Some people may dream of making the Forbes 400 list of the richest people in America or People magazine's Best Dressed list. But most of us have more modest goals, like finding a decent place to work. For us, there are a growing number of annual magazine lists that provide readers with information about the most desirable workplaces in America.
Well-known surveys include Fortune's 100 Best Companies to Work For, Working Mother's 100 Best Companies, and AARP's Best Employers for Workers Over 50. And around here, the November issue of Washingtonian features a list of 55 Great Places to Work in the Washington region.
The lists are intended in part to promote better quality of life in the workplace by recognizing organizations that treat their employees well.
"Our goal with the Best Employers list is to highlight the practices wanted by workers over 50 and to shine light on employers who do that so other employers can notice that it's something they should pay attention to," said Nancy Thompson, spokeswoman for AARP.
If you're looking for a job, the best workplaces lists can be a great place to start. They can save time and effort by separating the good companies from the bad ones. And the lists can help job seekers figure out what to look for in a company -- even if it doesn't make a magazine's rankings.
Some well-researched lists can provide valuable information about a company, said Derrick T. Dortch, senior career consultant with the Career Success Group, a subsidiary of District-based Diversa Group, of which he is the president.
"The climate and culture of those places [on a list] are revealed," Dortch said.
The surveys can also make a prospective employer seem more appealing by revealing an organization's approach toward matters that employees care about, such as work-life balance or availability of health benefits.
The lists "challenge our own assumptions," said Carol Evans, chief executive and founder of Working Mother Media. For example, she said, many working mothers assume that they won't be able to find a workplace where flextime is available. In fact, all of the companies on her magazine's recently published 20th annual 100 Best Companies list offer that option.
Some lists are also helpful tools for interview preparation, Dortch said. "The more you know about the companies," he said, "the more you can use that information to your advantage."
When meeting an interviewer whose company is on a list, mention that you saw the listing and that you want to work there in part because of its programs or accomplishments. "Companies are very proud of being on a list," Evans said.
Bringing up a company's inclusion on a list during an interview shows that an applicant "has done her homework," she said. You can also mention a competitor's policy or practice that you have seen on a list. "Most companies are trying to compete and they may have similar programs that they will be happy to tell you about," Evans said.
But the lists have their drawbacks, observers said. Competition for jobs among listed companies may be intense because other job seekers have also read the surveys. Furthermore, the companies listed may not be hiring at the time you're applying, said Thompson.
It's important to remember that many admirable organizations never appear on a list, because there just isn't room to print them all, Evans said. Many lists don't include nonprofit organizations.
Moreover, your view of what constitutes an outstanding workplace may differ from the opinions of the list composers, Dortch said. For example, what if a company is credited for having a casual dress policy but you don't like the idea of working in jeans?
Before studying a best-companies list, you should look at how the list is produced, said Katie Popp, team leader of the best companies project at Great Place to Work Institute, a research and consulting firm based in San Francisco.
Among the questions Popp said job-seekers should ask about a list: Is it compiled by a consulting firm that only lists its clients? Is it published by a reputable organization? On what criteria are companies judged?
Popp noted that the lists that her organization produces are based two-thirds on employee surveys and one-third on an external evaluation of the organization's policies, and those outside evaluations are never limited to the firm's clients.
If you find that a list's methodology is fair and informative, do what Dortch does with his clients: Use it as one tool in your job search, without completely relying on it.
"It's a good place to start but not the be-all end-all," he said.