What Makes a Great Place to Work? Inclusiveness is Key

For probably a dozen years, I’ve attended the annual Great Place to Work Conference. It’s the biggest event of the year for the Great Place to Work Institute (GPTW), the organization behind Fortune’s various “best places to work” lists. The conference brings together HR, communications, and other professionals from companies of all sizes that have made the list, aspire to make the list, or just want to learn from the best.

The event has always been impressive for its array of top-notch speakers, usually including a pantheon of CEOs. But last year’s conference signaled a small but important change. GPTW’s new president, Michael Bush, delivered a funny and moving presentation that, among other things, emphasized for the first time that all employees, in every sort of job, at every rung of the ladder, deserve a great place to work. Sure enough, this year’s conference, held a couple weeks ago in Chicago, had a new name: Great Place to Work For All.

It’s All About Inclusion

Many aspects of great workplaces were touched upon during the two day event, but one of the most striking and persistent themes running throughout was inclusiveness. By inclusiveness I mean, in part, what that word has come to mean in corporate jargon: ensuring recruitment, hiring, promotion and general cultural practices are inclusive of women, non-white and LGBT individuals, those with disabilities and so on.

Yet at first, the organizers seemed to have made a glaring misstep. A morning devoted to “fireside chats” with senior executives featured a white male moderator and, one after another, four white male Chairmen and CEOs. (This doesn’t mean inclusion wasn’t part of the discussion, though. In particular, PwC’s Chairman Tim Ryan talked about holding frank discussions about race across the entire company, and how he began to understand the way many employees feel they must mask their true selves at work. “Business clothes are a sort of magic cape,” he said, in a reference to what is sometimes called “covering.

Fortunately, by the first afternoon more diversity was at hand, and from then on plenaries, panels, and breakout sessions featured leaders who broke decisively away from the white male mold.

In fact, one of the most moving moments of the entire conference was a keynote by Beth A. Brooke-Marciniak, Global Vice Chair of Public Policy for EY. spoke about her decision to come out as gay in her professional life at age 50, when she was already established as an influential global business leader, and her discovery that the move gave her the ability to contribute to the company in ways she never had before. Her message? “You are valuable because of your difference, not in spite of it.”

Taking Inclusion Further

But as I’ve mentioned, a “Great Place to Work For All” refers to more than just traditional categories of diversity. At the conference, it repeatedly included an emphasis on all employees, in every job. When, during a plenary session, a hotel employee was asked to bring an additional chair onto the main presentation stage, Bush (who is African-American) asked his name, shook his hand and thanked him. In a breakout session led by staff of the supermarket chain Wegmans (currently number 2 on the “100 Best Places to Work” list), the presenters spoke about sharing success and communicating their mission with employees from senior executives to part-timers, from professional staff to those employees whose job it is to retrieve shopping carts from the parking lot. The CEO of Marriott described how the company’s board had moved away from a focus on prestigious educational backgrounds—what school did a candidate go to?—to a focus on career paths.

You Thought You Knew GoDaddy? Think Again

Not too long ago, GoDaddy (the website hosting company) had acquired such notoriety that it was having trouble hiring. You probably remember those Superbowl ads, which depicted women in ways that managed to offend just about everyone. While the ad campaign was eventually pulled, it left some serious damage to the company’s recruitment efforts, and apparently the culture on-site wasn’t much better, because attrition among women was high.

It was the memory of those ads that drew me to the company’s break-out session, “Driving Unconscious Bias Out of Our Culture.” It seemed like a complete mismatch with GoDaddy’s image. But in fact, it turned out that this notoriety was precisely the driver of a complete cultural turnaround. When the company finally woke to the fact that their reputation preceded them wherever they went, and they were missing out on, and losing, good talent every day, they took action.

Partnering with the Clayman Institute, they looked closely at promotion and compensation data, and found women were consistently left behind. (Sometimes, as I’m sure happens in many organizations, management had to move beyond their own unconscious biases even to see the facts, and a company mantra has become, “get comfortable with uncomfortable data.”) They then looked at people processes, across the board, and found them riddled with bias. Their response was to work on the processes themselves, from hiring to performance management. They also instituted training but, surprisingly, it was not free-standing unconscious bias training. Instead, GoDaddy decided to incorporate an awareness of unconscious bias into all of its existing training related to people processes, across the board. And it took another major step: promotion flagging.

The idea behind promotion flagging is simple. Every single employee is flagged at regular intervals—a year, 18 months, 24 months, etc—depending on their job level. The flag simply means, “this person has worked in this position long enough; they might be ready for a promotion.” It’s not a guarantee of a promotion, it’s just a means to ensure no one is overlooked. The result of this simple innovation? Promotions among women and minority employees nearly doubled!

And the result of the entire campaign? GoDaddy’s ratings on Glassdoor have soared, the number of applicants has risen from 10,000 to 90,000 per year, half of new hires are now women, and the voluntary attrition rate has dropped from 18% (mostly women) to 14% (equal parts men and women). Impressive!

Many Factors Make a Great Place to Work…

…and, as I’ve said, the conference touched on all kinds of other topics, including many references to innovation and embracing change. But I found I had more than enough food for thought simply by chewing on the wonderfully simple and humane concept that everyone deserves a job in which they can thrive.

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