best places to work? not my goal

NOTE: This is a cross post. Please comment on the main post on the  Houston Chronicle on Best Places to Work by Ed Schipul.


Every year Houston has a Best Places to Work contest. I offer my congratulations to the winners. But we don’t enter them. And every year the new employees will suggest we enter. My position frustrates many of our team because, I am told, they do enjoy working at the company. Our clients are awesome. The people who work here are diverse and all share similar values and believe in our vision. We have a lot of “great places to work” type of cred. But I refuse to submit. Why?

It started years ago after a university asked to do a study of our company. Our communication and how we interacted with each other. Sort of a cross between a NodeXL chart and a VENN diagram of the company based on interviews of all employees (I think we had maybe 10 or 15 employees at the time). The study results came back and they said we had one of the most interconnected and hyper-communicative companies they had ever seen in all of their years of study.

Later that year the Best Places to Work survey came out and I agreed to have our company submit. My guidance to the employees was simply “I don’t care much about awards, but I love the idea of getting a score card of how the company is treating y’all so please be absolutely honest in your assessment of our work environment.”

The results were very positive. Perhaps between an A and an A+ based on the feedback. And I liked the fact that I got the report back as a self-assessment. So I figured we might make the list.

swimming with the sharksThat same year another agency I know of had laid off about a third of their employees. When the list came out, the agency with the layoffs was near the top of the list and we were not even on it. Now, how is it that the remaining two thirds of the employees who are wondering if they are about to be fired are going to score their company as a “best place to work”? They aren’t even sure if they will be working there in a week! I found this puzzling.

I had a few beers with a friend who also runs a company later that year and the subject came up. His point was

“You are being  naive  Ed. Look, if you want to win you have to tell your employees to rank everything at the top across the board. Or you have to give them more crazy perks.”

Um, what? We are a culture of candor. I am not going to tell my employees how to score an evaluation, and with the people we employ they wouldn’t listen to me anyway. I like that about them. And what crazy perks are you talking about? I googled it for you. Forbes tells us:

And the winners are… There’s a new No. 1 in town: tech powerhouse SAS. Yes, even in a tough job market, some employers dole out perks like on-site saunas, discounted massages and classes on Wii bowling. Meet this year’s top 100; profiles include maps, contact info and more.  More

(Side note: if you need a CLASS on Wii bowling we may have a whole different set of problems. But back to the topic at hand.)

Now, this is definitely NOT the fault of the people running the contests. Nor the honest companies who win. But how do you compete with companies that are telling folks to score everything perfectly for the PR value? Well, you can’t. And should you really be spending investors’ money on discounted massages? I’m sure there are a LOT of honest companies on the list. But this dictate-to-or-bribe-the-employees explanation from my friend burst my bubble a bit. I wasn’t fully discouraged though. I considered entering again.

About those perks. As our company grew I found I received more and more requests from employees for very expensive “selective benefits.” The type of thing that “best companies” offer. They were usually prefixed by “My friend works at this Fortune 500 company and they give away…. Can we do that?” Examples:

  1. Free child care
  2. Pay 100% of health care for all families
  3. Massage-Friday’s where everyone gets a free massage
  4. Pay for employees to join a health club
  5. A  jetpack (ok, they didn’t ask for that. I want the jetpack. But they once really did ask for Segways)

Those are all great requests. I can definitely see the benefit of them. People would be happy. Well, the ones who benefitted would be happy. And the others probably wouldn’t notice. But I would notice.

You see most of those requests are selective. Only the employees with kids benefit from the first two, effectively giving those select employees a huge raise as compared to other employees who might be just as valuable to the company. The massage one sounds cool, but if the employee is unwilling to pay for their own massage, why should their coworkers pay for it? And the people who don’t want a massage are not receiving (again) this selective benefit. And the gym membership? Look, if people are too cheap to pay $30 to join a health club then paying for it isn’t going to get them to the gym. That just gives the people who do go to the gym a small raise. But skips the others who don’t receive the benefit.

Of that list, if I were to do any of them it would be the Segway because it is an asset that employees could check out and that would likely benefit the most people. (if any of my team is reading this – no, we are not getting a Segway right now.) We do have a big pool of checkout DSLR cameras. To me this makes sense because a pool of assets the employees can share meet the following criteria:

  1. We need the cameras for work anyway. All I did was say “y’all can borrow them whenever you want” so no extra expense
  2. Everyone takes pictures
  3. Employee use varies so a few expensive assets benefit a bunch of employees who use them at different times
  4. It saves the employee the expense of an asset they rarely use, and is something they appreciate when they DO want to use one
  5. By using these technical cameras for personal use, they learn them, which means they are better trained to use them at work

2009 plasma car racesExpensive assets that can be shared, to me at least, pass the litmus test of a benefit that helps the employees. Another weird thing we have is a costume closet. People rarely want to wear the same halloween costume, so why not have a closet so others can check them out? Cost? Next to nothing because employees donate their costumes. The benefit is cost savings for employees should they go to a costume party. Not all employees benefit, but they ALL didn’t pay for it either.

We purchased an AED for the office. So far no one has benefited from it. Everyone paid for it. But I didn’t see any of the comments on the best places to work lists mention “I’m really glad our CEO is safety focused and has an AED, First Aid Kits, Fire Extinguishers, Emergency Backpacks, etc on site.” (Don’t judge, I was a Boy Scout. I can’t help it.)

Look, I get it. Who doesn’t want stuff for free, right? If your company pays for your gym membership then great for you. Just realize it is on the backs of your coworkers.

Do you really need a corporation to incentivize you to stay healthy? Really? Now, if the company brought someone in to teach a class on healthy eating, I can see that. We paid to have the Red Cross do CPR training for everyone. I can see that. But a recurring gym membership paid for by the company for you? No. That isn’t a “best place” to work for me. That is an executive team that wanted to offer a benefit to employees so they could justify having the company pay for their country club memberships because that is their “gym.”

My job as CEO is to make sure our clients are getting greater value than cost. Without the clients, we don’t have a company. I completely get that. But after that, I must fight to increase income for all of my employees. And fight I do. We have a great profit sharing plan that even my attorney recommended I not implement (I did anyway). That money should go to the employees of a meritocracy and THEY DECIDE how they want to spend THEIR MONEY. It’s none of my business.

So I don’t think we’ll win a best places to work contest any time soon. And I’m ok with that. OK, now I have to get back to work.

NOTE: This is a cross post. Please comment on the main post on the  Houston Chronicle on Best Places to Work by Ed Schipul.