Are the "Best Companies to Work For" really the best companies to work for?

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The other day I noticed that the application deadline to be considered for the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For list is this week. My company is too small to be considered for this honor (you must have at least 1000 employees), but I always pay close attention when the rankings come out, and I'm sure many of you do as well. On the 2011 list, the #1 company was SAS, followed by Boston Consulting Group and Wegmans (see all 100 here).

The organization that does the ranking, The Great Place to Work Institute, has been running this competition for years and has a rigorous process for selecting the final list.

Yet when I read the articles written about the top companies or browse the list in Fortune, I always feel like something is missing. I finally put my finger on it:

I believe the evaluation process is benefit-heavy and mission-light.

What do I mean? When I read about the top companies, most of the emphasis seems to be on the salary and benefits offered to employees; which companies pay the most and have the best or most unusual employee perks (life coaches, wine bars, or Botox anyone?).

But the section of the report I want to see is nowhere to be found:

Which companies are doing things that matter?

  • Which companies have a noble mission or purpose and are helping make the world a better place?
  • Which companies have a bold vision and are leading innovation that is changing the world?
  • Which companies are doing such amazing or interesting stuff that they are attracting the world's top talent?

You see, I'm not someone who would find a company a great place to work because it offers a big paycheck and fantastic benefits. I need my work to be personally fulfilling. I need to feel like I have a chance to make a difference, to do something great.

I don't think I'm alone.

Previously, I've written about something I call cultural fool's gold, my term for an organizational culture built exclusively on entitlements.

If you want to test whether you work in an entitlement-driven culture, just ask a few people what they like most about working at your company. If they immediately jump to things like free snacks and drinks, the work-from-home policy, or the employee game room, you may have a culture made of fool's gold, an entitlement-driven culture.

If instead they say things like these:

  • I believe in what we are doing.
  • I love coming to work every day.
  • I leave work each day with a sense of accomplishment.
  • I am changing the world.

you probably work in the only type of organization I'd personally ever consider—a mission-driven organization.

So the big question I'd pose to the folks at the Great Place to Work Institute:

Should there be a "best places" list for those of us who not only want to work someplace great, but want to do something great?

Maybe the Institute should consider a new list for those of us who demand more from our workplaces than big salaries, comfortable benefits, and free Botox injections?

Perhaps it could be called Best Places To Do Great Work or Workplaces with Purpose for People With Purpose or something like that?

The world has changed. I think many of the people graduating for our universities today will demand more than just great benefits from their employers. They'll want to do meaningful work and be a part of a community of others looking for the same.

Personally, I hope to see the way we rate "the best places to work" in the future change to accommodate people like me.

What do you think?

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Chris Grams is the Head of Marketing at Tidelift and author of The Ad-Free Brand: Secrets to Building Successful Brands in a Digital World. Twitter LinkedIn Email: chris(at)


I am curious about two things:
1. How would companies with less than 1,000 employees rate using the current rating system.
2. How companies with less than 1,000 employees would rate versus bigger companies using the mission-heavy metric that you suggest

I suppose smaller companies probably have even more unique benefits they can offer than the larger ones do. For example, we have our "no policy policy" here at New Kind and we have a beautiful office building with a koi pond underneath with good wireless reception, perfect for working outside on nice days like today. Not every big company could afford to have a no policy policy or a koi pond for every 10 employees.

So I believe small companies might offer benefits/entitlements that are just as valuable, they may just look a lot different than those that big companies can offer (consider also that many people view the #1 benefit of being at a small company is the ability to make a difference and see the impact of your efforts).

As for your 2nd question, my guess is that any entrepreneurial venture probably started with someone who was passionate about *something*. So in smaller companies, there may be a higher chance of being mission or purpose-driven, my guess is that as companies get bigger that people often can become more disconnected from that core passion or mission... but it doesn't have to be that way, as many of the most successful mission-driven companies we see today have proven.

Great article. Thanks a bunch.Recardo Semler's Semco, Zappos, & WL Gore make the list of "Best Places to Do Great Work". What would be the criteria to shortlist companies to this list. Even in big companies there are pockets of people doing Great Work, how would these companies fit in.

This is a great thought... and maybe one that organizations might consider internally too! Why couldn't a big company have its own list of the "Best Places to Work" highlighting departments or groups within the organization that are models of the values and culture the whole organization would like to embody?

That might be a fantastic way to reward and showcase the desired culture of the organization in a way that might inspire other internal groups to follow the lead...

thanks for the great ideas!

I don't disagree with you on preferring a mission-based way to spend eight or more hours of every day. But I wonder what the split is on how people view their work lives. How many stuck in free-soda-and-botox companies have even heard of a mission-based company? How many don't even think that as a [insert relatively unexciting but necessary job here], they have the opportunity to change anything?

If that possibility has never occurred to you, and you see employment as something you have to do to keep putting food on your table and paying for the hotel during your hard-earned two weeks of vacation, then sodas and botox rank pretty highly on keeping you happy during your eight hours in a cage.

And then beyond that, I think there's the combo deal--the types of places where the benefits make spending time on the mission that much easier. If the day care is downstairs, so you don't have to worry about driving across town when something happens to your kid. If there's a doctor/hairdresser/farmer's market on site. Then it's not so much entitlement-driven as supporting employees to work towards your mission. I don't think the two are mutually exclusive.

To put it in my brand positioning nerd mindset, for me personally, working for a mission-based company would be the "point of difference" and having decent benefits would be a "point of parity," meaning that the benefits would only have to be "good enough" that given how excited I am about the company, I'd still want to work there.

I agree with you that everyone does not think that way though. Many people have really good reasons why benefits would be their point of difference and having a great mission would just be a nice side benefit, and I totally respect that.

My big point is that there *are* other people out there like me who care more about the mission than the perks, and when you read the materials surrounding the Best Places to Work list (even though there are many companies on the list that DO have great missions), that doesn't seem to be a key thread in the way the listed is developed.

I think it should be.

I agree that this list is really more of a "Companies that take the best care of their employees" list than a "best places to work" list.

However, I think most people who have worked for a mission-oriented organization have also experienced the downside... being pushed to work longer, harder, and for less, because you care about the goals. So to me, that's where the "taking care of your employees" comes into play as being an important bit of the picture.

In other words, I agree with Ruth when she says that a company can use perks to free up their employees' minds to focus on their mission. A company whose mission I believe in, but who doesn't pay me enough to afford to put my kids in a decent daycare or who leaves me with health benefits so poor that I'm going broke, is not going to get the same level of work out of me, because I'm split between what I want to do and what I need to take care of. Likewise, a company that gives me a great salary but doesn't make me feel that my work is important will probably also get less than my best effort, because "good enough" is going to be the typical outcome when there's no appreciation for doing better.

So basically, I think that when the "perks" are there to support employees as they work on a mutually-valued mission, they serve the ideal goal: getting the best work out of each employee. When either piece is missing to a large enough degree, that quality of work is going to suffer.

And there's a third piece, which is autonomy. It doesn't matter how much I believe in a company's mission--if they micromanage the way I staple my reports, I'm going to be resentful.

Hmmm...I think both approaches totally miss whether an organization has a healthy culture, particularly around managerial culture. I've seen organizations with what should be fulfilling missions that are horrible places to work because of a pathologically warped management culture *cough*Red Cross*cough*.

Bottom line, if your life is miserable at work, whether it's because there's no benefits support, a bad physical environment, no sense of fulfillment, or a manager intent on taking out his or her frustrations on you, it's going to be a crappy place to work.

Whenever there is a "Best" in the name, you know there is always going to be different means somebody determines something is the "Best".

Some companies spend a lot of money on paychecks and added perks, but how many times is this a band-aid for poor or negative management?

Still other companies offer cost-free perks like coordinating team-building outings, provide for volunteering at local food-banks or flexible work environments for parents and guardians. Smaller companies may take advantage of this because they don't have the deep pockets of the large companies.

Companies that are mission-focused are great, but they can still fall into the "spend" or "non-free perks" companies, but I don't think it is a "magic bullet to workplace nirvana" because so much of it all comes down to person-to-person interaction.

So much can be said about the culture fostered by management, and the attitudes that trickle down from the top. While a mission-focused company has the benefit of trying to "tie-in" everybody into the same goal, it doesn't guarantee there won't be clueless, hostile or negative members in management and in the rank-in-file.

It is an interesting read to see "who" and "why", I don't throw a lot of weight into those surveys.

Chris -

I love your thinking, and I think you're approaching a much bigger issue: how do we measure success?

Teach for America does not measure the number of teachers they hire. Instead, they measure the number of alumni who assume leadership positions in public education. They do this because their mission is to ensure a good education for all children. Hiring more teachers does not accomplish that. It is accomplished by creating TFA alumni who want to reform education and accept leadership positions in public schools.

What you measure dictates what you do. If we continue to grade ourselves based on benefits we lose sight of what is truly important and incentivize more companies to focus on benefits instead of mission.

Wow, that is fascinating about Teach for America. After my initial wow, I began to wonder how to measure "leadership positions in public education", and what is the time frame for measurement, and what is the feedback loop to make adjustments.
Teach for America they must have a multi-year/multi-decade perspective.
Very interesting.

This is a really interesting topic and somewhat polarizing.

Personally, I find that too many times the "best places to work" more resemble "best places to retire." Benefits heavy, work light, challenge somewhat non-existant.

Free candies, on-campus perks and other fluffy benefits alone don't tend to keep the top performers very long. Not being able to do great work or make an impact will lead to a quick burnout for many.

Scott Heiferman, Co-Founder of Meetup, summed it up quite nicely at Mashable Connect. This stuck with me.

<em>"If you don't work for a brand that people will self-organize meetups about, you should quit your job."</em>

I've yet to see a major focus on external impact and customer / potential customer experience. A workplace that has the ability to influence and impact others holds a high value in my book.

I strongly agree with <strong>Drew</strong> as well, management makes a big difference and can sway things in either direction.

Great post!

My best place to work (for my wallet) was an investment back, but it is right down there on the "fulfillment" scale. Great salaries, but an aggressive culture, flip-flop objectives and zero interest in personal development or achievements made for a heady, but ultimately unfulfilling, time.

The best place I have worked was for an 80 person company, where everybody felt part of something. I would walk over glass for that firm and this is the sort of culture I want for my own company as we scale.

I was also thinking that both mission oriented and benefits oriented criteria are selecting towards size criteria. Let me explain:

Larger organisations have support staff, the support staff can not always say they impact the "mission".

Consulting companies also have varied missions, depending on their customers.

On the other hand, smaller companies tend to have all their staff impact their mission, while for larger ones, that's not the case. So if your focus is large companies, you want to focus on benefits, and smaller, you want to keep the mission in mind.

A few companies(google to name one) have a a few mission-based perks which would skew the results(and it's no surprise they're no.1 on the list of most techies you ask and number 4 on this list, while #1-3 are unheard of). GOOG and Facebook and a few technology companies, which are personnel-light for their size, make this kind of ranking stand on its head.

Very well put and the goal is to keep the mission-focus applicable as you scale, but rarely achieved. Even Google went through an adjustment phase and many of the old-hands left as they felt it became more structured and "corporate"

I wonder how something like would rate? They are one example where the great work is far beyond the pay, but then their model is exceptionally suited to those building resumes or where larger corporations wish to 'give back.'

I would say you'd have to work for a small company or run your own business to get those "value, purpose and enjoyment of your work" benefits. Those types of benefits are very rare in larger companies, even if the company does have a great purpose, its hard for everyone to get excited about it or be in a role that has a tangible connection to that purpose.

Great article! I have worked at companies that ave had both great perks and a great direction and purpose. I do find however, that as a company grows the great direction and purpose dwindle along with the great perks. I've always wondered how the purpose and benefits that make a company successful and able to grow can be tossed aside along the way and then the company wonders why it no longer gets rated in the "Top Companies" articles.

I think that companies, like people, tend to focus on their own interests and make decisions based on those interests. There is no one best model that fits all companies and to compare them without regard to resource consumption emphasis and groupings according to what products they produce and sources of funding is inherently unfair and counter productive. Management of human resources tend to be expressed or projected as a segmentation into publics or audiences as organizations evolve and/or grow. Management styles for each segment will vary and have different goals based on the financial and social importance and relevance that goals in these areas add value, however that is defined. Managements ability to distill these differentiations and apply appropriate techniques to add value will depend on there competence. Identifying areas or departments of excellence is only the first step. Educating other managers and there employees on how to emulate that achievement embodying there departmental or area goals is the next step. I think that identification of "star" employees and how they realized their own and company goals is one effective internal campaign. These recognition programs could be spread across departmental, functional or product definitions and span these areas highlighting cooperation and inter-area collaboration to achieve or redefine individual, group, and company goals or sub-goals defined by individual or collaborative groups. In short, the tenets I am emphasizing involve employee empowerment and management competence.

Readers may be interested to watch the educational documentaries I wrote and directed, ‘People Power for Staff’ and ‘People Power for Managers’. They are now free to view on my YouTube channel at

- I believe in what we are doing.
- I love coming to work every day.
- I leave work each day with a sense of accomplishment.
- I am changing the world.

I work in HR consulting. The items you list you'd like to know about are already largely measured by employee engagement.

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