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Top workplace award
6 Min Read

Why “Top Workplace” Awards Aren’t a Good Indicator of Engagement


I once worked at a company that desperately wanted to land a spot on one of those well-known “best places to work” lists.

If you’re not familiar with the selection process for these high-profile lists, the main thing to know is that many of them rely heavily on anonymous surveys and employee interviews. The idea is to scratch beneath the surface to better understand how employees really feel about their workplace cultures.

Well, in an effort to prepare us for potential questions, my former employer supplied staff with key messaging. Rather than encouraging candid feedback, leadership gave employees a handy two-sheeter filled with — I kid you not — sample answers and talking points to use when communicating with selection committees.

Suffice it to say the organization did not make the list. In fact, for a while, it suffered from a spate of not-so-great company reviews contradicting those talking points.

I didn’t stay long enough to witness the transformation that took place in the years that followed, but based on the latest employee ratings it appears management did decide to make some changes. If I had to guess, I’d say leadership probably began to refocus its efforts and reevaluate the metrics it was using to gauge cultural success.

You see, in the employee engagement research conducted here at Emplify, our experts have discovered that pursuing a “top workplace” accolade can often do more harm than good.

Don’t get me wrong. Earning a much-deserved award is rarely a bad thing. And you certainly want to create a winning workplace culture. However, placing too much emphasis on these lists can turn your attention away from bigger priorities that will truly move the business forward.

Let’s take a quick look at three of the most important reasons you might reconsider going after a “best place to work” award.

1. “Top workplace” processes lack ongoing feedback

Organizations everywhere are moving away from annual employee surveys, and with good reason. Once-a-year questionnaires will tell you how employees feel about the workplace during a particular season. But these vanity metrics rarely, if ever, show how people perceive the culture in general.

The same is true of “best workplace” surveys and interviews. Whether you attempt to key up employees with talking points or let the thoughts flow freely and candidly, the outcome is the same: You’ll get a reflection of a snapshot in time, rather than an accurate understanding of the culture itself.

Has your company recently undergone a merger or acquisition? Did you go through a big hiring phase? Are you facing the possibility of layoffs? All of these issues, plus many more, will impact the responses you get. And if all you have to go on is one set of responses — even if they’re positive — there’s no way of knowing what needs to happen to make sure you stay on the list again next year.

Here’s what to do instead: Make it a priority to gather ongoing feedback from employees. By taking the time to understand what’s really happening under the surface, you send the message that employees are truly cared for. This, in turn, can lead to incremental and lasting improvements to your workplace culture.

Learn more here: The Massive Potential of Employee Feedback

2. “Best workplaces” often lack real meaning

Just because an organization lands on a “best” list, it doesn’t mean employees find their work to be significant. Which is unfortunate, since employees are most likely to be motivated and engaged when they derive real meaning from their work.

In one report, many top-ranked employers were found to fall significantly short in response to the statement: “My job makes me feel like I am part of something meaningful.” Surveyed employees regarded their employers more positively than the national average on nearly all measures — and still had a hard time finding meaning at work.

Here’s what to focus on instead: Look for ways to help your employees connect what they do each day to how it serves the larger company mission or greater good. Finding meaning at work is a big motivator, and will go a long way in creating a truly outstanding culture.

3. Winning workplace lists reflect satisfaction, not engagement

The vetting process for these lists often involves gauging employee satisfaction or happiness, with winners lauded for providing comfortable uniforms and mindfulness zones. But while employees can be happy with jobs that meet these types of basic needs, it doesn’t mean they’re engaged or inspired.

Factors like fair pay, physical working conditions, job security, and interpersonal relationships are what psychologists call the “food, water, and shelter” of any decent workplace. Focus on them too heavily, and you may soon pay a price: Research shows that when employees are merely satisfied, they “lean back” and stop pushing forward. Satisfaction does not equal engagement, and engagement is what actually drives someone to give their best at work.

Here’s the real kicker: Researchers recently discovered that engaged employees are 44% more productive than satisfied staff, and that an employee who feels inspired at work is nearly 125% more productive than one who’s merely satisfied.

Here’s what to do instead: To create a culture where employees are consistently motivated to do their best work, it’s critical to look beyond basic perks and pay. You need to foster a sense of achievement, regularly recognize accomplishments, provide plenty of growth and development opportunities, and, once again, help each employee find meaning and purpose in their work.

Learn more here: Why Employee Satisfaction Is Not the Same as Employee Engagement

So… should you still pursue that “top workplace” award?

It depends. Is the list an aside to other important initiatives you’re pursuing? Or has it become a primary focus? Remember: While landing a spot on a “best place to work” list may have its benefits, it’s not a good predictor of how engaged or effective your employees really are.

One particularly compelling “best companies to work for” analysis explained it this way:

“Fourteen companies that made the list in 2018 did NOT appear on the 2019 list. Many of those companies had dominated the list for years before they *poof* disappeared this year — we’re talking notable employers such as Nordstrom, AT&T, Aflac, and American Express.”

The author of this analysis then went on to quote a chief human resources officer who drew the profound conclusion: “I don’t need a list. I need to listen.”

Our biggest takeaway? Before you devote resources to going after outside awards, look inward to assess what’s really going on within your organization and culture. There’s no better “list” than the one that comes from employees who can tell you what they really need to thrive.

Looking for ideas you can use to collect employee feedback, inspire meaning, and increase engagement? Check out these success stories for inspiration.