Pity Great Place to Work! For nearly two dozen years, the global consulting firm has been producing “best workplace lists” around the world, including the best known one here in the United States, Fortune’s annual “100 Best Places to Work.” As I have described in past posts, the entire process and approach got a makeover a few years ago, when a new CEO, Michael Bush, introduced a deep focus on diversity.
Initially, the new focus largely entailed a shift in the way applications for the prestigious list were weighted. To get on the list, companies had always completed a multi-faceted application process, including a critically-important confidential employee survey and numerous short-answer and open-ended essay questions. While Great Place to Work (GPTW) did streamline this process considerably for companies with fewer than 1,000 employees, and also introduced a lower-bar, relatively simpler process by which organizations of all sizes could become “Great Place to Work Certified,” the application process itself remained mostly unchanged for large organizations. Instead, the scoring changed. Beginning a few years ago, companies that hoped to get a high ranking—or get on the list at all—had to demonstrate that they treated all employees fairly—across all demographics and in even the “lowliest” role.
Then last fall, GPTW took its changes a step further, announcing a more streamlined process that reduced the number of open-ended essay questions from 15 to just 6. The new questions honed in on factors they’d long been emphasizing as key to a great workplace: trust, maximizing potential, leadership effectiveness, values and innovation—with a tremendous weighting toward ensuring these factors applied to all employees. It was possibly the biggest process change since the list was introduced in 1997. And it was set to go into effect right about now, as companies began the annual process of applying for next year’s 100 Best list, with applications due in the fall.
It’s my understanding that GPTW had spent a considerable amount of time planning this change before rolling it out. Companies began scrambling to pull together in-depth responses to the new questions. And then came Covid-19.
Organizations that normally would be administering the required confidential employee survey, perhaps secure in the knowledge that their employees were largely very happy campers, were instead sending those same employees off to work at home—or laying them off. Employees who had been engaged and satisfied with their work found themselves fearful for their lives, struggling to figure out how to work out of their bedrooms, and discovering new meaning in the phrase “work-family balance.” During a time when some companies would be forming 100 Best task forces, or assigning a few people the full-time job of managing the application process, they were instead addressing urgent questions of when, whether, and how to bring employees back to the workplace. And it wasn’t just a matter of everyone being busy. It was a matter of what mattered. Suddenly it seemed that being a great place to work in 2020 would come down to just one thing—how did you handle the pandemic?
GPTW saw that, and went with it. Returning for the second time in less than a year to the drawing board, the company announced a temporary adjustment to its application process. Instead of the 15 open-ended essay questions contenders have responded to for years, or the 6 that had earlier been announced for this year, there would be one single question: “Tell us about the bold acts of leadership your organization has taken in response to the Covid-19 crisis to create a great workplace For All for your people, in your community or in the world.”
The change was announced in mid-April, and for many employees it may well still be the key question. But we are living through a time so unprecedented that “unprecedented” itself has become an inadequate and overused modifier, and events have spun into a whole new phase since GPTW introduced its revised application for 2020. Suddenly, Covid-19 is almost forgotten, as thousands of people take to the streets day after day demanding racial justice.
As I write this, on the day of George Floyd’s funeral, the most important question to ask has surely become this: how are you responding to the seismic change being called for in the streets? GPTW knows this—they have already posted a series of articles for employers on racism, candid conversations, and supporting Black employees. So the question is…will GPTW take its blue pencil to the 100 Best application yet again?
Frankly, I hope so. And if they do, I hope organizations will use it as an opportunity for some serious soul-searching. To be clear, many companies have already responded to the protests with strong words of support, and some are even putting their money where their mouths are. But all these words and dollars may not be enough. To paraphrase the aphorism, racial justice begins at home, and if companies want to make a real difference one essential first step would be to look within.
An article in The New York Times recently addressed this issue head on. Under the blunt headline “Corporate America Has Failed Black America,” business journalist David Gelles quotes Black corporate leaders and board members, laying out a forcible condemnation of business for its chronic failure to give more than lip service to either internal diversity or justice:
“Many of the same companies expressing solidarity [with the protesters] have contributed to systemic inequality, targeted the black community with unhealthy products and services, and failed to hire, promote and fairly compensate black men and women.”
Gelles goes on to point out that there are just four Black CEOs among the Fortune 500, and that many of the most ubiquitous American companies have no Black people at all on their senior leadership teams. With such a gross lack of representation, is it any wonder that companies are, on the whole, failing to respond adequately to a movement like Black Lives Matter?
The next 100 Best Companies list comes out in April 2021. It’s hard to imagine what any of our lives will be like then. But here’s hoping the list brings us news of companies that have taken real steps toward creating a better world.
Think your company may have what it takes to be a Fortune 100 Best Company? Let me help you tell your story on that or another great workplace application!
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