You Know You’ve Got A Great Place to Work. So How Do You Get On That List?

On Tuesday, I’m heading to Atlanta, where for two-plus days I’ll barely step out of the Hyatt Regency. Am I excited at the prospect? You bet!

That’s because I’ll be spending those two days at the Great Place to Work Conference, run by the institute that developed and administers both the Fortune “100 Best Companies to Work For” and Entrepreneur’s “Best Medium and Small Company” lists. The annual conference draws hundreds of representatives of organizations on these lists—including an impressive number of CEOs—and hundreds more of list wannabes.

The program is always inspiring and frequently quite entertaining, as leaders get up one after another to show off their ultra-cool workplaces. Over the years, I’ve heard about companies where you can opt to slide between floors instead of taking the stairs, companies where top leadership runs meetings in drag, companies whose ethics-training videos are actually laugh-out-loud funny.

But the folks from the Great Place to Work Institute (GPTW), as well as many from the “Best Companies,” themselves, would be the first to tell you that you don’t have to have nap pods and ping pong tables to be considered for these lists. You just have to have employees who feel they are trusted and empowered, treated fairly and respectfully, and encouraged to enjoy their work.  And you have to make sure the folks at GPTW know that.

There’s no shortcut to getting on the 100 Best list.

It’s an in-depth application process. You can’t fake it: the heart of the application—two thirds of your score—is a confidential survey of your employees. No one gets on this list unless the vast majority of their employees agree that theirs is truly a great place to work.

But the final third of your score is based on what you say about your organization. It may not count for as much, but it does count, and you ignore it at your peril. This third of the application is called the Cultural Audit, and it has two parts. Part 1 is a long list of short-answer and yes/no questions about demographics and benefits. This part isn’t so bad; it just takes time and care to get it right.

Part 2 is the one you may have heard about. In its current iteration, it comprises sixteen open-ended questions, such as “What are the distinctive ways in which managers share information with employees and foster a culture of transparency?” “How does your company promote a sense of fairness?” “How do you encourage fun and camaraderie…?” etc. And when I say open-ended, I mean open-ended. No word counts for the GPTW: you are free to write as much—or as little—on every topic as you like.

This fact—no boundaries—instills an existential terror into some who open the application. How much should I write? What should I include? In how much detail? The simple (and obnoxious) answers are: write until you have answered the questions. Include everything that’s relevant, in as much detail as is necessary to get your story across. But since I realize that isn’t necessarily terribly helpful, herewith are three tips for attacking the GPTW Cultural Audit, Part 2:

Get Beyond “What” to “How” Cultural Audit Part 2 is your chance to brag about the things that make your organization unique. You can’t do that with platitudes and broad generalizations. For example, I don’t think there’s a company in the U.S. today that doesn’t “value teamwork.” So the question is not whether or not you value teamwork, but how you act on that: how does your structure promote teamwork? what kind of rewards do you have for it? what specific recruiting or interviewing techniques do you use to ensure you’re hiring people who will work well in teams?

Likewise, anyone can say that senior leadership is available to answer questions (and everybody does), but how does your company show that? A senior leader at one organization hands out extra vacation time to employees who ask questions spontaneously at Town Halls. Now that’s a good story to tell.

Remember What Matters, Even if It Isn’t Specifically Asked. For example, the folks at GPTW care a lot about employees having a chance to contribute their thoughts and ideas. They ask about it specifically, with three whole questions out of the sixteen falling under the category of “Listening.” So don’t limit your mention of employee input to these three questions. If you’re writing about your training program, and some of the courses were developed in response to employee requests, be sure to say that! If you’re writing about rewards programs, and some awards are based on recognition by peers, make that clear!

But DON’T Say It Ad Nauseum. I’ve helped a lot of companies with their Best Company submissions. And many times they don’t say nearly enough—they err on the side of generalities, leave out all examples and stories, focus on the what and not the how. But sometimes I see a company that is so proud of one or two particular aspects of its culture that it can’t stop talking about it. Over and over again. The same exact examples, the same exact data. This can happen easily if you’re writing by committee, with different subject matter experts assigned to different questions—and no one editor overseeing the whole thing. It can also happen if you get confused by the questions—you’re not quite sure what question your story fits best, so you put it down in answer to all the questions.

Either way, it’s a mistake. As GPTW makes clear in its instructions, you only need write about something once. You can then use a word or a sentence to refer back to it elsewhere in the submission. The folks at GPTW probably stress this mostly to make both your and their lives easier. (After all, they have to read through this thing—twice over, in fact, as part of their scoring process.) But I have another reason for saying this is a mistake, and it has to do with strong communication.

There’s a rule of thumb among communicators that once is not enough; you have to say something repeatedly to get your message across. And while this is absolutely true, I offer one caveat: not in the same piece of writing! Say it once, it’s a great story. Say it twice, it’s a trifle annoying. Say it three times, and I think, at best, that you have nothing else to say and, at worst, “the lady doth protest too much”— maybe this thing you’re writing about isn’t so darn special, after all.

So There You Have It:

Write until you have answered the questions. Include everything that’s relevant, in as much detail as is necessary to get your story across (and no more). And see if you aren’t the one up there showing off at next year’s Great Place to Work conference.

Still rather not do it all yourself? Contact me for customized help with your GPTW submission. Or, if you, too, plan to spend the better part of next week in Atlanta, just look me up!

Making It Easy

At school, my kids see a “Do Now” on the board when they walk into class. At meetings, the agenda ends with “Deliverables.” But so many communications I’ve seen leave me scratching my head: when and where is this event, what am I supposed to do to sign up for this program, how can I learn more?

Your audience isn’t stupid. But you still have to connect every dot.

They may be very interested in what you’re telling them. They may want to follow up. But the fact is, they have too much to do. Like all of us, they have too much on their desk, too many meetings and appointments, too many digital distractions and personal responsibilities. Even as they’re trying to read the communication you spent hours writing, their phone is ringing, their email is chirping, they hear the buzz of an incoming text.

They have neither the energy nor the time to read between your lines, hunt for the phone number, or Google for more information.

You have to make it easy.

Remember “who, what, when, where, why and how?” Use it. The famous axiom of journalists can remind you not just what information to include about your topic, but what information to include about your readers’ next steps. Tell people exactly what they need to do; when, where, how and why they need to do it; and who they need to contact.

“Where” is also a crucial question to ask yourself as you put the information on the page, as in where should that phone number or hyperlink go? (Most likely, just after the sentence saying “Contact Ingrid Clatwitter to volunteer.” And again, at the bottom of the page. And, maybe even at the top, too.) Where should I link to?” is another vital question. (Answer: to the exact, specific place my reader needs to be in order to take action.)

C’mon, isn’t all this obvious?

You would think so, wouldn’t you? But it’s easy to get caught up in your own world, and forget that your readers are caught up in theirs. The very obviousness (to you) of the story you’re telling keeps you from remembering it may not be obvious to your readers. So here’s my list of “do nows” for anyone who expects their readers to do something based on a communication:

If you’re writing for the web…

  • …and promoting a program or policy, include a link to specific, detailed information about that policy or program, including how, exactly, to take advantage of it. And then include the link again.
  • …and announcing a training or an event, link directly to a registration form.
  • …and asking for donations, put the “DONATE” button right there on the page—with a link to Paypal. (And if you’ve mentioned those donations can be made in installments, make sure choosing that option is as easy and automatic as checking a box.)

If you’re writing for print…

  • …do all of the above, (with urls instead of hyperlinks) but don’t forget to include phone numbers. (Ever have the annoying experience of calling tech support because you can’t get on your internet, and having to listen as a chirpy recording suggests you look up your answer online?)


  • Don’t be afraid of direct phrases like “Here’s how.” There’s a reason you hear wording like this on infomercials. It works.
  • Tell your readers what they will need on hand in order to take the next step. Employee ID? Credit card? Form 2XB-L1000? (If the latter, make sure to explain how to get said form—ideally by linking to it.)
  • If the next step for your reader involves contacting someone else, whether it be his/her manager or an HR helpline, be sure that “someone else” is expecting the call, and knows what to do when it comes in!

Do you have a question about your employee communications? Give me a call: 718-628-4753. Or contact me via this blog.

There’s No Rule Against Interesting

I once attended a talk on the subject of employee communications by this wonderful Ragan Communications guy; I wish I could remember his name. He had us imagine a tableau I’ve carried in my head ever since:  It’s lunchtime at your office. A mid-level employee takes a sandwich back to her desk and reaches for something to peruse between bites. Two publications are at hand. One is the latest edition of the employee newsletter. The other is Cosmopolitan. Which do you think she’ll pick up?

Mind you, this particular presentation happened nearly ten years ago. Pre-YouTube. Pre-Facebook. Pre-Angry Birds.

Just because you have something to say, doesn’t mean your intended audience is listening.

So what’s an employee newsletter editor to do? You can’t produce Cosmopolitan out of your communications desk. And if you did, you’d no doubt be fired. But you can keep this very real scenario in mind when writing stuff you want employees to read.

No matter what your corporate culture, there’s no law against writing catchy, readable prose.

Sure your subject matter isn’t always as titillating as the stories the Cosmo editors get to order up. But you have an edge Cosmopolitan doesn’t have. Most of your employees have a vested interest in the information you have to give them. Even if doesn’t affect them directly, it does affect the company they work for. Believe it or not, a lot of employees care enough about their companies to want to know more. But the competition (for their attention) is whispering in their ears. So you have to meet them halfway.

Here are three tips for doing just that:

Find the hook. What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned while researching the story? I was once asked to write an article about a sales conference at a drug company. For background, the editor sent me a story about the same conference that had just been published in another division’s newsletter. About six paragraphs into a boring article about what seemed to be a boring conference, the writer mentioned that conference attendees had been invited to walk barefoot across a bed of hot coals at a session about the nature of pain. Six paragraphs in! Why, oh why, did the story not open with this amazing tidbit?

Ok, not every story’s going to come with this kind of obvious, built-in hook, but most have something that stands out as interesting. Search that stuff out and be tenacious about following up if you find it. Another assignment I once had was to write about two employees who’d won industry awards. Again, a pretty boring topic on the surface. But when I called them up to interview them, I discovered that the awards were announced, as a surprise, at a conference that neither of them had been planning to attend. The conference planners had to go to great lengths to get them to change their minds about attending the conference, without spoiling the surprise. Now that made for a good story.

Bring it to a human level. Introducing a new program or policy? Describing a new product? Find someone that program, policy or product affects and tell that person’s story. Here’s the way a lot of employee newsletters I’ve seen might talk about a new online database:

LuceBoltz Aircraft has partnered with Air Literature, a new online aircraft-related database, to deliver real-time online solutions for aircraft-related product research. The searchable database, now available to all employees through LuceBoltz Online, contains millions of articles and other downloadable resources.

Yawn. Why is it necessary to write like that? Can you picture a feature on this sort of topic in your local newspaper? How would it open? Unless you’ve got a really awful local newspaper, it would probably go something like this:

When Hank Dinsmore, Regional Marketing Director, needs background information for a product, he generally calls the LuceBoltz reference librarian, or takes a hike up to the 6th floor library, himself. If the librarian has the information he needs on hand—great—if not, Hank completes an acquisition form to order the reference document and puts aside his project until it arrives.

“It’s time-consuming at best,” says the veteran LuceBoltz employee, “And it’s frustrating, since I know that information is out there.”

But things are about to get a whole lot better for Hank. Thanks to Air Literature, our new online aircraft research database, Hank will be able to locate and download the information he needs within minutes, straight from his desk. So will every other employee at LuceBoltz.

Still there? See, even news about a fake product for a fake company can keep you interested, if it tells a good story.

Get your leaders to talk like human beings. This last may be the hardest one of all. For some reason, when perfectly normal, interesting, even funny people step across a corporate threshold and are asked to comment, they turn into jargon-spewing robots. They think every sentence has to be in passive voice, every word has to be 3 to 4 syllables, and every thought has to be a cliché. This tendency is made 1000 times worse by the fact that most leaders, when asked to comment for the record, don’t actually say anything (out loud) at all. They write something down. Or worse (depending on how high up on the chain they are) they have their PR guy write something down. The result is something that bears as much resemblance to natural, human speech as Pringles do to roasted potatoes.

You can’t always do much about this. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Catch the boss saying something to a colleague, off the cuff. Or turn to your inner screenwriter and write some catchy dialog, yourself. (You’ll have to have it approved, of course. Be ready to explain how you’re trying to get employees to actually read the article, and care about what the boss says. Show her a copy of this post, if that will help. Remind her that just because someone says something in a natural way—the way they really would say it, out loud, in the real world, doesn’t make it unprofessional. It just makes it human.)

You do these three things, and see if that employee isn’t picking up the employee newsletter first. At least for a quick read. So she can get a bit of news, then turn her attention to Cosmo.

A lot of my clients know me for my work writing “best company to work for” submissions. But did you know I also write newsletter content? Contact me to find out more.