The Trouble With "Best Places To Work" Lists

Last Updated Feb 1, 2011 10:22 AM EST

Fed up with your job? You're not the only one. Surveys find fewer than half of workers are satisfied in their current positions. So, as hiring finally picks up, no doubt some of these folks are perusing Fortune's annual list of the 100 Best Companies to Work For, in the February 7 issue, searching for places to send their resumes.
Certainly it's nice to hear about happy employees. But every year when I read Fortune's list, and others elsewhere ranking workplaces that are awesome for mothers, minorities, or entry-level workers, I find myself saying yeah...but. There are big problems with using any list like this to plan your next career move.

First, most magazine lists are "opt-in." To be eligible for a list, you have to fill out whatever paperwork the tabulators require (Fortune's list, produced in conjunction with the Great Places to Work Institute, involves employee surveys and some open ended questions). This means that not only do you have to be a great place to work, you have to be a company where management cares about being listed in magazines as a great place to work. Only 311 organizations bothered this year, out of thousands of employers in the US. So if you went through the whole process, your odds were pretty good. But that doesn't means that the 311 employers that did try are better than the thousands that didn't.

Second, the Fortune list only includes companies with more than 1000 employees that are more than 7 years old. That nixes all start-ups and small businesses (which can be great places to work). As one example, people have been tripping over themselves to work for Facebook these past few years, but given its relatively recent founding, it would only be eligible for such a list right around now.

And finally, the magazine blurbs on all these companies seem a bit obsessed with the perks -- as if perks, as opposed to really exciting work, are what make a company a good place to spend part of your career. Some benefits are good (when business slowed, Fortune reports, Marriott International changed how many hours you had to work in order to qualify for insurance). But perhaps to journalists (where the business model is few perks) an onsite car-wash (Mercedes-Benz), Zumba classes (Build-a-Bear Workshop) and "organic vegetables from an on-site garden” (St. Jude Children's Research Hospital) sound really plush.

I guess it's human nature to like freebies, though whenever I get jealous of a company that gives its employees, say, free M&Ms, I go out and buy M&Ms and relish the fact that here at Vanderkam, Inc., I can leave in the middle of the day to go do so. (We also have a generous "work-in-your-pajamas” policy).

Anyway, it's strange that a magazine with such great reporters as Fortune relies on such a flimsy methodology for creating their rankings. If you believe this list, then Americans prefer to work at Nugget Market (a 9-store supermarket chain) than at McKinsey, at Google vs. Facebook even though some headline-making defections would point otherwise, and we should want to work at Aeropostale because, as one young employee put it "Where else can you talk to the boss over pizza?” (Um, where can't you?)

I'd personally love to see a list that didn't rely on HR filling out forms, and where Fortune reporters went Woodward & Bernstein on Corporate America and infiltrated enough workplaces (big and small) to find out where truly were the best places to work. And then they should figure out the most awful, too. Because that would be a real journalistic public service to let us know.

Have you worked at a company that belonged on-or off--a "best list"?

Related: Image courtesy flickr user, greggoconnell

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