What Government Can Learn From ‘Best Places’ Employers

The companies that top the rankings have something in common: workplace practices that confirm employees are valued.

Articles on the best places to work have become omnipresent. Every sector of the economy and every major city has its lists of the best employers. Even demographic groups -- working parents, new graduates, women, seniors, LGBT workers -- now have their own lists. The idea has been a focus of escalating attention for over two decades.

Too often, however, the articles simply rank employers while providing little information on how those rankings are derived. The criteria, when presented at all, vary widely. The rankings rely heavily on employee surveys, whose methodology is always subject to question. Survey respondents' comments typically refer to workplace culture, but the articles provide little in the way of specific guidance as to what managers should do to provide the culture that propels an organization to the top of the ratings.

That information would be helpful to government. The private-sector employers on those lists can select from larger pools of well qualified applicants, experience lower voluntary turnover, and perform better -- in large part because of workplace practices that cost them virtually nothing. The solution to the workforce problems so common among public employers could be addressed by the practices of the "best places" employers.

So what can the public sector learn from what we do know about the top-ranked employers in those national rankings? Google typically leads the lists, and technology and financial companies predominate in the higher rankings. However, second on the 2017 Fortune list is Wegmans Food Markets, a regional supermarket chain with more than 45,000 employees. Wegmans has been on the Fortune list for 20 years, and it also makes the Forbes list of best employers.

The Fortune article reports that Wegmans employees say "there's a lot of love and caring" and cite "small things that make a difference." Wegmans' rank on the list, along with other supermarket chains, hotel chains and health-care providers, makes it clear that selection is not based on how generously employees are compensated.

Several organizations now develop national "Best Places" lists, but the one that should be credited with the explosion of interest is Great Place to Work, a San Francisco survey and consulting group. It relies on a lengthy survey instrument combined with information related to human-resources policies and practices. What defines a great workplace "goes far deeper than perks and benefits," the company writes. " In fact, at its core, a great workplace is about the level of trust that employees experience in their leaders, the level of pride they have in their jobs, and the extent to which they enjoy their colleagues."

Great Place to Work's survey questions all relate to how employees feel about their work experience and focus on practices linked to five themes: management's credibility, respect, fairness, pride and camaraderie. All of these are themes that can and should be addressed by public employers. Any employer, public or private, can commit to -- and expect to benefit from -- improving the work experience.

So far, though, there's been little progress on that front in government at any level. There is a "Best Places to Work in the Federal Government" ranking, a project of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. It gets a lot of attention when it's updated every year, but it's not clear how much real impact it has had on work management in federal agencies.

What, realistically, can governments do? What barriers do they face that the private sector, for the most part, doesn't have to deal with? In February I posted a column in this space asking whether civil-service rules are the enemy of employee engagement. It was triggered by a Gallup report and a U.S. map with the states colored to depict differences in engagement scores. Those with more traditional civil-service systems were among the lowest-scoring.

More recently, a Harvard Business Review article, "Research Shows Unionized Workers Are Less Happy, but Why?", caught my attention. It is based on an analysis of union membership and job satisfaction from 59 studies published over almost 40 years. (Although not stated in the article, presumably the studies focused on private employers.)

While author Patrice Laroche's analyses show that unions depend on drawing attention to "what's wrong with the way work and workers are managed," he argues that employee dissatisfaction "cannot be blamed on the union."

Unions have far less support in well managed organizations. But while they can play a positive role as partners with management to improve the work experience, too often they oppose needed changes.

Laroche clearly agrees that employers need to focus on improving the work experience. It's not that straightforward in government, of course, given the barriers of civil-service laws and regulations. But it's always possible to learn from employees, through focus groups and other means, what changes would improve their experience.

Unfortunately, the recession, together with the budget crises that followed and the civil-service mindset, have delayed needed changes in the way government work is organized and managed. Change is best accomplished when its promoted by a champion, but few government leaders have come to understand the potential for improved performance.

This may appear to be an HR problem, but any effort to improve the work experience in government is far more likely to be successful if top management makes it an organizational priority. Once the impact of initial changes is felt, an initiative is likely to gain support.

Emulating Google's work environment is not a realistic goal, but there are no true barriers to government becoming as attractive an employer as Wegmans. Everyone would benefit from a more positive work environment. It's a practical way to improve performance at minimal cost.

A consultant focusing on public-sector pay and performance