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If You Aspire to Be a Great Place to Work, You’ve Set the Bar Too Low

If You Aspire to Be a Great Place to Work, You’ve Set the Bar Too Low

Martha Finney, CEO. Career Landscapes

So the 2011 Fortune Best Companies to Work for list has been out new for several months.  Did anyone really notice it this year, except for the winning 100 companies?  I wonder if this is a notion whose time has come and gone. (File under:  Ho hum)

Like so many ideas that were appealing at the moment (with many of those landing the genius in the hospital), this phrase comes to mind:  “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” Now a new phrase – well, an old phrase – keeps cropping up: “They should just be glad they have a job.”  Is it any surprise I’m not a big fan of that one either?

By now companies that are aiming for the 2012 list have their expensive campaigns in full swing.  A lot of money is invested in communications packages and programs that the companies are convinced will help them stand out from the crowd of the poor schlubs that are just plain decent to their people.  But I’m thinking that “just plain decent” is the way to go now.  Who needs to bring their dog to work when what they really need is, say, a job where they’re treated respectfully and their skills are recognized and put to good use?

I think it’s time for the entire employee engagement conversation to undergo a 2.0 overhaul. We need to transform the topic of what makes a great place to work to what makes a culture where great people want to come to work.

This is not in any way meant to disparage The Great Places to Work Institute or call into question the authenticity of its intent and the quality of any individual company that competes to make the list. However, like any movement that starts out true and good and is fighting hard to keep its integrity, its core concept has also been hijacked by those who want to feed off the original vision, those who just want to win – or companies and consultants that want to make money helping employers make the list. With the emphasis focused on making the list rather than truly creating a place where people voluntarily contribute their absolute greatness – what William Blake called the divine spark – we have shifted our attention to the finger pointing at the moon and away from the moon itself.

We’ve gotten too fancy. As a result companies have become slave to the methodology rather than the mission. The elaborateness of survey instruments, indexes, even the doodads dangled in front of employees like bait reveal a fundamental disconnect that persists: Employees – one by one -- are looking for a job (or life’s work) that they can truly pour their hearts into. The result? The company has an extensive, Byzantine metrics system set up to gauge how engaging its managers are. And it has a doodads list long enough to encircle the globe. But there is absolutely no understanding of what passions truly burn in the hearts of its employees. One very common tell-tale sign: The company has a web-enabled careers tab that may be state-of-the-art technology-wise, but it has the inspiring welcome of a flounder flat and dead on a platter.

Instead of aiming to be a so-called great place to work, employers should shift their emphasis to becoming the place where great employees know they can wisely invest their passion, creativity, hearts and smarts.

But first, do we really know what a great employee is?

  • Great employees passionately identify with the company’s mission and they’ll go to extremes to help the organization achieve its goals.
  • Great employees don’t care about arcade games and free coffee; they care about customer service, innovation and making the world a better place as a general result from their daily efforts.
  • Great employees can get very angry when they see evidence of their company’s purpose sliding off the rails; so in this sense they can be very uncomfortable to be around at times.
  • Great employees love to close a sale, please a customer, find the solution, find an even better solution, and do all these things with coworkers who are as passionate about their work as they are.

This is what great employees want: They want to believe in the company’s mission. They want a clear line of site between their efforts and the company’s most essential goals. They want to know that trust and respect flow both ways between themselves and their managers – and among their coworkers, for that matter.  They want to know that they’re heard and believed and acknowledged – not as aggregated statistics but as individuals with original, epic points of view of their own. They want to keep pushing the boundaries of their potential. They want to know that their tenure with their employer is an essential part of their own life’s saga. There has to be meaning in their efforts on a daily basis. But more than that, they want to be able to look back on their life’s career journey and say, “Ah, yes, I see exactly the reason why I was there at that time.”

To borrow a phrase from our metaphysical friends: Employees aren’t merely human beings having a corporate experience. They are individuals using their careers as one way to express the fullness of who they are in this life on this planet.

There’s that joke you’ve probably heard before: The narcissist says, “Well, enough about me, let’s talk about you. How do you feel about me?” That has been the essential driver of most of the conversations around best places to work. Tedious survey questions asking employees how they feel about the company. The company that truly attracts and keeps the great employees will find its own greatness as an employer when it stops to ask of its employees, “Who are you in your heart, mind and dreams? How can we help you make those dreams come true? Come. Sit. Tell us all about it.”

Shift your focus from becoming a great place to attracting great employees. And they’ll give you the moon.


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Martha I. Finney is the author of The Truth About Getting the Best From People, and a consultant specializing in employee engagement. For a free consultation on how you can build a vacation-friendly workplace culture, email Martha at

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