Best-Employer Lists Will Look Different During a Pandemic

“These are the times that try men’s souls,” Thomas Paine famously (if sexistly) said. It was the middle of the American Revolution, and he meant “try” in the now-archaic sense of “test,” contrasting “summer soldiers and sunshine patriots” with real heroes willing to put their lives on the line. 

In 2020, a soul-trying year if there ever was one, I’d like to rephrase that: 

“These are the times that try company cultures.” 

Heroes and heroism are all around us these days, but heroic employers are a rarer breed. While all kinds of organizations have laid claim to being great places to work over the years, now is when we see which ones truly have a right to that title. 

Having top-notch benefits has certainly been a plus this year — we’re living through a moment when factors such as excellent health insurance, strong family leave policies, and fair pay can make a huge difference. It’s also a time when having systems in place to promote flexible ways of working has served many companies well as they found themselves forced to become 100% remote almost overnight. Policies and practices like these have always factored into being a great workplace, and they continue to do so during these unique times. 

But what is going to really distinguish the great workplaces of 2020 is whether they have the culture in place to weather tremendous uncertainty and loss:

  • Are they able to support employees who are struggling to learn new technologies and work amidst the chaos of fully homebound households (or the loneliness of empty ones) as they homeschool children, care for vulnerable elders, and learn whole new ways of approaching even mundane tasks like grocery shopping?
  • Are they able to find ways to maintain a cohesive culture and a sense of purpose? 
  • Do they invite and encourage ideas and input? 
  • What about employees whose jobs can’t be done from home? How are companies treating them?
  • How quick was the rush to layoffs, rather than furloughs or even creative alternatives like work-sharing? Or when layoffs were inevitable, how were people treated? 
  • When it comes time to re-open, what will companies do to ensure fairness and safety for all?

I’m betting that next year’s “best employer” lists will pay less attention to onsite massages and more attention to true employer heroism. 

Great Place to Work, the organization that administers Fortune’s annual “100 Best Companies to Work For” list, has already completely revised its annual application to focus almost entirely on how contenders have handled COVID-19. Likewise, the Stevie Awards have added dozens of new categories specific to COVID-19. And according to a recent article in Fortune, JUST Capital, a nonprofit that ranks companies based on how they treat internal and external stakeholders, has been “focusing its research on tracking how companies are stepping up to one of the most disruptive events in quite some time.” Can other best workplace lists be far behind?

This is how it should be. Thomas Paine would no doubt have approved. After all, it’s not so hard to be the kind of “summer soldier” who treats employees well when things are going well. But if you mistreat your employees in this moment, they’re likely going to see right through all that.

Companies that aren’t rising to this occasion may well lose more than a place on one of these lists — they may lose the trust of their employees forever. Those employees may not abandon ship right away, because where is there to go? But they will remember. And even if they stay around, loyalty and engagement will suffer a terrible blow.

Robin Hardman, owner of Robin Hardman Communications, helps companies of all sizes win recognition by helping them put together the best possible “best place to work” and other corporate awards submissions — from Working Mother and Fortune to the Stevies and IABC. When she's not doing that, Robin is helping companies communicate to their employees with compelling and easy-to-read benefits, HR, and general-topic employee communications. Contact her at robin@robinhardman.com.

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