Perusing the top ten names in the lists of 100 Best Companies To Work For, published annually by FORTUNE magazine, I'm always struck by the fact that they tend to share no visible attributes. They vary in their industries, geography, size, average compensation and ownership structure. A careful examination, however, quickly reveals that these companies tend to always be leaders of their respective industries. Is that a statistical accident? Or is there a causal relationship at play? Notice, however, that being a leader in a field does not necessarily lead a company to the top of the Best to Work For list. There are a lot of highly valued companies that do not make the list. On the other hand, none of the companies that make the list can be thought of as a laggard in their area of endeavor.
Is it then possible that being a great place to work motivates the workforce to do a better than average job? Working at a company that has been making the list year after year, as well as similar lists, in many countries around the world, I can testify to the veracity of such assumption. Feeling comfortable, valued, cared for and motivated, an employee is driven to excel. Additionally, being a great place to work, raises the desirability of an employer in the employment marketplace. This affords the company more selectivity versus the workforce pool. Such selectivity is needed if the enterprise is to offer its workforce such nourishing and motivating environment.
I'd like, in the remainder of this post, to reflect on three SAS environment specifics that combine with other more tangible features (such as a gorgeous campus with outstanding natural beauty, and outstanding facilities and a great benefits package) to make it a great place to work.
SAS is a family oriented workplace.
In most people's minds a family-oriented workplace is a company that allows you to juggle your work responsibilities without dropping the ball on those that pertain to your family's. Although SAS is also great at that, what stands out as a unique feature is SAS's encouragement for employees to encourage family members to join SAS. While a grand majority of companies would frown on the prospect of employing close family members, it is not uncommon to see several generations of the same family simultaneously working at SAS. The SAS workforce roster has quite a few husband and wife couples. This sounded unusual when I first heard of it during my new employee orientation.
As I thought of it though, it started to make a lot of sense. This has a lot to do with aligning the interests of the employee with those of the company. Hasn't this been the topic of numerous business school research projects and the holy grail of the corporate executive compensation dilemma? The SAS approach solves this question in the purest and most direct way. The more family members work at SAS, the more are their interests and those of the company aligned. The well being of the family thus requires the well being of the company. Is there a better motivator for excellence?
SAS encourages mobility.
Intra-company mobility is a feature that is often advertised to enhance a company's attractiveness to prized career seekers. In most cases, the term is no more than a cute cliché. In SAS, however, internal mobility is not simply permitted. It is rather encouraged. The the value of this work environment feature is usually under-appreciated. It is a major key in retaining a highly-valued experienced workforce and reducing the human resources turnover ratio. The savings to the company are immense, in terms of recruiting costs, training effort, intellectual capital loss and opportunity cost. An employee, in a company that encourages internal mobility is always motivated, no matter how repetitious the current assignment gets or the glass ceiling seems to be closing in. There is always a ray of sunshine in the department next-door. To a highly motivated employee, this is a priceless plus. The effectiveness of this feature increases as the intellectual scope of the company broadens.
SAS trusts its workforce.
Flexible work hours, telecommuting and unlimited sick leave are the stuff that makes benefits consultants cringe. Yet an environment with such attributes relieves the employees of a great deal of anxiety and worry, enabling them to focus more clearly on their productive tasks. SAS does not only give its employees what amounts to unlimited sick leave, but also the time they need to care for their sick family members. During orientation we heard of an anecdote where the SAS CEO, Dr. Jim Goodnight, was told by an incredulous executive friend of how this unlimited sick leave policy was setting the system up for abuse. In response, Dr. Goodnight called the human resources department inquiring about the average sick days taken by a SAS employee during the previous year. He felt vindicated to learn that the figure was way below the industry's average. He is known to have said, "Treat you employees as if they make a difference, and they will make a difference." Which we may extend to, "Treat your employees as though they were trust worthy, and they will be trust worthy." This, of course, requires employees who would appreciate a system based on trust. Being a best company to work for, however, makes this task easier.
Is it, then, any wonder that the Harvard Business School dedicates an MBA case study to the SAS model?