In 2002 I was Head of Communications for consulting firm Watson Wyatt LLP when the executive leadership decided to try and get onto Sunday Times Best Companies list. This was only its 2nd year of implementation in the UK and the first year when 100 companies would be featured; (the 2001 list was only the Best 50 Companies). At that time I was aware of a great effort from the organisers to ensure that they would obtain honest feedback from the randomly selected participants, with threats of disqualification if there was any evidence of the business attempting to skew the results in its favour.
I haven’t been directly involved in the process for the last few years but had retained the impression that the process continues to be a true reflection of how employees feel about the company. This impression is reinforced by Best Companies rather idealistic mission statement “To help make the world a better workplace” and the eight aspects covered in the survey are those identified by employees as critical factors in workplace engagement.
I was therefore surprised to find on reading the ‘rebuttal’ memo from Goldman Sachs President and Chief Operating Officer – Gary D. Cohn and Chairman and Chief Executive Officer – Lloyd C. Blankfein, to Greg Smith’s resignation letter published in the New York Times, that Goldman Sachs was “…the highest placed financial services company [number 4 in the UK] for the third consecutive year and was the only one in its peer group to make the top 25……”. In the Fortune 100 Best Companies 2012 list, Goldman Sachs comes a creditable 33rd.
When I expressed my astonishment at this apparent anomaly to others, they were, universally, equally astounded at my naivety. They all seem to believe that the majority of survey respondents (on the Big Companies list at least) would be predisposed to answer the survey as positively as possible because, at its most cynical, it is better for their own brand to be employed by a company that is on the list, than one that is not. It appears that, despite the Best Companies attempts to keep it honest, the lobbying that goes on in the run-up to these benchmarking surveys can be quite overt.
However, there could be another factor at play here.
It’s possible that Goldman Sachs is successfully recruiting people who suit the culture described in Smith’s exposé and who hold values to match. So the fact that, in 2012, for the third consecutive year, Goldman Sachs was the highest paid financial services company and that short term profit appears to be the path to advancement, are enough to ensure a positive response to a Best Companies questionnaire.
I’m no longer sure what to believe about the essential veracity of the list but I recollect that when I searched on “best companies to work for” I got back pages of companies of every size proudly promoting their inclusion on the lists, interspersed with numerous articles analysing, endorsing and reviewing the factors that sets these listed companies apart, with hardly a critical voice among them. And I should know, because I was looking for them to see if I am as naïve as my friends implied. On balance, I don’t think I am and I think the Best Companies goals are definitely worth pursuing.