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What counts in the workplace

What do America’s greatest workplaces have in common? Probing their success can help employers (and employees!) everywhere.

By GAYLE ERWIN McDOWELL '77

Say you were trying to imagine the Shangri-La of workplaces. Would you envision a state-of-the-art fitness center, a cafeteria with chef-inspired food stations, complimentary tickets to sporting events, and on-site childcare? Maybe you’d add free haircuts, like Google has. 

Your Great Workplace: Lessons from the Best!

Join Dr. Jennifer Robin as she broadcasts from the Hayden-Clark Alumni Center. This webinar may be viewed online by alumni everywhere.

  • April 25, 2012, 1 p.m. (Central) 
  • Cost: free
  • Preregistration at bualum.org/events is required by April 18.

Sponsored by Bradley’s Department of Alumni Relations.

In real life, a great workplace might provide all those things, but not necessarily. According to Bradley’s Dr. Jennifer Robin and her colleague Dr. Michael Burchell, it’s less about the perks and more about how employees are treated. What counts is knowing that when they give their best, the company will return its best to employees.

“It’s really leadership taking the perspective that everything they do builds trust or breaks it down. It’s that attitude or perspective. It’s not about the policies and practices; it’s about the extent to which those policies and practices help to build trust and create relationships with other people,” Robin explains.

She and Burchell co-authored The Great Workplace: How to Build It, How to Keep It, and Why It Matters, released last year. Their shared expertise comes from their roles at the Great Place to Work® Institute, based in San Francisco. The Institute produces the annual list of the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For®. Robin is a research fellow and adjunct consultant for the Institute; she also enjoys teaching undergraduate and graduate-level business courses at Bradley.

The Great Workplace stresses that three qualities are vital to experience trust: credibility, respect, and fairness. Basically, do leaders’ actions match their words, do they care about employees as people, and are individuals treated in a manner that allows them to voice concerns?

Besides trust, the other two main components are pride and camaraderie. Surveys used by the Institute indicate employees need to see how their work contributes to the organization and to feel that what they do matters. The authors point out that workers are in a relationship with their jobs.

The Great Workplace stresses that three qualities are vital to experience trust: credibility, respect, and fairness.

“Sometimes there’s this assumption that employee relationships exist separately from the business. And it can’t be a separate initiative,” says Robin, the recipient of Caterpillar Inc.’s New Faculty Award for Teaching in 2003. With her doctorate in industrial/organizational psychology from the University of Tennessee, Robin taught at Bradley from 2001 until 2004, and then set out to gain hands-on experience in consulting, returning to Bradley in 2009.

Her work with the Great Place to Work® Institute included site visits to a number of businesses featured in the book, which includes case studies of 10 highly regarded companies.

“There’s no substitute for being inside so many great workplaces because you know it when you set foot in them. They’re all so different, but you feel something when you walk in the door. To be able to see from the inside what makes them tick was very informative,” says Robin, who co-authored her first book, A Life in Balance, in 2006 with Bradley’s Dr. Chuck Stoner.

Workplaces may look different 

Not surprisingly, great workplaces in 2012 have a different look than they might have 10 or 20 years ago. Of the top 100 list-makers this year, 13 are hospitals (including St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital), four are grocery chains (Wegmans, Publix, Nugget Market, and Whole Foods), and four are hotel chains (Kimpton, Marriott, Four Seasons, and Intercontinental). Google occupies the #1 spot for the third time, and as you might assume, a number of technology companies now have spots on the prestigious list. Financial services companies like Edward Jones, #5 on the list, and retailers such as The Container Store, Men’s Wearhouse, and Nordstrom, are also there. 

What traits do these Top 100 companies on the Fortune list share? “Most, if not all, have some sort of flex-time and … flex-space working option,” Robin says. “Most have some sort of town hall meeting where people can interact directly with their senior leaders.” 

Today’s top workplaces are taking even more steps to support parents and caregivers. For example, Ernst & Young sponsors a Saturday/Busy Season Child Care Program for employees during tax season. PricewaterhouseCoopers has a Mentor Moms program and also guarantees that employees may return if they choose to take five years off to care for a dependent.

It’s not all about what the company can do for the employees either. At SAS Institute, #3 on the list, it’s the employees who operate a “caring closet” stocked with donated medical equipment — items that people might need temporarily to care for family members. “Companies do a lot for their employees, but they also encourage and support grassroots efforts,” Robin explains.

Great Workplaces, the sequel

Robin and Burchell are finalizing plans for a follow-up to The Great Workplace, which sold 20,000 copies in its first year and has been translated into five languages. (A publisher in India has also acquired the rights.) With a working title of No Excuses, the focus will be on helping businesses become great workplaces. 

“Any company can get there, I truly believe,” says Robin, but her book cautions, “If you attempt to go too far too quickly, you will encounter resistance at best, and broken trust at worst.” 

Companies don’t have to have 1,000+ employees to aspire to the list, she notes. The Institute also compiles a list of Best Small & Medium Companies to Work For in America, as well as lists of best companies to work for in more than 45 countries.

Great Workplace seminars are presented about three times a month by Robin or Burchell. Robin’s recent travels include Paris, Peru, Toronto, Las Vegas, and Atlanta. Bradley alumni and friends are invited to a free Great Workplace webinar on April 25. To learn more about her work, read Robin’s blog at www.jenniferrobin.net.  

-Gayle Erwin McDowell ’77