Can a company have a great culture without great programs and policies? For a while in the heyday of the new millennium, it seemed like the answer might be yes. Some of the most innovative companies in the world—Silicon Valley and e-commerce behemoths—were reinventing the workplace from inside out, smashing the boundaries between work and play. No longer was work drudgery. People played games on the job, they took their laptops to the beach, they sipped mochaccinos from the in-house café and took yoga breaks to de-stress. The watchword was fun.
Many of the employees who were lucky enough to work in these environments were, not surprisingly, thrilled with them. How do we know this? In addition to common sense, these were the sorts of companies that topped “best place to work” lists—at least those lists that were based largely on employee surveys.
Over time, however, this vision of what makes a great employer has begun to wear. It has come to the attention of many that while having fun at work is nice, it can’t substitute for, say, ensuring you won’t be sexually harassed. Or having the time you need to bond with a new baby. Or having benefits and real opportunities for advancement while working part-time.
Another limitation to these sorts of work environments was who got to take advantage of them. The freedom to come and go as you please is great if you have the kind of job that allows this, but what if you are on the manufacturing line at the very same company? Chair massages are swell, unless you can’t access them because you’re a retail employee on the floor. Fun team-building activities, flattened hierarchies that encourage creativity, spontaneity around the expresso machine—all of these culture changes have by and large been aimed at knowledge workers—they just aren’t practical for many other sorts of jobs.
If an organization’s culture is built on fun alone, centered on only certain groups of employees, or (by the way) dependent on leaders who come and go, it’s simply not enough. But layer it on a firm foundation of inclusive policies and programs that support all employees, protecting them from discrimination and harassment, allowing them to conduct their personal lives responsibly and meaningfully while contributing their best at work, and encouraging them to develop professionally and grow their careers—why, then you have a strong culture.
The biggest “best employer” lists are on to this. Interestingly, two of the biggest producers of such lists, Working Mother Media and Great Place to Work Institute, have come from opposite directions to land in similar philosophical territory.
Working Mother Media, an empire whose “best company” lists now include the Working Mother 100 Best Companies, Best Companies for Multicultural Women, Best Companies for Dads, DBP Inclusion Index and Best Law Firms for Women, has always put programs and policies first. In fact, an employee survey has never even been part of the application process to get on these lists. But in its early days (the 100 Best list has been around since 1985) organizations were asked what programs and policies they offered—not who actually both had the opportunity to use them and felt comfortable doing so.
The folks at Working Mother Media realized this and, over the years, have gradually modified their criteria. Today, employers vying to get on these lists are asked to contribute an enormous amount of data and information to indicate, one, what are company policies and programs to support employees, two, how many and which employees can and do take advantage of these policies and programs and three, what is the result—data and demographics to demonstrate retention and the advancement of women and traditional minorities.
Great Place to Work Institute (GPTW), on the other hand, once had a thoroughly free-style approach. The organization behind Fortune magazine’s annual “100 Best Companies to Work For” list, along with dozens of small company and special focus best company lists in the same magazine and, now, People’s new “Companies that Care” list, GPTW once mostly just asked companies to answer a series of rather vague, open-ended questions about their cultures, in almost any terms they wanted. And the lion’s share of the scoring ignored even this information—it was based on an employee survey.
GPTW still gives great weight to its employee survey in ranking companies on its lists, but a new, almost total emphasis on companies being great places to work “for all,” has had a significant impact on the way it chooses companies for recognition. Inclusiveness is all at GPTW—not just in the traditional sense of diversity & inclusion—although that’s important—but in the sense of including all the organization’s employees, no matter what their position or situation. Ultimately, that can only mean one thing: policies and practices that ensure it is possible for employees on the manufacturing line, employees cleaning the hospital rooms, employees working in a tiny outpost office far from HQ, all feel great about the place they work, too. Not to mention women, people of color, people with disabilities, LGBTQ+ people and so on.
Both Working Mother Media and the Great Place to Work Institute have clearly concluded that there’s more to being a great employer than just letting employees loose in a giant playground. They’ve come at it in different ways, from different directions, but ultimately it seems clear they agree on one thing: culture can’t float out there alone—it needs to be undergirded by a solid structure of thoughtful programs and policies.
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