Not on This Year's 'Best Companies to Work For' List? Why Not Try for Next Year's?

03/19/2015 01:34 pm ET | Updated May 19, 2015


A couple weeks ago, Fortune magazine published its annual "100 Best Companies to Work For" list. The list includes lots of names that probably no one is surprised to see -- places like Google and Zappos sometimes seem to be in the news as much about their fun workplaces as about their products. It has plenty of other famous names (Hyatt, Mars, Goldman Sachs...), too. But it also has less well-known ones -- small regional health systems, professional service firms, manufacturers, etc. And while close to half (42) of the 100 companies have been on the list 10 years or longer, 27 -- more than a quarter -- have been on for three years or less. Sixteen made it for the first time this year.

Getting on the Fortune 100 Best Companies list is really hard. But clearly, it's not impossible. Even if you've never been on the list before.

And as with all best companies lists, there can be rewards to just going through the application process. In this case, an employee survey component gives you useful feedback on how your employees are feeling, and how that compares to how employees of other (aggregated) companies say they're feeling. You also gain insight into what sorts of things make a company a great place to work -- at least according to the purveyors of this list. Since companies on the Fortune 100 Best list tend to outperform others in the stock market, among other things, that's a pretty useful insight to have.

So how did these 100 companies make it to the list? First (and most important), by having a fabulous culture -- a culture that feels, to the employees, fair, open, trusting and supportive. A culture where everyone understands the mission and his or her role in it, and communication rules. Second, by conveying that culture in an arduous application process.

What You Need to Know About the Fortune 100 Best Application Process

  • The 100 Best list is administered by the Great Place to Work Institute (GPTW), a company devoted to -- you guessed it -- promoting the value of great workplaces.
  • Two full thirds of the application scoring is based on that employee survey I mentioned. The rules for distributing and promoting this survey are strict, and strictly enforced.
  • That leaves one-third of your score for your side of the story a detailed -- and I mean detailed -- depiction of what your company actually does to make your employees love you so. You do this by means of what GPTW calls the Culture Audit.

What is the Culture Audit?
The Culture Audit has two parts. Part one is pretty straightforward -- just yes/no and short-answer questions about your employee demographics, your benefits, compensation, other policies and programs. Part two is the killer. It's generally 16 completely open-ended questions about every possible aspect of your organization and culture: how you recruit, how you hire and welcome new employees, how you communicate, how you listen to and incorporate employee ideas, how you support work-life balance, how you support diversity, how you promote fairness, how you give back to the community -- etc, etc.

Because the questions are open-ended in style and in fact -- there are no word limits -- Culture Audit Part Two tends to run long. For many of my clients, it generally comes to 50-60 or more pages, and GPTW says this is not at all unusual. The key is to use those pages wisely. Here are some tips for a better Fortune 100 Best Companies application:

Answer each question.

This may seem obvious, but I'm in the business of helping companies with these applications and you'd be amazed at how often I see answers that don't really address the question. They go off on tangents, they spout general platitudes that offer no special insight into the company in question, or they miss the thrust of the question altogether and talk about something else.

Answer each question ONCE.

Another obvious point? Again, you'd be amazed how many companies will describe the same program, policy, campaign -- whatever -- in answer to question after question. Give the judges a break -- they have to read this. If you've got a great program to promote, decide which question it goes with best and talk about it there. Then simply give it a quick nod and a "refer to" in answer to other relevant questions. (This sort of repetition is often the result of submission-by-committee -- if you're dividing up the questions among different subject matter experts, make sure you coordinate who's going to cover what.)

Provide details that matter.

You're out to paint a picture of the exceptional things you do -- so don't skimp on the information. As the official instructions put it, focus on "how, not what." If you say you use an "assessment tool" to screen job candidates, talk about what sort of tool you use, what it screens for, why what it screens for is important to your company, whether you train hiring managers in its use, and how you can tell (if you can) that it works -- e.g., has turnover declined since you started using it? On the other hand, don't include the details that don't matter, such as the fact that you follow EEO guidelines in hiring. That's good -- don't get me wrong -- but it's not exactly breaking news, and it certainly doesn't set you apart from anyone else applying.

Illustrate your points.

I don't mean literally illustrate -- that's not permitted in the Culture Audit, though you can add a supplement full of pics and video if you like -- but stories and quotes from individual employees as well as leaders can be the picture that's worth a thousand words. And don't forget, data can tell a story, too. If you've got some solid stats that tie your culture and practices to your business success, or even just to more basic features like employee retention -- bring 'em on!

Focus on what makes your company special.

Originality is high on the list of attributes GPTW is looking for. To paraphrase my Haggadah -- how is your company different from all other companies? What's truly unique? Perhaps you have some perks that are specific to your business or mission. Now is the time to talk them up.

Demonstrate fairness and humanity.

GPTW makes it clear that it's interested in how all-inclusive your programs and practices are. This doesn't mean you shouldn't describe initiatives that don't apply to everyone in the organization. But it does mean you should emphasize ones that apply to all, and show, whenever possible, how employees at all levels are benefiting from the culture. GPTW also emphasizes "the human touch." Stories that demonstrate there is real, live, human interaction at your workplace, not just a robotic conformity to rules and procedures, make a difference.

Look at the big picture.

How do all your individual programs and practices add up to a culture? What thematic threads run through all you do -- what's your internal brand? How do your practices tie back to your mission and values? Be explicit. Don't leave it up to the judges to connect the dots.

Consider being honest.

I say this only partly tongue-in-cheek. Of course you have to be honest in this and all such applications -- you'll be caught out soon enough by your own employees if you're not. But let's face it. There's honest-honest and there's P.R. honest. I'm suggesting you back away from the P.R. sheen, shout down the wonks in Legal, and tell the truth. This doesn't mean you have to write a tell-all about every bad manager that stalks your halls (your employees will take care of that in the survey). But it does mean you shouldn't be afraid to discuss things that your company hasn't gotten right -- and how it has, or is planning to, fix them.

No, It's Not Easy

But it can be done, as the folks from 100 companies will tell you -- at least 16 of whom might not have been quite so sure just a year ago!

Robin Hardman is a writer and work-life expert who works with companies to put together the best possible "great place to work" competition entries and creates compelling, easy-to-read benefits, HR, diversity and general-topic employee communications. Find her at