Friday, February 1, 2013

Where Do You Want to Work in 2013?

Lists can be amusing. Sometimes they might be taken seriously.  Magazine and media companies like to produce them--even if they are flawed or biased, because they sell thousands of copies of issues or generate thousands of Internet clicks. They spawn discussion and banter and get people talking. Some lists should be shrugged off and dismissed. Some are worth examining, because they might offer helpful information about the topic being ranked.

Employees like good pay, good benefits and, yes, fitness centers

Fortune Magazine compiles many lists from year to year. One recent list in its latest issue is its "Best 100 Companies to Work For." To believe in the list and to ensure it's credible and useful, you must believe in its criteria. You must be assured that Fortune has amassed significant data and measured the information properly. Ask employees why their company is a favorite place to work, and you may get dozens of reasons, including especially compensation, benefits, vacation privileges, opportunities for promotion, and challenging assignments.  Some would contend a favorite place is one that is thriving, doing well and generating upward-trending, consistent stock-market returns.

For all the splash in a big cover story on top companies, Fortune's criteria was relatively simple:

a) Does the company plan to hire in substantial sums in the year ahead?
b) Are employees generally satisfied?
c) Can management be believed?
d) Is there camaraderie among colleagues--genuine collegiality?
e) Is turnover less than 5% annually?
f) Is compensation in the top quartile in the industry?
g) Do benefits apply also to same-sex couples?
h) And, yes, does the company offer free access to on-site fitness centers?

Did it miss anything? Of course, it did. It missed a lot.  It didn't address diversity and inclusion clearly. It didn't factor in long-term, sustained performance (Will the company be around 20 years from now?). And it didn't address whether a company is sufficiently managed and strong enough to survive downturns, market-related disasters, or unforeseen, colossal risks. All these factors might be important to at least a few prospective employees. Yet it knew it couldn't complete a list if it tried to capture too much, especially if the list relied on the completion of thousands of surveys.

Google is no. 1 on the list for the fourth time. BCG, the consulting giant, is in the top 10. Companies like Accenture, DreamWorks, Nordstrom, and Intel also made the top 100. Quite notable is a prominent lack of financial institutions.


a) what the industry has endured the past several years,
b) the topsy-turvy reorganization most large financial institutions must go through,
c) all the uncertainty financial institutions face in finding a way to generate revenues in the decade ahead,  and
d) the discouraging, frequent announcements of lay-offs and staff reductions...

Given all that, it's not a surprise that most of the best-known financial institutions don't find themselves on Fortune's list.

Strike one:  Many large banks, as we know, are not in aggressive hiring modes.  Check the business headlines weekly to see which ones have decided to rethink, re-situate and reduce staff in institutional trading and investment banking.

Financial institutions engage in some form of hiring every year. There is attrition all the time, and it makes economic sense to hire at entry levels annually to keep pipelines flowing and production efficient (and maintain long-term ties with top business schools). "Production" is efficient when junior bankers can do senior-level work at one-quarter the cost. And if you were to peek more closely, many institutions are indeed adding more staff in compliance, regulatory reporting and risk management. 

But for Fortune's benefit, not many plan to expand substantially on the front lines.   

Strike two:  Because of staff reduction, massive reorganizations and employee-related stress arising from uncertainty and confusion, employee turnover is bound to be more than Fortune's 5% benchmark.  If there is a corporate-banking unit with 100 professionals today, you can be assured a year from now, more than five (and as many 10-20 or more) won't be in the same slot a year later.

Strike three:  The culture, workplace and environment in many financial institutions are not the same as that of a Silicon Valley enterprise.  It's not likely the bank, insurance company or investment manager will support free access to a gym on the premises, free gourmet lunches or freedom to engage in playthings during work hours. Employees may wish for such privileges, and they would benefit from immediate access to a fitness center.  At many banks, still rebounding from the crisis, all that is not a priority.

That's not to say no financial institution made its list.  A few did. Many of the familiar names didn't.

St. Louis-based brokerage firms Edward Jones (No. 8) and Scottrade (53) fared well. And that may be no accident.  Both firms rely on the performance, contributions and production of a large, far-flung network of brokers, consultants and representatives. They obsess in making sure the brokerage force is happy, content and well-compensated.  They ensure the same force has ample administrative, securities-processing, and funding support.  Employees don't work under the haunting, continual threat of being laid off.

Another Midwest-based brokerage firm, Robert W. Baird, with similar privileges and values, appears on the list, too (14). The firm is applauded for rewarding employees with a significant ownership stake.

American Express is one of the few large, well-known financial companies on the list (at 51), despite its own restructuring hurdles the last few years. The company's business faces mammoth challenges in the years to come. It makes the list, nonetheless, because of its remarkable efforts in diversity and because of its widespread support of employee affinity groups (groups with common interests or shared backgrounds).  It also has fitness centers.

In pre-crisis years, on any list where MBAs in finance express where they want to work, Goldman Sachs always found itself at or near the top.  For MBAs from top schools, Goldman offered new associates prestige and compensation. It also offered MBAs a chance to learn and master all the nuances of finance, a chance to thrive in a highly charged environment, a chance to travel to all parts of the world, and a chance to exploit the strengths of the Goldman name to get deals done, make trades, invest on behalf of clients, and finance companies and municipalities.

Post-crisis, Goldman, too, would be vulnerable to the strikes above.  As a "bank holding company," it is re-inventing itself or reshaping itself to contend with regulation and profit-margin struggles.  Yet it squeezes its way onto Fortune's list (93), partly because of a commitment to reward employees exceptionally--via benefits and the resumption of huge payouts every January.  MBAs in finance still want to work there, perhaps for a handful of years, just enough to taste the experience, learn, earn and then move on to the next rung on the career ladder.

Of the Fortune 100, only about 10 are bonafide financial institutions (about half of which are insurance companies). The industry is not in the same turmoil as it was a few years ago. In fact, most have begun to report upward trends in earnings and share prices, while they spruce up balance sheets.

But much jockeying continues.  Much tweaking and twisting of old business models are occurring.  And for now, the maneuvering behind closed doors among the senior ranks, as they adapt to new rules and new markets, comes at the risk of neglecting to make themselves employers of choice. At least that's what Fortune's new list implies.

Tracy Williams

See also:

CFN: The Best Places to Work, 2010
CFN:  The Best Places to Work, 2011
CFN:  Affinity Groups in the Workplace, 2011
CFN:  Time to Make that Move? 2010

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