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When Work Pays Off

Some great companies reward “we,” some reward “me.” Too many companies don’t know which.
By Michael Beygelman

While it is convenient to think that all Americans worship money and that any one of us can be bought, the data suggests that as a society we still value corporate culture, stability, and a pleasant working environment differently from pay.

At the top of the list of the best companies to work for in 2010, as published by Fortune, is SAS, followed in order by Edward Jones, Wegmans, Google, Nugget Market, DreamWorks Animation, NetApp, Boston Consulting Group, Qualcomm, and Camden Property Trust. Let’s compare the list of the best companies to work for with the list of the top paying companies also published by Fortune. In parenthesis we’ll highlight their relative rankings in the top companies to work for list. At the top of the highest paying companies list is Baker Donnelson (77), followed in order by (43), Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe (95), Bingham McCutchen (12), Devon Energy (20), Alston & Bird (30), Perkins Coie (75), EOG Resources (67), Arnold & Porter (65), and finishing up the Top 10 list is Brocade Communications Systems (61).

It is immediately apparent that none of the Top 10 paying companies are in the Top 10 places to work list, although some are close. In fact, even the diversity of the industries that make up both lists is quite fascinating. And it is this diversity that gets us to the heart of the tales that money doesn’t always buy happiness, nor are loyalty and commitment necessarily remunerated with reward. The reality is that firms that pay the most don’t correlate with firms that have the happiest employees. However, correlation is strong within the peer group of top companies to work for. The Top 10 best companies to work for have at least 500 job openings—each! Combined, the top 22 companies to work for have more than 87,750 current job openings.

There’s a consistent theme—companies that are actively hiring are perceived to be more progressive and better places to work. But, unfortunately, having lots of jobs is not a panacea for getting your company into the prestigious Top 10. When Edward Jones (2) was asked what it was looking for, its response wasn’t a laundry list of skill sets; rather, more than half of their responses were qualitative traits. “For financial advisors, we look for self-starters who enjoy working with and helping other people. For branch office administrators, we look for energetic individuals who can take the initiative to anticipate client and financial advisor needs.” The qualitative aspects of employment are further evidenced in this excerpt of a Google (4) employee, Ken Norton: “I think that the quality of life perks in general are important. I’m a competitive cyclist, and I race bikes, and I spend a lot of time training. Google is the kind of environment where you can fit that in. I can go for a ride in the morning and work from home, or in the early afternoon. The flexibility is accommodating for having a life outside the office. You get the sense that the people running things care about you and your life.”

By contrast, the company ranked second for pay, (43), has a very different approach. sales has been growing approximately 20 percent per year, and last year they topped nearly $1 billion. This kind of success does not happen by accident. It happens when you have a culture of winning and paying for performance. “The San Francisco-based company sets pay levels above market, and every employee is bonus-eligible under a ‘mahalo plan’ (mahalo is Hawaiian for thank you). The more you make, the higher the bonus target: For senior managers, it’s 15 percent of pay, for directors it’s 20 percent.”

“We have to save the customer from Microsoft, Oracle, and SAP,” CEO Marc Benioff is quoted in his 2009 book, Behind the Cloud. “To keep employees motivated for the crusade, gives stock options and restricted stock awards to a wide range of staff, and regularly enhances perks. One recent addition: $5,000 for adoption aid.”

What is most interesting is that both companies are very successful in their own ways—while a great multitude of companies linger in mediocrity, lost, not knowing how to move toward greatness. The challenge they experience is rooted in lack of leadership to drive corporate alignment around a vision and a mission. They get too bogged down trying to react to social and economic changes, or get to, focused on balancing the “me-we” equation (if you flip “me” over you get “we”), instead of focusing on developing either a “me” or a “we” culture. Even worse, some companies think they have a “me-we” culture, but really have only a “me” or a “we” (and, so, typically fail at both).
Unsustainable Schizophrenia
We can find this kind of ongoing vacillation in any misaligned or mediocre company—and, unfortunately, that constitutes a large proportion of domestic and global companies. Take, for example, some companies in the investment banking industry. When times are tough, the recruiting department is viewed as an unproductive, unnecessary expense that adds little value—after all, the maverick investment bankers can do a much better job of hiring people on their own, so who needs the expense and headache of dealing with a recruitment department? Layoffs are not uncommon, as is creation of a negative working environment that would make some people want to quit (which is the intention).
However, as soon as things pick up again, these kinds of companies go into crisis mode, pay top dollar for new talent, and create an unsustainable feel-good employment environment that company lifers know is only temporary. One seldom sees these kinds of firms top either list.

When it comes to developing a “great” organization, you must first define “good,” and be willing to make a pit stop there on your way to becoming great. You must also understand that great can be what you want it to be. Companies that pay the most conflate that with greatness and are not necessarily focused on the feel-good culture that is sometimes synonymous with companies that are “great places to work.” Conversely, companies that are great places to work focus on paying what they think is fair and look to attract people based on qualitative measures that are not necessarily equated with top pay—in fact, these kinds of companies are often the ones that won’t match a counter-offer, even if it’s only a little more, because they know that a person who is willing to risk a job at a great place to work over the equivalent cost of a cup of Starbucks coffee per day is probably not the best-suited candidate for their culture.
A Wise Consistency
The key to a journey in the search of greatness is honesty and transparency—whether your company wants to pay a lot or be known as a great place to work. It is important that you treat your existing staff, and your business partners, the same way that you would treat new employees and corporate executives.

Consistency in your approach, and your communication of that approach, will help you work toward aligning your vision and mission and your daily business operations. These are board-level topics, so if you are charged with HR or recruitment in your organization and you’re looking to make a difference, you should become intimately familiar with your organizational strategy. And if you don’t have one, and you want to make an impact at the board level, it’s time that you take it upon yourself to develop the strategy.
Michael Beygelman is president, RPO solutions, at Adecco North America. He can be reached at

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