Disclosure: IBM and Dell are clients of the author.
Newsweek’s Best Practices Institute has released its list of “Most Loved Workplaces” and this year, there’s a clear focus from respondents on working from home. That’s an important insight for companies to keep in mind at a time when the “quiet quitting” and “quiet firing” trends are being talked about so much.
Much of my initial undergraduate and graduate studies focused on employee behavior and growth — and the productivity and execution advantages of employees that are loyal, focused and feel they’re an important part of the company they work for.
Years ago, I studied employee practices that defined the then-dominant company in tech, IBM, and found they came from the founders of the company, especially Thomas Watson Jr., who believed strongly in supporting the workforce. One of his practices was to drop in unannounced on rank-and-file employees and ask them about IBM’s strategy and how their work related to that strategy. If they couldn’t answer those questions, he would then visit their managers to address their failure to properly manage. That practice, sadly, was lost when he left; it was employee care and focus that once assured IBM’s dominance in the market.
Today, employee care is all over the map. Some companies (and the report calls out Apple negatively) are known for abusive employee practices (and didn’t make the list as a result). Others, like Dell Technologies, lead — most notably with hybrid work options that give employees flexibility on working from home. (Side note, I’ve spent time with Jennifer Saavedra, the Chief HR officer at Dell, and I’ve been impressed with her dedication to Dell’s high ranking in this report; the same is true of the support from folks like Jeff Clarke, the vice chairman and COO, and CEO Michael Dell).
Standing out as a great workplace is important to investors, employees and particularly customers. Let’s explore.
A great place to work
I first entered the technology market at ROLM, a company that uniquely had a “Great Place to Work” department. At the time, it got high rankings as a good place to work. But after the removal of that Great Place to Work department, I watched how the company declined. (Apparently, the mistaken management position was that the department was redundant because “every manager should be building a ‘Great Place to Work,’ demonstrating a common management mistake: when something is everyone’s responsibility, it turns out to be no one’s.
The irony is that was a core lesson behind the rise of Japan’s automotive industry, which surpassed the US industry in quality in the 1970s by making quality the responsibility of identified employees and managers. A happy workplace is an area HR should own, but in many companies it’s been relegated mainly to compliance, focusing on covering up problems instead of making the firm a better place to work.
The companies on the Newsweek list, particularly those at the top, appear to focus on ensuring the firm is meeting the needs of employees, both their care and feeding, and that those employees have the tools they need to do their job. One of the most depressing things I saw as an Internal Auditor involved employees working overtime (because their jobs were under resourced) who then got punished for not doing their jobs well. I felt strongly then, and still do, that when a hard-working employee is failing, it’s management’s fault. And the usual response — punishing the employee — is just abusive.
Why you should prefer a company on this list
Companies that take care of their employees also benefit customers and investors. It comes down to the example the company sets and the stability that results. Investors don’t know who is driving company success and execution. Studies often find the most obscure employees are those that are critical to operations. Back when I did those studies, we often found that admins, secretaries, and other unrecognized employees were critical to company morale and execution. If employees are unhappy, they eventually leave. Companies that don’t prioritize them not only are unlikely to know and protect critical workers, they can’t retain them, undermining a firm’s ability to execute.
In addition, managers learn both good and bad practices from other managers. If your suppliers treat their employees poorly, it’s likely your managers will pick up those bad practices, either through observation or through cross pollination (employees often move between vendors and client companies). If bad behavior isn’t identified as such (it could be anything from inappropriate language to outright abuse), managers are more likely to emulate it, damaging the company.
Obviously, for your own career, a firm that prioritizes their employees will be less stressful, should have advancement policies that are fairer and more reasonable, and should have strong diversity programs that enable and encourage women and minorities to advance.
A good place to work is a successful company
I’ve had a unique career in that I’ve not only worked in finance, marketing, product development, and competitive analysis, but I’ve also in an executive development program that trained me in other aspects of a large multi-national company. One thing I learned: companies that treat their employees well tend to be more reliable vendors, better investments, and far better places to work than companies that focus on tactical quarterly financial performance and overpaying top executives.
Honesty, integrity and trust are critical to any relationship, but if a firm doesn’t focus on employee care, it will have high employee churn. And companies with a lot of churn also seem to be places where many workers advanced by throwing colleagues under convenient buses. You don’t want vendors like that, you should avoid investments like that, and, having worked in companies like this, you’ll celebrate the day you leave.
One final comment: With the shortage of workers, most companies are unusually focused on retention, but those that had this focus before this current job/employee disparity will likely be far safer places to be when this dynamic ends.
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