The first time Fairport-based HR Works Inc. participated in a listing of best workplaces, the point was not to win.
The point, says President Candace Walters, was to see the results from the employee survey that is used to determine the winners.
“It’s very affordable to participate and you get this great feedback from your employees on all facets of the workplace,” she says.
Walters was pleasantly surprised at how positive the feedback was that first year. The company, which has about 62 employees, has participated for five years now, improving and climbing in the rankings each year. It reached the top in 2015, ranking No. 1 among small and medium employers on the Best Companies to Work for in New York list, a partnership of the New York State Society for Human Resource Management, Best Companies Group, the Business Council of New York State Inc. and Journal Multimedia Corp.
“We’re a human resources consulting firm, so for our clients it kind of goes to show that we practice what we preach,” Walters says. “We really do understand the importance of culture, and building that culture and never being complacent.”
HR Works applies annually to the Best Companies to Work for in New York list, which charges $935 to $1,830, depending on company size. For that fee, employees are surveyed anonymously and the employer gets a report of aggregate results, as well a benchmark report comparing its results to other companies that applied. In addition, the employer gets a detailed report on how its benefits package compares to other companies.
“The survey is what is the most important thing,” Walters says. “The ranking is just frosting on the cake.”
Fortune magazine’s 100 Best Companies to Work For list, administered by Great Place to Work, offers a similar process on a national level. Applying and taking the surveys are free. Detailed reports come with a charge.
Both listings emphasize company culture—not just who offers the best benefits—and both give more weight to employee survey results than what the employer has to say.
“We’re looking for a high level of satisfaction within the workplace and also employee engagement,” says Susan Springer, director of workplace assessments for Pennsylvania-based Best Companies Group, which has administered the New York listing on behalf of the state’s SHRM since 2008.
“Engagement has to do with a person using their discretionary time to really further the organization,” Springer says. “In other words, are you living and breathing it? … Are you excited about working there? Are you excited when your feet hit the floor in the morning?”
Perks like office Wii, hammocks, massages or free cafeterias alone do not put a company at the top of the Fortune list, say Erin Bartulski, best companies director, and Jessica Rohman, senior content producer at Great Place to Work. The quality they focus on is the extent to which these behaviors and practices are “gift-like” versus the extent to which they are transactional.
Anne Catillaz, vice president of operations at Sage Rutty & Co. Inc. in Brighton, says she was pleasantly surprised the first year her company applied to Fortune’s nationwide list.
The company did not make the list that year, she says, but its results were good—and not far from the winners’ scores—so Sage Rutty was encouraged to make improvements and try again.
“One of the wonderful benefits of it is the more you strive for the accreditation, the more you do to make it a better place to work,” Catillaz says. “It’s a win-win for everybody.”
For example, to get a higher score in professional training and development, the firm created a program called Build a Better You, offering classes on topics such as networking skills and crucial conversations training. Nearly all of Sage Rutty’s 55 employees choose to attend the classes.
In the company’s third year applying, it made the list, ranking 18th among the 50 Best Small and Medium Workplaces in the United States. In 2014, it ranked 11th. This year, Sage Rutty is hoping to make it to the top 10.
The one thing that does not help a company rise in the rankings is “throwing money at it,” Catillaz says. Simply adding perks and benefits is ineffective.
The survey for the Fortune list focuses on five themes: credibility, respect, fairness, pride and camaraderie.
“When you look at what it takes to build those five themes, all culminating in trust, really not a lot of it has to do with money,” Catillaz says. “It’s about transparency, having real conversations, being involved in people’s development (and) paying them fairly for the work that they do.”
Isaac Heating & Air Conditioning Inc. has been conducting its own employee survey for years, says Eric Knaak, vice president and general manager. For the first time, the company this year applied to the Best Companies to Work for in New York list. It ranked 25th in the large employer category.
While the company probably will continue to apply, Knaak says, it also may continue to conduct its own more detailed survey.
At Isaac, committees of employees sift through survey feedback each year and then tackle problems themselves. For example, early surveys showed that employees really liked the company culture and their professional development opportunities, but were unhappy with the rising cost of health insurance.
So, a group of employees took up the challenge of increasing Isaac’s contribution.
“The committee worked together to figure out ways that we could pay for that and still be viable,” Knaak says.
In the early years, survey participation was low, Knaak says, but trust grew each year. In the latest survey, 98 percent of the company’s roughly 260 employees participated.
“We look at the survey and we all do the same thing,” Knaak says. “No one’s looking for the high marks. We right away are looking for the low marks. We know we do things well, but we want to find out what can we do better.”
Write-in comments are great, too, he adds.
“Boy, those things are just like gems to us because we can do something with it,” Knaak says.
Sometimes, the issues an employer discovers through the survey process can be fixed relatively easily.
HR Works’ Walters says one early survey revealed concerns about employee work stations and temperature.
“Not that that was a surprise,” she says, “but it does allow me to go back to our landlord and say, ‘This is impacting the culture of our organization when we can’t control our air conditioning or our heating.’”
When the firm had a chance to move to better offices downstairs, they jumped at it, Walters says, and now the complaints have subsided.
At Wegmans Food Markets Inc., which has been on Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For list every year since it began in 1998, one recent survey revealed that employees want to be more involved in new initiatives at their stores, says Peggy Riley, manager of employee communications.
So, last year when the company began a companywide healthy snacking initiative, it engaged employees by asking them about healthy snacking—what it means to them, what would be helpful to them—and used that input to shape the program.
“The process has been just as important as our rankings because it helps us to listen and understand what’s most important to our people,” Riley says.
With more than 44,000 Wegmans employees nationwide, the annual employee survey also helps the firm monitor employee culture in its newest stores, Riley says. The listing is good for recruiting, too.
“We’re often unknown in a new area we go to and supermarkets don’t necessarily have a reputation for really great workplaces,” she notes. “So this has been incredibly helpful to us and a real source of pride for our people as we enter new markets that that’s the reputation we’re bringing.”
Beyond recruiting and retention, being a great workplace can be good for business.
“By having more engaged employees and more satisfied employees, the theory is that you have more productive employees, which improves your bottom line,” Springer says.
At Sage Rutty, where management focuses on the meaning in every job, Catillaz says for her creating a great workplace is personal.
“You can work for a place that values their people and where your work is valued or you can work at a place that doesn’t,” she says. “Life is short. Why wouldn’t you choose better?”
Julie Kirkwood is a Rochester-area freelance writer.
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