Aiming to get on next year’s Working Mother Best Companies list? The application, which also includes the opportunity to apply for “Top Companies for Women,” is now available, and the clock is ticking till the early March deadline. There’s a lot of data to gather, and those pesky holidays are coming, so it’s a wise company that starts organizing its application process early.
Each year, the folks at Working Mother tweak the application slightly. I notice that this year’s changes include tighter text limits for the essays. Instead of being limited to 2,500 words—a parameter that is inherently a bit loose—application administrators have now imposed a strict character count: 11,500. On average, this gives you fewer than 2,000 words per essay. (One essay, with three sub-topics, is required for the Best Companies list; another essay is required of those also wanting to put their company in the running for the Top Companies for Women list. )
If you think a shorter essay is good news, you might want to think again. Getting all the information you want to share into a limited space can be challenging, to say the least. As the philosopher Blaise Pascal once wrote:
I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.
I’ve written before about how to fit maximum meaning into minimum space—some good tips, if I do say so myself, and I recommend you check them out. But telling your story is about more than fitting more information into fewer words. It’s about choosing that information carefully, and using your limited space to showcase your organization in the best possible light. Here are some ways to do that, based on the kinds of mistakes I’ve seen many of my clients make:
Define your terms.
Make sure a reader that’s not actually in your company will know what you’re talking about. Avoid industry jargon, spell out any but the most obvious acronyms the first time you use them, explain program names, explain systems and processes that may be unfamiliar outside of your organization or field.
How does the program/policy/practice you’re describing work, exactly? Why did you implement it? What results were you looking for and what results have you gotten? What are your next steps—do you have any plans to revise, build on or expand it? If it is a pilot, how will you determine whether it is a success, and—if it is—what happens next?
Highlight what’s unique.
Not to scare you, but the essay question in the Working Mother 100 Best application comes only after you’ve made your way through hundreds of down-and-dirty, direct questions about your organization’s demographics, benefits, policies and programs. So in this case, the devil is in the details Working Mother didn’t ask about. What makes your program different from similar programs at other companies? How does its design reflect your particular mission, values, culture, workforce, or even geographic region?
Having a program or policy available is nice, but it’s far more important to demonstrate it’s actually serving its purpose. Do you have data on how many people actually use the program? On how many have reported satisfaction with it? On how the program correlates with certain outcomes—for example, on how employee attrition decreased after a flexibility program was offered, or how many more women were hired after changes were made to hiring practices, or how many fewer absences there were following the introduction of a stress-reduction program? (If you don’t have any such data, this is your wake-up call: time to start incorporating more metrics into your planning.)
Use examples and quotes.
Take the time to hunt up the best stories you can find about employees’ use of a program. Think in terms of the program’s goal—why was it implemented in the first place? Then see if you can find an example that illustrates how this goal was met.
For example, if you’ve recently expanded your parental leave policy to give parents the option to phase back into work via a temporary part-time schedule, try to find an employee who made use of this time and talk about why it made a difference for them. If you offer a mentorship program for women, tell the story of an employee who credits the program with her promotion. A quote like “I was really stuck, but thanks to my mentor I found exactly the path I needed to get to move into a director-level job” is stronger than, “What a great program!”
Kill all the lawyers.
No, no, I’m not meaning to incite violence here. I’m just quoting a little Shakespeare (Henry VI: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers”) to drive home a point: try to keep the legal-ese out of your essay. It not only takes up unnecessary space, it bogs down your story. And it really is unnecessary. All policies and programs come with legal caveats. No one is going to get into trouble for omitting to mention that an employee who abuses a flex time policy may be asked to return to a traditional schedule. Or that a woman’s disability leave for pregnancy requires a doctor’s note. Similarly, if you’ve got a company name that takes 30 characters to write out, don’t let your legal department bully you into writing it out at every single mention!
Follow these 6 tips and you’ll be well on your way to showcasing every ounce of work-life greatness your company’s got—even with tighter-than-ever space limits.
The Working Mother 100 Best Companies application is out! Time to start planning. I can help you sort out the process and tell your company’s story: Let’s talk.
I blog about work-life, diversity, wellness and other aspects of great workplaces as often as I find the time (which means a couple times a month, if I’m lucky). Want to get my next post delivered to your inbox? Sign up here!