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Companies Find 'Best' Lists Lure Sharp Employees<@VM>Making the List Is No Easy Task

When technical recruiter Shoma Bhowmik went looking for a new job, she turned to the "100 Best Companies for Working Mothers," published annually by Working Mother magazine.

Bhowmik was happy working at a smaller firm but needed a more flexible schedule. A medical condition prevents her husband from driving, so Bhowmik handles all transportation for him and their fourth grader.

She applied to several Virginia firms on Working Mother's list and quickly landed a job with professional services firm Booz-Allen & Hamilton Inc. in McLean, Va. Now Bhowmik sets her own schedule.

"It helps, because [there are] tons of things I have to take care of. ... I really value that," she said.

While the perk Bhowmik found supports Booz-Allen's position among the work-life elite, benefits such as flex time aren't what truly sets one company apart from the rest, say the producers of Working Mother's list and Fortune magazine's annual ranking of the "100 Best Companies to Work For."

Fortune's ranking, another respected list of best places to work, was published Jan. 8; Working Mother's list comes out in October.

What really puts a company on one of these lists is a gut feeling workers seem to get ? a feeling that the company works hard to improve, listens to workers' needs and responds and gives employees responsibility and a vested interest in company performance.

"There's a feeling you can make decisions, people aren't looking over your shoulder, you can share in profits, and there's a lot of fun," said Milton Moskowitz, a writer for Fortune's 100 Best. "You can have all the perks in the world, but if the employees don't feel good about working there, good benefits are not going to get you on this list."

Officials at top-100 companies echo Moskowitz's observation.

Ann Denison, vice president in charge of human resources at SRA International Inc., found "it's really about a sense of belonging that the employees feel. It's almost a subtle thing."

Denison made her discovery while conducting research on what it means to be the best. She researched other companies, went to several work-life conferences put on by Fortune in New York and read the book that preceded the survey, "The 100 Best Companies to Work for in America."

Systems integrator SRA made Fortune's list for the second consecutive year in 2001, weighing in at No. 72. The Fairfax, Va., firm gets accolades for its onsite health clinic and nurse advocacy program.

Measuring greatness is a painstaking process for the editors and writers at Fortune and Working Mother, who wade through company brochures, annual reports, T-shirts, videos and anything else that supports each application. They evaluate reams of data and boil all their information down to a few easily understandable charts and intriguing stories.

It's a monumental task that has grown exponentially since the lists were first published. Fortune's list is in its fourth year; Working Mother's is in its 15th.

A record 36,106 employees at 234 companies filled out the 2001 Fortune survey. Last year, 168 companies applied, said Moskowitz, who attributed the 39 percent jump to increasing news coverage and validity among media and technology companies.

Although Working Mother doesn't disclose the number of applicants, senior editor Sharman Stein said competition is increasing. Twenty-four new companies made the 2000 list, she said.

The results are two well-respected barometers of work-life practices in American companies.

"They are legitimate analyses done from a very substantial application process," said Jean Callahan, director of recruiting at Booz-Allen. The firm is a two-time member of Working Mother's list.

Being on the list "really sends a message to the marketplace that we are sensitive to [work-life] issues, and we are doing demonstrative things in that regard. It's not just talk; it's action," said Judy McFarland, director of employment, diversity and group staff for TRW Inc.'s systems and information technology group in Reston, Va.

The Cleveland company has made Working Mother's list in seven of the last 10 years.

The actions of the 100 best are vitally important to attracting and keeping highly skilled workers, company officials said.

"There are a number of women who would probably have otherwise left the company if we had not created flexibility in work schedules," McFarland said.

Making the Working Mother and Fortune 100 lists is meaningful for both new and longstanding SAS employees, said spokesman Les Hamashima.

"Employees recognize it is a special environment," he said.

Company perks include three cafeterias, a fitness center with indoor swimming pool and a primary-care health center. Employees pay a small portion of child care costs; health care and other onsite amenities are provided for free.

SAS, the world's largest private software company, has placed in the top 10 each year Fortune has published its rankings. It's also an 11-time member of Working Mother's list. This year it garnered Fortune's No. 2 ranking.

"The recognition serves us well," Hamashima said. "If you're an IT professional and you can go where you want, why wouldn't you want to go to a place that offers a quality environment?"

Over the years, the company's benefits have became more important to Stuart Nisbet, senior research and development director.

When Nisbet came to SAS at age 22, foremost in his mind were salary and the work he would be doing. Now 36, Nisbet uses the gym, his whole family uses the health center, and his two daughters were enrolled in child care before they entered elementary school.

Still, the benefits aren't what makes SAS a really great place to work, Nisbet said.

"We have a lot of contact with our customers," he said. "When we have an idea for a project, we know the customer who is asking for it and the problems they are trying to solve. ... These lists don't talk about the fulfillment you get out of your work. ... The work and the closeness with customers is what keeps people here for 15 to 20 years."By Gail Repsher EmeryNo wonder some company officials, in senior editor Sharman Stein's experience, "think they've won the Academy Award" when their firms are named to Working Mother magazine's list of "100 Best Companies for Working Mothers." And no wonder officials whose companies don't make Fortune magazine's list of "100 Best Companies to Work For" are, in writer Milton Moskowitz's words, "very disappointed."That's because applicants mount massive efforts to get on these lists and stay on them. They must fill out book-length surveys that solicit information on benefits ranging from child care to fitness programs. They must provide data on factors ranging from turnover to the percentage of female workers. They must know how many employees take advantage of each work-life program, from flexible work schedules to job sharing. And they must endure calls from writers who need to verify each piece of information. For both publications, it's a yearlong process of collecting data and improving work-life programs, punctuated by a month or two of full-time application preparation. "The work involved is tremendous. It's hundreds of hours," said Judy McFarland, director of employment, diversity and group staff for TRW Inc.'s systems and information technology group.Opening company operations to outside scrutiny is a gamble, but it's one that more and more companies are willing to take.To make the Fortune 100, firms must make available at least 250 randomly selected employees to fill out a survey which evaluates trust in management, camaraderie and pride in work and the company. Two-thirds of a company's score is based on employee responses."It is a little scary, but the worst that you're going to find out is that you have some morale problems, and you need to know that," said Ann Denison, vice president in charge of human resources at SRA International Inc.Working Mother doesn't survey employees directly but is working on ways to incorporate their voices, Stein said.When the applications are done, employers begin preparing for the next year's list. Several payoffs make their work worthwhile.Every company gets feedback that assesses how it stacked up against the others, including those that didn't make the cut. Fortune also provides data about employee responses. Companies use the data to create new programs, refine existing ones and improve data collection. "Whether it is good news or bad news, it is good feedback," Denison said. Fortune's findings, for example, have helped SRA to better explain its compensation plan to employees and develop career paths for all workers.The 100 best use the accolade to aid their recruitment efforts; they also find that it boosts employee morale. "It's not that recruits are out there saying, 'I'm only going to talk to companies in the top 100,' but I find that people like to see the firm on the list," said Tim Matlack, executive vice president and chief human resources officer at American Management Systems Inc. in Fairfax, Va. More than 90 percent of the systems integrator's 9,000 employees work flexible schedules.The average employee doesn't dwell on the company's position at No. 44 on Fortune's list, but "I think people take a sense of pride," Matlack said. "It's not because we are a perfect company," he said, "but because we are always working at being a better company."And when all is said and done, the lists represent a good yardstick for measuring performance. "SRA aspires to be one of the best companies in the world by any measure," Denison said. "One of the measures we picked was the Fortune 100."

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