Are top employer lists losing their shine?

Organizations split on validity, meaningfulness of designation
By Amanda Silliker
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 04/12/2011

One of the first things candidates often mention during an interview at Bennett Jones is the company’s ranking on the Canada’s Best Employers list by Aon Hewitt, said Evelyn Katrakis, HR manager at the Toronto law firm. If they don’t happen to mention it, Katrakis always brings it up at the end of the interview, she said.

“I think it contributes to the positive image of the law firm and that really speak volumes to the candidates I’m interviewing,” said Katrakis, whose firm has 860 employees across Canada. “I don’t need to sell the firm, the firm sells itself.”

While it may still be an effective tool for Katrakis, the perceived importance of top employer lists is declining, according to the latest Pulse Survey. Almost one-half of respondents (44.9 per cent) said top employer lists are less important than they were a few years ago, according to the survey of 434 Canadian HR Reporter readers and members of the Human Resources Professionals Association.

A few years ago, when top employer lists first came out, they were the “flavour of the day” but now HR practitioners have become more sophisticated in assessing what they actually mean, said Joanna Matthews, HR director at Nova Scotia Business in Halifax.

“Organizations are like families and we all have our nuances and quirks,” she said. “These employer of choice surveys try to gauge the health of your organization to that of every other family and that’s a tough metric when what could be of value for your organization isn’t what they’re measuring.”

Participation in top employer contests is declining, found the survey, with 34.9 per cent of respondents participating in one, compared to 49.3 per cent who participated in a top employer competition in the past. Just 16.6 per cent said top employer lists are more important than they were a few years ago.

But with the looming labour shortage, these lists will be useful in recruiting key talent, said Katrakis.

“As the years go on, it’s going to be harder to find good people so we hope that this (top employer ranking) will bring in more good people,” she said.

Even if employers do not make the list, participating in top employer contests are very or somewhat beneficial due to the feedback received, according to 58.5 per cent of survey respondents. Mosaic Sales Solutions, for example, received feedback that it was lagging in corporate social responsibility, said Shari Martin, HR business partner at the company in Mississauga, Ont. So the HR team formed four committees to brainstorm and implement more initiatives in this area.

“It gives a really good benchmark against all the other organizations so you can easily see the areas where you may be falling down and you can pick some areas and focus on those,” said Martin.

On the other hand, 18.8 per cent of respondents said the participation wasn’t worth it at all if they did not place on the list. The feedback Matthews received “wasn’t incredibly useful” for her since it wasn’t personalized to Nova Scotia Business, she said.

“For me, what it does is remove the HR practitioner’s ability to analyze this information and actually take from it the valid pieces of it (since) you’re just lumped in with everybody else,” said Matthews. “If I know vacation isn’t a problem, why bother asking the question?”

A majority of survey respondents (62.8 per cent) said top employer lists are at least somewhat valid. Some surveys include employees’ input about their experiences at the organization and are not just based on information submitted by the employer — that validates the results, said Martin.

The breadth of organizations that participate in the contests is another testament to their validity, she said.

“In the past, it used to be one of those things that the large organizations did because they had a PR department and had the time to make it happen, but I don’t think that’s true anymore,” she said. “There’s a huge mix of organizations participating, from really small organizations with less than 40 people up to the Diageos and Coca-Colas of the world.”

Slightly more than one-third (37 per cent) of respondents said the lists are of little or no validity, or it depends on the list. They can be seen as a marketing tool for employers to put on recruitment advertisements, without actually ringing true in the workplace, said Matthews.

“If you have a conversation with some of their employees, frankly, you’d wonder how they even qualified,” she said. “From a true practitioner’s standpoint, I don’t find them valid at all.”

The meaningfulness of the concept of “top employer” is something many respondents (40 per cent) are unsure about. About 31 per cent said the concept is meaningful, for the most part, while 28.9 per cent said it is an oversimplification.

The concept is meaningful because it piques the interest of potential hires, said Martin. For current employees, the label is meaningful because it reflects positively on the organization and validates they work for a really great company, she said.

“I don’t think it’s us being on the list, I think it’s the things we do to get ourselves on the list that make (employees) see they work for a pretty cool place.”

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