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Top 100 Employers Share Their Secrets Of Success

Dec 3, 2007
In June 2004, I was invited to speak at a "Workplace of Choice" conference in Las Vegas sponsored by the American Strategic Management Institute. Representatives from seven of this year's Fortune list of the "100 Best Places in America to Work" were also invited to share the secrets of their companies' success, along with the co-founder of the Great Places to Work Institute, Robert Levering.

For the inaugural edition of this e-letter, I thought I would pass on to you the highlights of what these presenters had to say. With the economy primed for full recovery and a return to the war for talent, leaders of every organization stand to benefit from their insights and innovative practices.

Levering was a San Francisco labor reporter in 1981 when his newspaper gave him the assignment to write an article about great places to work. His initial reaction was to ask, "Are there any?!" After conducting his initial research, Levering discovered that there were indeed--so many, in fact, that he has since built a career by tracking and reporting their best practices. Over the years, competition among companies to be selected for the prestigious list of 100 has become so intense that CEOs now seek the listing as a conscious, separate business objective.

Great Employers Score High on 5 Dimensions

Levering pointed out that candidates for the list are judged on five dimensions--credibility, respect, fairness, pride, and camaraderie. Here are some of their best practices in each area:

Credibility

- Xilinx (#10 on Fortune's list) made a determined effort to successfully avoid layoffs when jobs were threatened by a downturn in the economy. Instead of forcing employees to take pay cuts, Xilinx asked employees to volunteer for salary reductions as an alternative to lay-offs. The CEO, Wim Rolandts, set the example by taking a 25 percent salary cut. Some managers volunteered for six-to-eight percent pay cuts, and persuaded employees to buy-in to the idea of sacrificing part of their own salaries to keep their jobs. The "lay-offs-as-a-last-resort" policy has attracted technology workers who have been laid off at other companies.

Respect

- At Duncan Aviation (#77on the list), even with a male population of 89 percent, the company had zero incidents of sexual harassment.

- Bright Horizon's has built a culture where managers give "explanations, not orders," ask "why not?" instead of adhering to rigid rules, and where workers remember to say "thank you" to each other. (Bright Horizon was # 10 on Fortune's best employers for minorities)

- Duncan Aviation has no time clocks, no fancy offices, no reserved parking for managers, and allowing a balance of work and family.

- Duncan's president who speaks personally with all new employees for 90 minutes during their first week on the job, and invites them to view their commitment to Duncan Aviation not just as a job, but as a career.

- Duncan also makes a commitment to listening, as in: "when talking with someone, we don't answer the telephone."
Fairness

- Valassis (#68) pays out nearly 10 percent profit-sharing yearly to each employee.

- Duncan Aviation provides bonuses to all employees contingent on meeting company goals.

- Ninety percent of Valassis employees have stock options, including some millionaires who wear overalls to work each day.

Pride

- Microsoft (#25) rewards "Gold Star" spot bonuses to recognize significant contributions.

- To discourage the development of an "entitlement mentality," Valassis has employees who left and came back tell their stories about how the grass was not greener on the other side of the fence.

- Microsoft selects new hires carefully--those actually hired will have sat through an average of ten or more interviews.

- Quicken Loans (#13) gives spot bonuses that reward customer service and help maintain a 90 percent customer retention rate.

- Valassis prides itself on having 24 ways of recognizing employees and makes a special effort to recognize the "steady Eddies"--the solid citizens who comprise the backbone of the company. Employees' families are invited to all employee recognition ceremonies.

Camaraderie

- Quicken Loans has annual barbecue, and parties for all occasions--birthday, anniversary, holidays, and even tailgate parties.

- Quicken also holds annual "Academy Award" ceremonies for top achievers.

Great Employers Give and Get Back

Another earmark of great places to work is a management mindset characterized by an interest in giving, which triggers the willingness of employees to give back.

What do preeminent employers give? Levering says they don't necessarily give "all the bells and whistles" or flashy benefits. They do tend to distinguish themselves from "merely good" employers by giving over and above what is required. Here are some of the ways they do it:

- Instead of providing basic good communication, they make every employee feel "I'm talking to you."

- Instead of matching the benefits and perks of other companies, they ask their employees, "what do you want and need?"

- Instead of trying to implement several new initiatives all at once, they concentrate on doing the two or three most achievable ones that are also tied to their business objectives.

- Instead of trying to improve their weaknesses, great employers accentuate their strengths, building on what is special in their organizations.

In return for these gifts, employees give back greater individual effort, greater innovation and creativity, and better cooperation and teamwork. Perhaps this explains why, from 1998 to 2004, the evolving list of public companies on Fortune's 100 Best Places to Work list experienced stock growth of 133.8 percent compared to only 25.2 percent by S & P companies!

What All These Employers Have in Common

As diverse as all the practices and benefits are, they do reveal two things these seven companies have in common--1.) a commitment to becoming and remaining a great place to work, and 2.) the wisdom to create cultures and human capital practices that serve and fit their business strategies and objectives.
About the Author
Leigh Branham is the author of "Keeping the People Who Keep You on Business" and "The 7 Hidden Reasons Employees Leave". Leigh is widely recognized as an authority on employee engagement .
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