What Makes a Company a Cool Place to Work?

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By Laura

We all like to read lists. They get us talking, and inspire strong opinions. So that’s one reason that Universum, a company that specializes in employer branding, released a list earlier this week of the most desired employers for young professionals.

Here’s how it worked. Several thousand people with 1-8 years of work experience were given a list of 150 companies, and asked which they’d most like to work for. The top choices? GoogleAppleand the Walt Disney Company. Google’s perks in particular are legendary (free lunches! ball pits!) and nearly 25% of young professionals said they wanted to work there.

But if you think about it, this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Google’s a great place to work… if you’re a software engineer. If you’re a writer, chemical engineer, musician, botanist or any of a host of other specialties, the opportunities are a bit more limited. I highly doubt that anywhere close to 25% of us want to spend our work hours writing code (and yes, there are management, sales and support roles at Google, but broadly, the point still holds).

I’m also fascinated to see Apple and Walt Disney on the list, because neither made Fortune magazine’s 2011 list of the 100 Best Companies To Work For, and Microsoft (#7 on the Universum list) is only #72 on the Fortune list. It’s as if one basketball poll ranked Duke #3 and another didn’t even have them making the NCAA tournament.

So what’s going on? The problem is that there are limits inherent in any methodology for naming great employers. Fortune’s list relies on companies opting in and completing various surveys. If you don’t do that, you will not make the list, even if you paper people’s cubicles with $100 bills and the head of HR gives everyone daily foot rubs. To Universum’s credit, they don’t rely on employer participation, but I still scratched my head about the rankings until I realized that this morning I Googled “Universum,” checked email on my (Apple) iPhone, and straightened my 3-year-old’s Lightning McQueen sheets (Carsbeing a Disney/Pixar movie).

“I like to think of it as a popularity contest,” says Kasia Do, a project manager with Universum who helped run the survey. “Google is such a prominent consumer brand. It’s out there all the time.” The most desired employers turn out to be the ones we see in our daily lives.

Of course, just because a company makes a cool product doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a cool place to work. Lots of shelf space doesn’t guarantee you’ll do interesting work that challenges you to the extent of your abilities. It doesn’t mean you’ll work with a supportive team and manager, or do work that taps your intrinsic motivations. Those attributes, because they’re variable, are almost impossible to rank in a list. But they’re far more important in choosing your next job than whether your peers will recognize the name of your employer when you say it at a cocktail party.

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