Being a Great Place to Work Is Hard. Making the List Can Be Just As Hard

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Dec 12, 2019

Great Place To Work (GPTW) is the hugely influential organization behind one of the most renowned “Best Employer” lists there is, Fortune’s annual 100 “Best Companies to Work For.” Getting onto this list is a real coup for any organization—and has a lot of real-world benefits. But it’s not easy.

Companies are not just selected for this list randomly; they must apply. The application process includes an employee survey (which carries the heaviest weighting in the scoring), a Q&A section focusing on demographics and policies, and a massive open-ended essay section, called the Culture Audit. There are so many questions on the Culture Audit (15, although to be fair, one is simply a description of the business, and as far as I can tell has little, if anything, to do with the scoring), and they are so open-ended, that many organizations turn in near dissertation-length responses.

To their credit, over the years GPTW has gradually refined the process. The questions have gotten a bit less vague. And a few years ago word limits were finally imposed, albeit barely: 7,500 words — 15 single-spaced pages — per question. I help organizations write these responses, and, time-consuming as the process often is for me and my clients, I’ve often wondered about the poor reviewers who have to plow through our answers.

Whether it was a rebellion among the reviewers, or complaints from participating companies, we’ll probably never know, but last spring GPTW announced there would be some changes coming to the process, and a few weeks ago they announced what those changes were.

What’s changed

As far as I know, there have been no (major) changes to the employee survey. But the data/demographics section (officially called the Culture Brief) has been shortened considerably, and an array of short-answer and open-ended questions at the end, which seemed to get longer and longer in recent years, is gone.

This is good news for everyone. Completing the survey and Culture Brief is all that is needed to be eligible for Great Place to Work Certification, a sort of seal of approval companies can boast of for the entire next year. Plus, certified companies are automatically considered for the smaller, special focus lists Fortune publishes all year long, such as “Best Workplaces for Millennials,” “Best Workplaces in Technology,” and so on.

Essay question added

While it’s true that assorted open-ended questions are gone from the Culture Brief, a new, 2,000-word essay question has replaced them. This question is optional, but completing it provides eligibility for a new People magazine list, “Companies that Care,” so I can’t imagine most companies who are applying anyway wouldn’t want to give it a shot. As a result, the revised Culture Brief isn’t quite as “brief” as advertised.

 Culture Audit shortened

OK, hold onto your hat. The biggest changes are big, indeed, and they all pertain to the Culture Audit. The Audit, as we’ve said, is the name for what were previously 15 (14 that mattered) open-ended questions. It is the final entrance requirement for those (and only those) who want to compete for the “Big List” — the 100 Best Companies. And it is open only to organizations of 1,000 employees or more.

What’s changed?

  • Fewer questions — On first glance, it looks like the Culture Audit has been slashed, from 14 questions all the way down to 5. Take another look, though, and you’ll find there’s really a 6th This one is labeled optional, and coyly described as “extra credit.” I cannot, personally, imagine any organization that’s going to take the time to go through this entire process and then decide to skip the extra credit, can you? So, there are 6 questions, but that’s still quite a bit fewer than 14.
  • Tighter word limits — Whereas, as I said, in recent years GPTW had imposed a 7,500 word limit on Culture Audit responses, the new version has cut this down to 4,000 words in most cases, with the exception of one response, on the topic of Values, which is down to just 2,000 words.

What this means

The five — or six — Culture Audit questions hone in on the aspects of workplace culture GPTW has always cared about the most: trust, innovation, leadership effectiveness, values, development/diversity. Whereas in the past they got at these topics by means of targeted, specific questions, they have now combined them into more high-level questions. Instead of asking one question about work-life and benefits, another about celebrating company successes, and two more about communications, they ask two questions about trust and leadership effectiveness. Instead of asking one question about diversity and another about employee development, they ask one about “maximizing human potential.” And so on.

I think this is great. It will clearly mean less work for everyone, and still get at meaningful aspects of organizational culture. That said, however, it’s not exactly a walk in the park. Companies will still have to provide details and examples of a wide range of programs, events, traditions, policies, etc. — they’ll just have less space in which to do it. Especially for those companies that have been accustomed to turning in 7,500 words per essay, this means putting a lot more thought into what to feature and what to ignore. And for anyone who has applied in past years, the first year of this new process will be especially arduous, as it means starting from scratch, rather than simply revising past essays.

More than just recognition

It’s worth noting that the process of applying to be a Great Place to Work, arduous as it may be, has benefits beyond the potential for some fabulous PR. The employee survey portion gives participating companies access to invaluable information and (for a hefty fee), GPTW will parse that information by just the variables you care most about. And the process of responding to the employer questions, both in the Culture Brief and Audit, can lead to eye-opening understanding of what’s working — and what’s not — within your organization.