Publishing the names of what are believed to be the best companies to work for has become an annual feature. These lists have tended to be dominated, with few exceptions, by technology companies. Undoubtedly, the organizers of such surveys make a bona fide effort to measure companies on criteria such as compensation, employee welfare, fringe benefits and work environment, but factors that seem to count heavily include the presence of tennis courts on company campuses, menus at cafeterias and so on. For those seeking the more exotic, it is not uncommon for companies to reward employees by paying for spa sessions, Botox treatments, or company-paid bungee jumps. In a talent-scarce marketplace, it is heartening to see that employers are taking the trouble to care for their workers.
Such studies do raise the bar for employee satisfaction. But to be useful, they ought to measure what makes a truly great employer. Misdirected surveys can often send the wrong signals to organizations, leading to unsatisfied employee aspirations.
It is important that workplace studies distil the essence of the employer-employee relationship and not just its more visible trappings. In a recent survey done by a well-known business magazine, one of the top-five companies had an attrition rate in excess of 20%, which meant that close to half its workforce changed over every two years. Great companies are built on passion and commitment. Can these be truly demonstrated during two-year stints at an organization? And if a workplace cannot attract its employees to stay for more than a handful of years, could it really be such a great place to work at?
Lucy Kellaway, management columnist for the Financial Times and an author of various books on organization culture, recently made a very pertinent point: the main question that needs to be asked of companies, which are otherwise successful in their respective industries, is how long employees stay there. Even the Great Place to Work Institute, the high priest of determining which organizations are good workplaces, bases its index on trust, underscoring the fact that “relationships” between management and employees and among employees are at the heart of a good workplace. The surveys do not capture this.
A free bungee jump might make some employees light-headed about their employer. But almost everyone would, if given a choice, prefer an understanding boss, inspiring leadership and stimulating peer groups.
A different aspect of these surveys bears attention. The persistent presence of technology companies is puzzling (especially when juxtaposed with the attrition levels they have). The common thread that runs through these companies is the presence of a relatively homogeneous age and psychographic profile, which makes it possible and worthwhile for HR departments to offer the innovative benefits described above. Therefore, while the surveys do measure differences among large, generally young and homogeneous organizations, they might not encapsulate the fact that different types of companies can motivate their employees in different, but equally effective ways. Companies that are smaller or have older workforces may aim to generate deeper relationships between employees and the company, and opportunities for entrepreneurship of a different order. One wishes the surveys, otherwise thorough, could capture these distinctions.
Rating companies on how they treat their employees deserves greater scrutiny at board level because there are a lot of things these great companies do that are right. However, more than the free massages or the bungee jumps, it is usually something deeply ingrained in the DNA of an organization that makes the difference. Hopefully, surveys will start measuring those elements as well.
Govind Sankaranarayanan is chief financial officer and chief operating officer, corporate affairs, Tata Capital. He writes on issues of governance.
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