Lessons From Great Places to Work

Awards and competition are ways to highlight the qualities that make the difference between sub-par, the average, and the excellent. The fastest runners in a race are the ones who win the prizes. This applies to workplaces too – they can be compared, ranked, and awarded for being the best of the best.

Awards such as the Great Places to Work and Canada’s Top Employers help to showcase workplaces that differentiate themselves from the norm – those that are most desirable for employees. These awards are usually, although not always, given to private-sector and non-profit employers; public-sector workplaces rarely make the cut.

There are a lot of reasons this might be the case, though, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that the civil service lacks effort or good leadership. If anything, it could just be a case of organizational modesty. Many workplace awards have a formal application process, so employers who don’t apply simply aren’t evaluated.

On the list of 2014’s Great Places to Work, sadly not one public-sector employer is represented. A few made it to the Canada’s Top Employers list, though, including the Bank of Canada, the BC Public Service, Department of Finance and the City of Ottawa. Unfortunately, these are the exception – despite the fine work of many civil servants, public-sector workplaces rarely win awards.

What can the public sector learn from these award-winning workplaces? I have now worked for a multiple-award-winning employer for a few months, after having worked in the federal public service for many years. I have three general suggestions that any employer could use to improve its workplace: celebrate successes, hire carefully, and focus on results.

Celebrate Successes
In my first week at the new job, I achieved a couple of ‘quick wins’ toward my individual goals. Aside from receiving multiple thank-yous and ‘attaboys’ from my manager at our weekly one-on-one meetings, I received an email from the CEO thanking me for my efforts. The next week, I received a $15 gift card with a handwritten thank you note. A clear message was sent – work hard and accomplish something, and it’ll be noticed and recognized. The feedback was immediate, and almost overwhelming (in a good way)!

Positive and ongoing feedback is rampant in the organization – on a regular basis I see managers and co-workers congratulating each other for successes, small and large. Sometimes these are formal rewards (like gift cards or an employer-paid lunch) and other times they are nothing more than saying, “I appreciate all the hard work you’ve done.”

What can public sector leaders learn from this? Ask yourself the following questions: How do I let my team members know when they have done a good job? How often do I do it? Do I make my expectations clear? Do I reward people when they meet those expectations? How can I add a personal touch to my positive feedback?

Hire Carefully
When I joined my new employer, I went through a multi-stage hiring process. It wasn’t just an evaluation of my merit as a potential recruit, though. It was a chance for me to figure out if it’d be a good fit too! This process included multiple interviews, a half-day job shadowing, and a one-on-one phone conversation with the CEO. It’s a very comprehensive process, but it doesn’t require much extra time or money.

For a variety of reasons, public-sector hiring processes tend to be more regimented and restrictive. They tend to be primarily focused on the employer and its needs to gather information rather than those of the new recruit.  Leaders in the public service could improve the process by looking for ways to share more information with candidates. Ask yourself: What can I do within the hiring process to help candidates get to know their potential new role? Could the job posting list the job’s goals/targets and expectations? How could I introduce potential new hires to the rest of the team?

Hiring good people is the best thing that any manager can do to ensure the long-term success of their organization. Staffing can also cause long-lasting damage if it’s done poorly – it’s much harder to terminate an ill-fitting team member than to simply not hire one in the first place.

Focus on Results
Timeliness, integrity, and transparency are three words I’d use to describe my new workplace. If an appointment is scheduled to start at 2:00 pm, it starts at exactly 2:00 pm. If any employee promises to do something, they follow up and ensure it gets done. Everyone knows the targets and goals, and measurements of the organization’s performance are posted to the corporate intranet and updated daily. Each employee’s day-to-day activities are visually and directly linked to the organization’s mission.

One role of a manager is to link the work of individual contributors to the goals of the organization, and to make that link visible to each member of the team. Ask yourself: Have I set clear objectives for myself, my team, and any other teams that report to me? Are those objectives measured fairly and frequently? Can every member of my team see those measurements on an ongoing basis?

Not every workplace will become a Great Place to Work or one of Canada’s Top Employers, but there are always improvements to be made. Take some of these small steps, and perhaps your workplace will be recognized in next year’s awards – should you choose to apply.


George Wenzel George Wenzel was a journeyman public servant and is now working at a not-for-profit – pursuing his passions in what will be his fifth career. He recently completed a two-year secondment to the National Managers’ Community as the Alberta Regional Coordinator. You can find him online at http://about.me/georgewenzel, http://www.govlife.ca, and on Twitter @georgewenzel.

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