THE BLOG
01/06/2015 05:25 pm ET Updated Mar 08, 2015

How to Get on the Working Mother 100 Best Companies List: 9 Tips for a Better Application

Compassionate Eye Foundation/Steven Errico via Getty Images

The application for Working Mother's annual "100 Best Companies" list is out -- if your company wants to try for this list, you have until mid-March to answer the 500 questions, write your essay, and get your entry in. It's a lot of work, but it's for a big reward. As I wrote in my last post, getting on the Working Mother 100 Best Companies list can boost recruitment and retention of talented employees, and is a public relations coup for your company. Even if you don't get on the list, many of my clients tell me the application process, itself, is a significant learning experience.

So how do you get on the list? I wrote about the actual process in my last post. Now comes the tougher question: what does it take to actually get on the list? Well, for starters, you need strong policies and programs promoting women's advancement and work-life balance for all employees. Then you need to be able to demonstrate that employees actually use these programs and policies -- and (ideally) that senior leadership and managers at all levels encourage that use.

But you need something more than all this. You also have to be able to convey this information in the most strategic way possible. You need to be able to tell your story. I've been helping companies write successful applications for this and other best company lists for years. Here are some of my top tips for putting together the strongest possible application:

  1. Think Positive. If you can honestly say "yes" in answer to an application question, say it. If there are some caveats, that's what the written comments sections are for. In other words, better "yes" with caveats, than "no" with exceptions.
  2. Think Broad. Every company has its own names for things. If you've got a program that involves pairing employees with other employees who act as resources and coaches, you've got a mentoring program -- no matter what you happen to call it. Don't be so literal-minded that you miss out on opportunities to strut your stuff.
  3. Think Narrow. A program confined to one of your work sites or a single department is better than no program at all. And even an incremental improvement in one of your benefits or programs shows that you are working in the right direction. (The folks at Working Mother aren't going to be hunting up your answers to last year's questions, though -- so if there's been an improvement, make sure to mention it in the essay.)
  4. Think Specific. The dynamics are in the details. Exactly how does a program work? What does it cost employees, if anything, and what specifically do they get for that? If it's a back-up child care program, how many days do they get, can they use more than those days by paying on their own, does it include in-home as well as center-based care, is it available to all employees, are providers vetted... etc?
  5. Think General. The details to include are the ones that demonstrate how and why a program works. But don't get carried away and start throwing in every last bit of legalese in your policy. If your health insurance covers domestic partners, it's enough to say that -- perhaps clarifying whether that includes opposite- as well as same-sex domestic partners -- without going into detail about how employees are asked to document their relationship. Not only does such detail add unnecessary underbrush to what should be a clear, clean story but it wastes some of the precious 2,500 words you have to tell it.
  6. Think Nerdy. Crunch those numbers -- leaving too many answers blank on the Working Mother application is one of the greatest mistakes you can make. If you haven't actually tracked usage of a particular flex-work option or vacation policy, make some educated guesses. This sort of "guestimating" is perfectly acceptable to the Working Mother judges, as long as it passes what they call the "red face" test -- if you wouldn't be embarrassed to see your numbers quoted publicly, go ahead and use them. Remember, too, that data of all kinds is a great way to put some teeth into any claims you make in the essay.
  7. Think Concise. The final essay in the Working Mother essay is limited to 2,500 words. Judges stress that you don't have to write 2,500 words -- you won't lose points for writing fewer. But if you do find yourself hitting the limits without getting in everything you want to say, take a careful look at your language. Rather than resort to Twitter-like abbreviations or jargon-y acronyms that nobody can understand, try this: get rid of over-generalized language that adds no value ("We strive to support the work-life balance of our employees in every possible way"); platitudes ("Flexible work arrangements make it easier for employees to have work-family balance); and unnecessary repetition ("We have a paid parental leave. Our paid parental leave policy provides...") Here are some more of my tips for writing to fit word limits.
  8. Think Personal. Don't just talk about programs and policies. Talk about people. Tell specific stories about employees that have benefited from the programs you're describing. Add quotes. And remember that here, once again, the dynamics are in the details. An employee says she benefited from tuition assistance? Great. She benefited because she was able to use it to complete her degree, and in that way was able to get a promotion? Much, much better.
  9. Think Unique. What makes your company special? What special perks do your employees have that relate directly to your industry (e.g., discounts on cars for car dealerships, or on financial planning for investment firms)? How do your programs and policies reflect your stated corporate philosophy and values? What little extras do you provide for working parents or others with family responsibilities? The Working Mother application questions are tweaked each year, often in order to incorporate benefits and policies its authors hadn't thought to add, until an applicant like you mentioned them.

There are, of course, no guarantees when it comes to getting on a "100 Best Companies" list. But if you attend to the tips above, you'll be doing all you can to make your application worth the effort.

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 www.robinhardman.com.