Why the Best Companies Keep Winning the Hearts of Top Employees

Last year, in a moment of cute synergy, Fortune published its annual “100 Best Companies to Work For” list on Valentine’s Day. It seemed so fitting! After all, if you’re lucky enough to work at one of those great companies, then perhaps you really are a member of that shockingly rare breed—people who love their jobs.

I was really hoping the magazine would make this little romantic joke every year, but this year’s list is scheduled for publication, boringly, on February 18. Still, though it’s just another Tuesday during one of the bleakest months of the year, there’s no reason we can’t stop to appreciate just what kind of magic makes some people want to pledge undying devotion to their employers.

The “100 Best Companies to Work For” list is administered by an organization called the Great Place to Work Institute (GPTW), which calls itself “the global authority on workplace culture.” In deciding who gets onto this and other lists, GPTW takes its job very seriously. Employers have to go through a strenuous application process, including a heavily-weighted employee engagement survey and lots of open-ended essay questions on topics like trust, values, and communications. (Applicants for this year’s list had to complete fifteen such questions; companies applying for next year’s list will face fewer, but broader, questions in what GPTW is touting as a new, streamlined version. From what I can see, it’s still pretty darned comprehensive.)

At this writing, I don’t yet know what companies got on the list, but every year I work with companies to help them put forward the best possible application, so I know quite a bit about what it took to get them there. Here, in broad strokes, is what makes employees want to give their companies a valentine:

100 Best Companies are mission-driven.

Just about every company has a mission statement, but how many employees know or care what it is? At 100 Best Companies, in contrast, the mission is not just a statement—it’s—well, a mission. These organizations know just what they do better than anyone else, and why they were put on this earth to do it. Employees, in turn, understand exactly where they fit in this picture. They know not only what they are doing, but why.

Values are taken seriously. Really.

Like mission statements, corporate values are a dollar a dozen, and almost nobody pays them the slightest attention except at 100 Best Companies. Here people tend to be rewarded for living the values. Leaders at every level are held accountable for modeling them. In some cases, employees even have a hand in developing or refining them. As I said, the values are taken seriously.

Communication is king.

Face it. Employers face a lot of competition for employees’ attention, and that boring departmental newsletter is not likely to win. At 100 Best Companies, communication means something more. It is multi-faceted and multi-directional. It’s happening all the time, both formally and informally. Leaders talk—candidly—about what’s going on. Perhaps more important, leaders listen. And employees from the bottom-most position on up know if they have an idea, it will be taken seriously.

Compensation is fair and inclusive.

Many companies understand it’s to their advantage to offer competitive pay and benefits. But at 100 Best Companies, being competitive is just a starting point. Pay policies are transparent and even-handed. They are regularly analyzed and adjusted to ensure equity across gender, race, and more. Profit-sharing is common and applies to employees at every level, regardless of their role. Benefits policies are similarly not stratified—sure, some perks like vacation time increase with the length of service, but any policy differences are not based on role or pay structure (i.e., hourly vs. salaried).

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“Thanks” is not a four-letter word.

The best organizations recognize employees for their hard work, cultivating both formal and informal cultures of recognition. There are awards ceremonies, trophies, and prizes. Rewards are often thoughtful and creative, like a day off at the end of busy season, or ice cream for all when that big account is clinched. Managers are expected to thank employees early and often, and teams are encouraged (and often funded) to celebrate their successes. Perhaps most importantly, when the organization has a win, everyone celebrates it.

Careers matter.

“Training and development” is not just a department in 100 Best Companies: it’s a way of life. Employees can see clear options for advancement and clear paths for getting there; development planning is personalized, and a decent amount of resources go into supporting it. I shouldn’t even have to mention that this applies to all employees, regardless of their role and regardless of any aspect of their identity.

So do personal lives.

100 Best Companies tend to “get” work-life. Employees have the flexibility to do their work where and when they see fit, without having to worry about being castigated if the school bus is late. Workloads are reasonable, with long hours and weekend work the exception, not the rule. Both men and women are given the paid time they need to grow and care for their families, and ideally, other supports are in place, as well: back-up dependent care programs, concierge services, lactation support, adoption/surrogacy reimbursement and so on. Some of these resources cost more than others, but it’s doubtful any of them cost more than turnover.

To be fair, not every 100 Best company is going to model every single one of these traits. But many of them get surprisingly close. They do enough, anyway, to have deserved a Valentine from their employees, giving a whole new meaning to “workplace romance.”

Robin Hardman, owner of Robin Hardman Communications, helps companies of all sizes win recognition by helping them put together the best possible “best place to work” and other corporate awards submissions — from Working Mother and Fortune to the Stevies and IABC. When she's not doing that, Robin is helping companies communicate to their employees with compelling and easy-to-read benefits, HR, and general-topic employee communications. Contact her at robin@robinhardman.com.

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