On Tuesday, I’m heading to Atlanta, where for two-plus days I’ll barely step out of the Hyatt Regency. Am I excited at the prospect? You bet!
That’s because I’ll be spending those two days at the Great Place to Work Conference, run by the institute that developed and administers all the Fortune “Best Companies to Work For” lists. The annual conference draws hundreds of representatives of organizations on these lists—including an impressive number of CEOs—and hundreds more of list wannabes.
The program is always inspiring and frequently quite entertaining, as leaders get up one after another to show off their ultra-cool workplaces. Over the years, I’ve heard about companies where you can opt to slide between floors instead of taking the stairs, companies where top leadership runs meetings in drag, companies whose ethics-training videos are actually laugh-out-loud funny.
But the folks from the Great Place to Work Institute (GPTW), as well as many from the “Best Companies,” themselves, would be the first to tell you that you don’t have to have nap pods and ping pong tables to be considered for these lists. You just have to have employees who feel they are trusted and empowered, treated fairly and respectfully, and encouraged to enjoy their work. And you have to make sure the folks at GPTW know that.
There’s no shortcut to getting on the 100 Best list.
It’s an in-depth application process. You can’t fake it: the heart of the application—two thirds of your score—is a confidential survey of your employees. No one gets on this list unless the vast majority of their employees agree that theirs is truly a great place to work.
But the final third of your score is based on what you say about your organization. It may not count for as much, but it does count, and you ignore it at your peril. This third of the application is called the Cultural Audit, and it has two parts. Part 1 is a long list of short-answer and yes/no questions about demographics and benefits. This part isn’t so bad; it just takes time and care to get it right.
Part 2 is the one you may have heard about. In its current iteration, it comprises sixteen open-ended questions, such as “What are the distinctive ways in which managers share information with employees and foster a culture of transparency?” “How does your company promote a sense of fairness?” “How do you encourage fun and camaraderie…?” etc. And when I say open-ended, I mean open-ended. No word counts for the GPTW: you are free to write as much—or as little—on every topic as you like.
This fact—no boundaries—instills an existential terror into some who open the application. How much should I write? What should I include? In how much detail? The simple (and obnoxious) answers are: write until you have answered the questions. Include everything that’s relevant, in as much detail as is necessary to get your story across. But since I realize that isn’t necessarily terribly helpful, herewith are three tips for attacking the GPTW Cultural Audit, Part 2:
Get Beyond “What” to “How” Cultural Audit Part 2 is your chance to brag about the things that make your organization unique. You can’t do that with platitudes and broad generalizations. For example, I don’t think there’s a company in the U.S. today that doesn’t “value teamwork.” So the question is not whether or not you value teamwork, but how you act on that: how does your structure promote teamwork? what kind of rewards do you have for it? what specific recruiting or interviewing techniques do you use to ensure you’re hiring people who will work well in teams?
Likewise, anyone can say that senior leadership is available to answer questions (and everybody does), but how does your company show that? A senior leader at one organization hands out extra vacation time to employees who ask questions spontaneously at Town Halls. Now that’s a good story to tell.
Remember What Matters, Even if It Isn’t Specifically Asked. For example, the folks at GPTW care a lot about employees having a chance to contribute their thoughts and ideas. They ask about it specifically, with three whole questions out of the sixteen falling under the category of “Listening.” So don’t limit your mention of employee input to these three questions. If you’re writing about your training program, and some of the courses were developed in response to employee requests, be sure to say that! If you’re writing about rewards programs, and some awards are based on recognition by peers, make that clear!
But DON’T Say It Ad Nauseum. I’ve helped a lot of companies with their Best Company submissions. And many times they don’t say nearly enough—they err on the side of generalities, leave out all examples and stories, focus on the what and not the how. But sometimes I see a company that is so proud of one or two particular aspects of its culture that it can’t stop talking about it. Over and over again. The same exact examples, the same exact data. This can happen easily if you’re writing by committee, with different subject matter experts assigned to different questions—and no one editor overseeing the whole thing. It can also happen if you get confused by the questions—you’re not quite sure what question your story fits best, so you put it down in answer to all the questions.
Either way, it’s a mistake. As GPTW makes clear in its instructions, you only need write about something once. You can then use a word or a sentence to refer back to it elsewhere in the submission. The folks at GPTW probably stress this mostly to make both your and their lives easier. (After all, they have to read through this thing—twice over, in fact, as part of their scoring process.) But I have another reason for saying this is a mistake, and it has to do with strong communication.
There’s a rule of thumb among communicators that once is not enough; you have to say something repeatedly to get your message across. And while this is absolutely true, I offer one caveat: not in the same piece of writing! Say it once, it’s a great story. Say it twice, it’s a trifle annoying. Say it three times, and I think, at best, that you have nothing else to say and, at worst, “the lady doth protest too much”— maybe this thing you’re writing about isn’t so darn special, after all.
So There You Have It:
Write until you have answered the questions. Include everything that’s relevant, in as much detail as is necessary to get your story across (and no more). And see if you aren’t the one up there showing off at next year’s Great Place to Work conference.
Still rather not do it all yourself? Contact me for customized help with your GPTW submission.*
*You can also download 10 free tips to a stronger best place to work application here.