Destination: Employer of Choice

By Mari Pat Varga and Roberta Kushen

A Road Map to Becoming and Being Recognized as an Employer of Choice

Attracting and retaining talent is at the top of the priority list for most successful businesses, particularly so in the current economic climate.   To drive and sustain business success, you need the right people in the right seats – and you need to keep them.  So, how do you accomplish this important goal to attract and retain?  Shoeless Joe Jackson’s famous line in the film, Field of Dreams provides the answer:  “If you build it, they will come.”  If you build an organizational culture where people (and customers) come first, you’ll keep the talent – and attract new talent – that will realize your business objectives.

Benefiting from years of experience in helping organizations to achieve national and regional Best Employer recognition, this article shares some of the best practices, from our experience, and guiding principles to help you create an organizational culture that engages employees and leads to becoming an Employer of Choice, worthy of ‘best employer’ awards and recognition.

Why take the journey?  There are many benefits to building an award-winning culture.  Being a ‘Best Employer’ is about having an engaged workforce.  Beyond being just satisfied, engaged employees feel an emotional attachment to the company.  As a result, they talk positively about the company to others, stay longer and have a stake in ensuring the company’s success.

There’s an added benefit:  Engaged employees are customer-centric because they know – and it matters to them – that having satisfied customers is essential to the company’s long-term growth and profitability.  Engaged employees create engaged customers.

The marriage of engaged employees and engaged customers fosters an interest in and commitment to community involvement.  When a company cares about its people, they in turn care about their customers, and that results in an organic reach out to the communities they serve.

In the end, engaging your employees, building relationships with your customers and partnering with your community delivers financial results.  What’s not to like?

We have shared the benefits of embarking on the journey of becoming an employer of choice.  Now, the challenging task of building the culture that leads to being an employer of choice begins.  If you are like most organizations, you are probably already doing some of what it takes.  You just need to measure, add to, fine-tune, implement, and – measure again.

Steps to Create the Culture

1.   Inventory and benchmark your current ‘people’ programs & practices.

Build it Tip: Establish a multi-disciplinary team to review and evaluate. Create master spreadsheet that compares and contrasts your people programs against those of employers of choice.  Find the industry best practices by researching “best employer” lists.

2.   Ask your people what they think.  Survey your employees to determine what they like and don’t like about your current people programs and the work environment.

Build it Tip:  Partner with a firm that’s experienced in conducting employee surveys.  This lends credibility and ensures confidentiality.  An external partner can also help you construct your survey so that you will be able to identify your own organization’s levers that will raise the engagement bar among your employees.

3.   Identify and Close the Gaps.  Once you’ve identified the gaps between what you’re currently doing, what your employees value, and what employers of choice do, you can begin the work of closing the gaps.

Build it Tip:  Prioritize areas for opportunity and start with the “quick wins” – items that are low cost but have high impact when it comes to employee engagement.

Here’s an example:  Perhaps your employees told you in the survey you conducted that they want more recognition.  Focus on developing low- or no-cost recognition programs:  an inexpensive ‘on-the-spot’ recognition program (a free lunch, lunch with an executive, movie tickets, a $25 gift card, or simply public recognition in the company newsletter or intranet); years of service recognition; customer service awards.  The key to success in implementing these types of programs is to institutionalize them.  Get your managers on board first, and publicize – constantly.


4.   Pursue your priorities.  Invest in people programs that directly address what your employees told you are important to them.  It may be a revamp of your pay programs, or revised time off programs that provide the flexibility your people told you they want and need.

Build it Tip:  Remember that it’s a process that can take several years.  Plan ahead and incorporate your priorities into your team’s strategic plan to ensure funding.

5.   Communicate Your Progress:  Be transparent and share survey results with your people – both the good and the not so good.  Let them know what you plan to do to improve, why it is important and ensure them that you will keep them informed of progress along the way.

Build it Tip:  Start at the Top.  Launch the communication process with a communication from the CEO that shares high-level survey results and what you’re going to do about them.  Next, involve your managers in the process by arming them with talking points and program highlights to share with their teams.  Finally, establish a communication schedule leveraging a variety of internal communications channels to keep the programs front and center.  You cannot over-communicate.  The objective is to let your employees know you’ve heard them and what you’re doing in response. Remember:  “If you build it, they will come”.

6.   Keep Leaders Listening and Visible.  Visibility sends a clear message that senior management is listening and cares about what employees have to say.  It will get the attention of your people!

Build it Tip:  Create as many two-way communication forums between employees and leaders as is possible.  Consider venues like “Breakfast with the President” or “Lunch and Learns” with senior leaders.  Invitations to these types of sessions can be a great way to recognize top-performing employees.  Develop a specific agenda for the sessions – asking employees for their input on a particular subject or business issue is a good start – and publicize the feedback and ideas from these sessions to all employees.

7.   Measure again.  After you’ve invested a significant amount of time (may be six months to two years depending on your efforts), energy, and money in developing people programs that close the gaps and get you closer to your goal of becoming an employer of choice, survey your employees again.  This will enable you to see the fruits of your labors and will serve as motivation to continue to refine and steadily move closer to achieving your goal.


Build it Tip:  Think about periodic “mini-surveys” – simple, 5-question, check-box surveys that you can post monthly or quarterly on your intranet.  This will help you stay in touch with your people so you’ll know what’s on their minds.

Are you starting to feel like an employer of choice?  Is your employee feedback reflecting major progress?  If so,go for it!  Begin applying for those “Best Employer” awards!  You’ll be measured on how your people programs stack up against those of your competition.  Keep in mind, what will matter the most – and weigh most heavily in whether or not you are recognized as a best employer will be what your employees have to say – because they will be asked.

Finally, it is important to say that while it is extremely gratifying to “win” an award it is not what matters most in the end.  You will find that the destination of Employer of Choice and the journey you took to “discover” the heart and soul of your organization will reap many benefits.  You will know what matters to your employees, you will know what you need to do to continually improve, you will discover new and different ways to communicate with them and you will unearth the uniqueness of what makes your company stand apart.  You may not end up with a “Best Employer” banner on your company door but when the next talented individual walks in the door to be interviewed you will know exactly how to sell your company and its culture.

Whether you have won awards or simply reached your goal to create a culture of engaged employees and customers, your next biggest challenge will be to sustain it.  Building it is one thing, sustaining it is another.  While there are many elements that go into sustainability, here are some key things to remember:

  • Be aware that “keeping it alive” is like climbing Mt. Everest – you are elated that you’ve reached the summit.  But it is easy to “rest on your laurels” or become complacent and forget to innovate and continually strive to build on what you have created.
  • Continue to keep your finger on the pulse of your people.  Survey often – Annual company-wide surveys, smaller scale “pulse surveys” and even departmental polls.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate – and continue to try new approaches and venues to reach your people.
  • Leverage employee testimonials, interviews and cite successes in your publications that demonstrate progress continues to be made.
  • Leaders must maintain visibility and accessibility.  When times are tough or goals have been accomplished, sometimes the drive to hold employee forums and meetings diminishes – but it must not.  Two-way communication forums are key!
  • Recognize your people – never “go dark” on public recognition and creative awards.
  • Always ask – What can we do to be better?

As Shoeless Joe Jackson said:  If you build it, they will come.  It will be well worth the journey.  Good Luck!