Fifty years ago, defining the characteristics of a great employer was relatively easy. Decent management, a pension plan, generous vacations and health insurance were the hallmarks for many working Americans.

Employers and employment are different today. Pensions are the exception to the rule. Real wages are diminishing every day. Insurance is becoming too costly and complex for some employers to offer. Employees, too, have changed. Instead of a focus on the nuts and bolts of employment the way their parents did, many instead focus on other, more personal, value-based aspects of employment.

“Great companies to work for are one of those things – you know it when you see it,” says Dustin Pyeatt, communications manager for the Oklahoma Department of Commerce.

Roy Williams, president and CEO of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce, says that it also depends upon who one asks.

“To some, money is the motivator,” he says. “For other people, it’s the fun. For still others, it is a matter of what all else they get out of the job. It’s a very individual thing.”

Personal Preference

Experts on employment and employers tend to agree that the individual desires of an employee vary dramatically and that a great company to work for, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

“Since an employer may not be the best fit for every employee candidate, even though they are regarded as a good employer, this becomes a pretty personal or individual endeavor,” says Mike Neal, president and CEO of the Tulsa Metro Chamber of Commerce. “It typically aligns with what individuals look for in a company and opportunity. A potential employee should identify places to work based on their own operating style and personality traits. I think it’s important to assess whether they and the company have the same goals and values.”

Neal suggests that potential employees create a personal checklist of what it is they are seeking in a company and opportunity, as well as a list of what they aren’t seeking.

“In essence, they need to compile some pros and cons that are of importance to them and will carry real weight in the decision-making process,” Neal says.

According to Mark Malone, regional vice president of Robert Half International, a leading specialty staffing service, there are hundreds of things one could take into consideration when evaluating the merit of an employer. Included among these are the obvious markers, such as salaries, benefit packages, opportunity for advancement and overall corporate culture. But there are some less obvious considerations as well.

“Is the work challenging?” Malone asks. “We hear all the time from people that they don’t want to sit and watch the clock. People want a challenge. A lot of people also want increased responsibility.”

Challenge is among other intangibles to consider when evaluating an employer.

“It is equally important to foster creativity and innovation and to recognize the value of diversity and inclusion in the workplace,” says Neal. “Certainly, diversity in the workplace promotes a healthier environment on many levels and promotes innovation and creativity. Much of what makes a company great lies in identifying that their greatest resource or asset is their employees and in helping those employees excel in their respective roles, whatever that role may be.”

Williams refers to the desirable exchange between good employers and employees as empowerment.

“Do they give you the freedom to think and the latitude to be creative? Of course it depends on the specific industry, too,” he says.

Williams adds that, when appropriate, good employers explain the end result they want and then permit employees the freedom to get the company to that goal.

“It’s more that you are part of the success as opposed to you being a cog in the wheel,” Williams says.

With that kind of environment, “employees come to work excited about their work,” Williams says. “It makes people feel like they are pursuing a profession as opposed to going to a job. Good employers help employees grow and to see new opportunities.”

Pyeatt cites numerous other traits that define great employers.

“A company with a clear purpose of vision, defined roles, clear performance goals and expectations, open communication,” he says. “Also, is the company offering a quality product or service – something you can be proud of?”

Young people today have other concerns, with some wanting careers with particular social relevance or in fields or positions that feed their other interests. Some want to work for companies that give back to communities and encourage employees to do the same.

Still other people have little interest in the creative aspects of their jobs or even corporate culture.

“At the end of the day, companies have to pay competitively,” Malone says. “But it’s not everything.”

Of course, tangible benefits have changed since the past, when it boiled down to salary, pension and standard benefits packages.

“You see companies trying to provide employees with a work-life balance, which is important to people,” Malone says. “Flex time goes a long way with people who value work-life balance.”

Other benefits that contemporary job-seekers focused on work-life balance often value are meals, health club memberships and parking.

“Some companies are larger and can do those types of things,” Malone says. “Small and mid-size companies might not have the best benefits, but they can offer more money or more flex time.”

While some high-end perks like company stock, transportation and keys to the executive washroom can be important traits of a great company to work for, ultimately, satisfaction is a matter of the right match of employee and employer.

Taking Stock

While for many people, evaluating what makes a great company to work for is merely an academic pursuit, for one segment of the population it is a very serious and very personal effort: job-seekers.

Experts feel that after taking stock of one’s own desires in a job, there are numerous ways to investigate a prospective employer to determine if it’s the right environment for the individual.

“Do your homework,” advises Neal. “Research the company online and through social media – learn about the company’s mission or values and identify if they are perceived this way in the community or industry. Also, check with your network and identify individuals you know that work or have worked for the company and can share an insider’s point of view. It’s important to remember, though, that a great employer for one person might not be a great employer for another.”

Technology certainly permits greater access to information and perspective than every before. In addition to social media, company websites can be very revealing.

“Websites can tell you a whole lot, even though it may be unintended,” says Williams. “Go to the site and see how the company talks, how it looks. Who are the people who work there? Many times, company websites even have sections on why people want to work there and why it’s a competitive company. Look for those things that you’ve determined are important to you. Everyone is looking for something different.”

Malone offers three tips for prospective employees to consider.

“What kind of experience is the opportunity going to give you long-term?” he says “There are opportunities that might not pay as well as others, but they position you better four or five years down the line. Secondly remember that experience is critical. It might not be exactly what you’re looking for but it’s very important to get that experience. Finally, do your homework and make sure that the opportunity truly lines up with what you’re looking for – the company culture, challenge, and opportunity for advancement.”

Faced with options, Malone suggests touring an office of a prospective employer.

“If it’s a three-interview process, you wouldn’t ask on the first interview, but if you’re called back for a second, it’s probably going to be okay,” he says.

While on a visit, talk to employees and observe carefully, Malone advises. Do people seem to be upbeat and happy? Are they working together in a group or are individuals separate and seemingly isolated? What is the energy level like?

Malone says that companies appreciate the due diligence.

“Companies want to ensure it’s a good, long-term match from the beginning,” he says. “Companies struggle a lot with good, long-term employees.”

Whether it’s a small firm or a major, multinational corporation, there is one aspect of a company that can reveal much about it.

“To a great degree, it starts at the top,” Williams says. “What is the character, the leadership the culture like that emanates from the office? It could be one, two, three people at the top. What does the community think of this person or people? Are they thought of as innovative, open, accessible? Do employees feel like he’s one of us or is he up in a tower? Does that person relate to me?”

Those traits manifest in the form of principle that is then supported by actual policy and practices.

“Certainly, when it comes to company policy, the question is do they walk the walk,” Williams says. “If they say they care about employee health, do they pay for the YMCA? Do they treat employees the way the say they do?”

With self-awareness, observation and research, ambitious quality job-seekers can find their perfect position. And along the way they might even find a great company to work for.

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