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Are 'Best Places to Work' Lists for Real? 5 Ways to Tell

In my last post I showed you the sausagemaking behind a "Best Places to Work" list. Such lists are often aimed at women, who are supposed to use them to identify workplaces that offer coveted benefits such as flexwork, telecommuting, and bosses who are decent human beings. Today's post will help you decode whether a list is legit -- and how seriously to take its recommendations.

Regular Jane employees: you can use the following steps to examine a "best places" list and eliminate companies from your personal "want to work for" lists. (Note to HR and PR: this is the exact reverse of the pitch that you'll get from the list-makers, who promise that landing on their lists will make people crazy-eager to get a job at your company. Just so you know.)

HR and PR folks: these tips will help you concentrate your time, effort and money on projects that will truly help you advance women at your companies.

1. Look at the list application. (They're usually available online.)

How rigorous is it? Are there follow-up interviews that confirm and expand on the self-reported questions? Are the questions leading? (Come on: What harried communications staffer is going to report that the CEO is not fully committed to diversity, the environment, the arts, and world peace?)

The credibility disconnect between list winners and workplace reality is that the applications don't ask the right questions. You can re-create the missing links by looking at how demanding the application is and judging the veracity of the results accordingly.

HR and PR folks: do you learn anything about your organization in the process of applying? You should. If you only give predictable answers to predictable questions, you will get predictable results. "If you're going to celebrate an accomplishment, know what that accomplishment is," advises Rob Jekielek, a principal consultant with The Reputation Institute, a consultancy that produces a list of the world's most reputable companies based on consumer surveys.

2. Think about what you want, not what the list says is important. The priorities of the list-makers are to hit their revenue goals. They are counting on the companies on the list to help them achieve that by buying advertising and tables at self-congratulatory galas, and sending platoons of staffers to conferences.

Regular Janes, you're using the list to sort through potential employers, so look only at the factors that are relevant to you. "Do you want a challenging environment and the opportunity to grow?" Jekielek asks. "Or do you want stability and flexibility?"

HR and PR folks: are the questions so general that virtually any employer will come out smelling like a rose? Are the questions relevant to your organization's goals, culture and growth drivers? If not, will a spot on this list accurately reflect your company's strengths?

3. Fact-check a winner's supposed strengths. If a company is hailed as being great for women, look at the "leadership" section of its website to see how many women are in top positions and what their jobs are. Traditionally, women occupy communications, marketing, human resources and legal top spots. That's fine, but if you want to run a line of the business someday, you also want to see women managing major regions, divisions and operations. If few women are in those positions, you may not stand much of a chance, either.

HR and PR folks: might you be chagrined if your workplace is named a winner, because the publicly available evidence to support the win is so thin? If so, rethink your enthusiasm for applying. A better strategy would be to use the survey as a guide for some analysis and get some outside coaching to understand where your aspirations are not matched by reality.

4. Will rosy employee quotes easily be contradicted via social network feedback? Yes, we know that every list is the corporate equivalent of Lake Woebegone, where the CEOs are handsome, the staff is strong, and the culture always rewards performance. That's what every company claims on its list application. Find out for yourself. Turn the claims in the list into questions and shoot them out to your network. Search Google, Twitter and Facebook for references to the company culture.

HR and PR folks: if list participation is the primary way you get employee feedback, you need to come up with a stronger internal communications strategy.

5. Use the list as a starting point, not a finish line. Regular Janes, a list is a teaser. It will tell you a little of what the company wants you to know and a bit about what editors think you want to know. To get a better picture, you will have to review SEC filings, such as the company's 10-K and proxy statement, which contain details about lawsuits, especially class-action lawsuits. Check the website of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to see if there have been settlements or penalties against the company.

HR and PR folks: what will the Regular Janes find when they do that? Anything at odds with what you put on the list application?

By now, you know nearly enough to create your own application for a "Best Place to Work for Women" list. I'd love to hear what you'd put on it.

Photo: Gesture 1 by lusi from StockXchnge

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