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Selena Rezvani

Selena Rezvani

Selena Rezvani is author of the new book, The Next Generation of Women Leaders: What You Need to Lead but Won't Learn in Business School and co-president of Women's Roadmap. Follow her on Twitter at @NextGenWomen.

What makes a 'Best Workplace'? (Hint: It has to do with women)

Just what makes a workplace great?

It's a question more elusive than we might hope, given that many of us are versed in the dysfunctional work environment rather than the truly exceptional workplace. Fortunately, the research consultancy that ranks the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For list--the Great Place to Work Institute--knows a thing or two about what builds trust and engagement on the part of workers. As a former employee of the firm, I experienced some of these impressive companies from the inside and learned about their unique DNA; I now anticipate the release of the annual list each January.

What stands out as I consider those on the list published just this week--among which software provider SAS is first--is that many of them represent "female-friendly" workplaces. Groups not typically found in top ranks, like minorities and women, tend to be more visible in these environments. What's more, these organizations bend and adapt to their employee base, rather than asking employees to conform to the corporate "way."

So what else is key to their success?

Their work/life policies are stigma free: An attorney friend recently recounted the failure of a well-intentioned policy at her firm. A part-time partnership track was carved out, allowing top performers to assume more responsibility while simultaneously dialing down hours. The problem? Only women took advantage of the benefit, and the result was that, firm wide, part-time partners weren't taken all that seriously. The best workplaces offer work/life accommodations that all employees are encouraged to use-- top-down and bottom-up-- including sabbaticals, compressed work weeks, remote working and job sharing. It's understood at top companies that the wide adoption of benefits long considered for women helps the workforce at large.

They have zero tolerance for unfairness: In their new book, The Great Workplace, Michael Burchell and Jennifer Robin cite the strong message sent by SC Johnson, a company that institutes real consequences for unfair treatment. If the consumer-products company sees prejudiced judgment, they handle it swiftly by not tolerating it at all. Additionally, top companies that truly care about fairness create an appeals process for grievances. Burchell and Robin point out this best practice at American Express, where the Office of the Ombudsman acts as "a confidential and neutral resource where employees can seek guidance without fear of retribution..." Taking a stand on equitable treatment can be particularly important for women, some of whom have made grievances only to be ignored, minimized or even fired. Industries dominated by males can take a page from this book, where filing complaints about unfair treatment can be considered a more harrowing experience than the initial harassment or abuse.

They acknowledge the power of the unspoken: Kraft, a company acknowledged as a top 50 company for diversity, understands that not all success criteria are spelled out for new employees. The company's Jump Start program, offers new employees an orientation in the unwritten rules and strategies for succeeding in the corporate culture. The program is designed to help collapse the learning curve in terms of how to build influence, find mentors and maintain strong relation¬ships. Other companies can replicate this practice, helping anyone who's not a member of the key power constituency--often women and minorities--by sharing the secret rules of the game.

They break the mold: Rather than mimicking diversity practices that have been around for decades, best workplaces encourage and leave room for innovation. In their book, Burchell and Robin highlight a new employee group at Delaware-based W.L. Gore, called the White Men Supporting Diversity Network. The resource group was assembled to engage an "often forgotten group when it comes to conversations about diversity," allowing for greater dialogue and engagement among all employees.

Perhaps the secret sauce of a truly inclusive workplace isn't overly complex. Best companies find ways to "join up" with employees' lifestyle realities, rather than just tolerating them. What's more, they know that what can be especially positive for underrepresented groups tends to be good for everyone.

In the end, the deal between employer and employee doesn't need to be too complicated: commit to my long term success and I'll commit to yours.

By Selena Rezvani

 |  January 21, 2011; 4:54 PM ET
Category:  CEOs , Corporate leadership , Organizational Culture , Women in Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Please report offensive comments below.

You mean, there are still workplaces out there? I thought they had all been closed down.

Posted by: inojk | January 21, 2011 10:20 PM
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