push their companies forward.”

One landscaping company that sits within 900 heavily wooded acres exemplifies this “ownership mindset” by giving landscapers their own acreage to tend in any way they think best given the terrain and surrounding architecture.

And for the best companies, failures are a fact of life and necessary for both personal and organizational growth. One employer created an “oops email box” as a place for all workers – founders included – to announce mistakes made, what others should be aware of because of them, and steps taken to correct them.

  • Create a space where people can be themselves – One financial and investing advice company has no dress code other than “to not wear anything that would embarrass your parents.”

Another, a publishing company, has a cover band comprised of employees from the graphic design department that plays at monthly meetings.

“People who behave in accord with their values have stickier work ethics,” O’Malley wrote. “They are morally engaged, less deferent to circumstance, and will choose principle over enticement.”

It’s safe to say that today too many businesses function with only their own interests in mind, O’Malley concluded. But “the organizations we studied have given themselves the best chance to succeed by recognizing the human as the heart of the workplace, the thing that keeps everything else running,” he said.


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1 Comment » for Here’s what makes an employer one of the “best companies to work for”
  1. Frank Cain says:

    The Fortune 500 Companies gave birth to the practice of top execs in an organization deliberately going out of their way to regularly meet all levels of staff as a way of letting those members know that management cares.

    After about 2 years of working in underwriting with an insurer of about 400 employees, I asked my colleagues if they had ever met the president of the company, the man we would see take the exclusive executive elevator to his top floor office while we jammed into ours. When they gave a collective “No”, I had an idea. I arranged with the Auto manager to meet the president. Shaking in your boots is one way to explain the meeting but I will be quick to admit he was gracious and interested in what I worked at. If the staff were not sure of why I wanted to meet the president of the company I worked for, they were quite certain I was a bit wonky for doing so.

    And in retrospect, it may not have been the best thing to do in those years – early ’50’s – because it was not encouraged nor normally sanctioned. And because if you are the only person wanting to do that, what was the grand scheme of things? You probably stood out for all the wrong reasons. But according to the Fortune 500, the president should have made himself available and because he didn’t it was for all the wrong reasons.

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