Fortune's '100 Best' generates motivation

From recruiting to staff morale, Fortune's list creates great possibilities for companies selected

The best way to get on Fortune's recently released 100 Best Places to Work For list is perhaps the most obvious: be a great place to work. Communicate openly with your employees, make them feel valued, publicly reward their efforts, and provide opportunities for advancement. On-site daycare or weekly wine and cheese parties don't hurt either.

The other key is having a corporate communications team willing to put in long hours filling out forms, compiling materials, and answering questions to present your company in the best light. It's a process that starts nearly a year before the list is published, and it requires, by most estimates, 50 to 60 hours of labor. There are few corporate honors that compare with making this particular list, especially when it comes to attracting and retaining talent.

"It's a very comprehensive and intensive selection process," says Lisa Ratner, a senior project manager with the Great Place to Work Institute, which compiles the list in partnership with Fortune. "It takes about 10 months to complete, from the nomination deadline through list publication. There is no monetary cost to the companies, but it does take time and a team on the ground."

The process begins early in the calendar year, when past participants - as well as potential new ones - receive an e-mail inviting them to throw their hat in the ring. Past participants need only accept the invite by filling out a five-minute survey online by March 31, but first-timers must also write a 1,000-word essay explaining why their company is worthy of consideration.

Once the nominees are selected, communications teams have six weeks to complete an extensive "cultural audit." This consists of two questionnaires: one contains 100 questions that require only short answers; while another poses 17 open-ended questions whose answers sometimes demand extensive supporting materials.

"They want to know about our demographic makeup, salaries, benefits, diversity, how well we communicate, how well our people are rewarded and recognized for their accomplishments, how we celebrate successes, leadership programs, things like that," says Elizabeth Jones, VP of communications for Quicken Loans, which has made the top 20 for the past five years. "We provide a CD-ROM of different activities and events that take place throughout the year to give them a feel for the company. We also send copies of our training materials and leadership curriculum to give them an idea of the opportunities we provide."

Those supporting materials account for a large part of the team's leg work, as they are what truly help differentiate one's company. Although no one is required to send anything, most teams see it as their opportunity to give the judges a sense for what makes their company unique and deserving.

"Those materials are paramount," says Jo Natale, director of media relations and consumer services at Wegmans, which has been on the list all 11 years it's been published. "You've got to be able to tell your own unique story, so it's [an] important element. But it only accounts for a third of the score. What's really important is that survey."

"That survey" is the anonymous questionnaire given to a random sampling of about 400 employees at every company. The results account for two-thirds of the company's score, so no matter how much work the corporate communications team puts in, it will never matter as much as the employees' own opinion of their workplace.

So is it worth it? According to those who have made the list, absolutely, for it helps not just with attracting good talent, but serves as a benchmark for a company to know if its employees are satisfied.

"It's about more than just recruiting," says Jones of Quicken. "We know that our number-two ranking means employees are happy. It lets us know we should keep doing what we're doing."

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