The View from HR

The case against ‘workplace excellence’ awards

October 6, 2012 

I have a dirty little secret about “workplace excellence” awards. For the most part, they go to companies that apply for them based on very loose (or off-target) criteria.

The same goes for many other business trophies such as Site Selection Magazine’s “Best Business Climate.” California won in 2000 and then quickly became the poster child for an anti-business climate. Why? The award was based on new and rented commercial building space square footage. What?!

The best workplaces in America have never applied for an award and do not know how. They are too busy doing an excellent job leading, communicating, mentoring, managing through problems and hiring the right people.

In my experience, most truly excellent workplaces could not tell you what makes them excellent, much less show you how to duplicate their success. These are the places that value each employee so highly (and treat them accordingly) that turnover is nil and effectiveness is unmatched. It is in their culture.

I recall a poorly paid group of workers in a non-air-conditioned plant making cheap products for the end-caps at Walmart who loved their work and their team. When union organizers came knocking, employees responded aggressively and the organizers left. There was nothing you could objectively identify in an award process to reveal that reservoir of commitment.

Quiet but good

Contrast that with award winners that might have a good workplace, but just as likely adopted a disconnected collection of best practices, after-work parties and retro furniture. Yes, my cynical side is showing. Think about whether the most important things are really award material to begin with and whether those very good, quiet companies would even be in the awards race at all.

My organization sponsors an award called “Ovation Award for HR Excellence.” We give it annually based on a project in HR that created an important business impact. It is not an award for the workplace, but for excellence within the function and profession of HR. Sure, some of my comments apply to our own award, and we miss many great practices of good quiet companies all around us. The idea is to connect an award to a demonstrated success.

Look at it like this. If a stranger came up to your best employees as they walked to their cars one evening and said, “Why do you stay with this company, work late when needed and give it your best each day?” How would they answer? Would they name the free lattes, the annual “dress like your dog” day or the dry-cleaner pick-up?

Awards and fame

If superficial reasons are why they stay and work hard, get ready for some turnover among your best. If your best stay because of who they work for, how that person treats them and the impact they have on the team or organization, that is much better.

They say the Kardashians and Snooki are “famous for being famous.” Do not let awards and the pursuit of them make your company famous for being famous and highly decorated. I want your workplace to be famous to the best prospects and employees for some very old-fashioned reasons.

Bruce Clarke, J.D., is president and CEO of CAI Inc., a human resource management firm, with locations in Raleigh and Greensboro, that helps organizations maximize employee engagement while minimizing employer liability. For more information, visit

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