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Sahra Kaboli-Nejad

Sahra Kaboli-Nejad

Former People Scientist, Culture Amp

Workplace awards have become increasingly prevalent, and with good reason. These awards help distinguish our companies from others in our industries and regions. In a world where top talent is hard to come by, these awards can help us improve our employer brand. In turn, we can better attract and retain our high-performing employees

In fact, a Columbia University study found that employees who were very satisfied with their workplace culture were much less likely to leave than those who worked at a company where they were dissatisfied with the company culture. Winning workplace awards can solidify employees’ feelings that their company culture is one of the best, making it less likely that they’ll look for other work.

However, before spending the time, money, and resources applying for workplace culture awards, there are a few things to consider.

1. Workplace culture awards may not recognize the right thing

Be wary of the potential pitfalls or shortcomings of these types of awards. Workplace awards make a large assumption: these places truly have better-than-average cultures, and sometimes they do. The opposite, however, is also possible: these awards are simply a reflection of how organizations portray their culture. 

Indeed, a 2013 study found that organizations who brand themselves as valuing diversity may be more effective in convincing others that they operate in a pro-diversity way, even if this is nothing more than ‘keeping up appearances’. For example, organizations with anti-harassment policies can result in employees inferring a lack of discrimination simply because of the presence of such structures, even if discrimination is genuinely a problem at the organization.  

What does this mean for workplace culture awards? It's possible that a previous workplace culture award win may convince employees that their company's culture is outperforming others, even when it’s not. This can result in skewed results that may help you win another award but don’t give you an accurate indication of what your workplace culture is like and where you could improve. 

2. Not all workplace cultures (or awards) are created equal

Culture Amp views employee engagement (employees' emotional and mental connection to their workplace and work) as a highly sought-after outcome. Typically, we recommend measuring a high-performing work culture holistically by identifying employees’ level of commitment, motivation, and pride. However, not all workplace culture awards measure the same things when determining the ‘top’ organizations that apply. 

For example, some may measure one aspect of engagement (e.g., commitment), while others may measure objective organizational performance. As an organization, we will want to consider what winning a certain award means. For example, we may win an award because our stock prices have increased exponentially. However, our HR practices may not be encouraging of top workplace culture. 

Moreso, there is no one right culture. What works at Organization A may not be successful at Organization B, and both may be successful businesses with different cultures. Thus, the measures that are used in workplace culture awards may not be tapping into specific parts of an organization’s culture that make it unique, highly sought after, and high performing. 

We must also consider who we compete against when applying for specific awards. To quote our Director of Global PR, “Just like the 3 Little Bears, is the culture award too big, too little, or just right for our stage of growth.” We need to ensure that the workplace awards we are applying to make sense for our organization’s current state - not what it may have been in the past or what we hope for it to be in the future. 

3. Is the award getting a representative picture? 

Who is represented in the surveys used to win these awards (if a survey is used)? Just as we want to consider representation in our traditional employee surveys, we want to consider the same in workplace award surveys. Is there a team, department, or demographic group that is not responding to the survey? If results are not diverse and representative, it’s possible that the positive responses of majority group members will outweigh the potentially negative experiences of minority group members. 

This can result in a misconstrual of the culture for represented group members and a negative impact on underrepresented groups. This is because of perceptions of procedural justice in an organization. Procedures are seen as just when they are consistent, neutral, impartial, and trustworthy. Allowing employees to express their opinions through workplace award surveys, for example, give the impression to others that they are valued members of the organization. Workplace awards may signal to both employees and candidates that all employees have the same type of experience within an organization (when this may not actually be the case). 

4. Be prepared not to win

Workplace culture awards identify the best of the best (by whatever standards they are measuring). As we said in point 2, not all cultures are created equal, and your culture may not be up to the standard of the award you are winning. Be prepared to not be recognized, but remember that this doesn’t mean you're failing as an organization. Losing hurts, especially in a culture constantly telling us we must ‘win’ and differentiate ourselves from the competition. This takes us to our final point… 

Winning company culture awards is not the endgame 

By no means am I discouraging participation in such awards and if you’ve won them, be proud! You are a distinguished business in our growing community. But I encourage you to continuously work toward improving your company culture, regardless of whether you win the award or don’t. This is especially important, as Harvard researchers recently found that recipients of prizes may end up being complacent and less productive.  

The game doesn’t end after you win an award. An award is a recognition for a job well done, and then you keep going. Culture is a continuous investment, meaning our work is never done. Culture influences who we are as a company, how we act, and how we operate as an organization.

Think of this award the same way you would want an individual employee to think about recognition in the workplace. If Andy receives credit for a job well done on a project, we wouldn’t want them to stop doing good work. We would like them to continue working toward bigger and better goals! These awards should play a role in the continuous development and iteration of HR practices that help us attract, motivate, develop, and retain top talent. 

So, how do we develop a good company culture?

Take time to define your company culture and make a solid commitment to maintaining it. As our Chief People Officer, Golbie Kamarei says when creating a company that puts culture first, “It starts with intentionally defining and designing your organization’s culture (the values, beliefs, and most importantly, behaviors) and knowing what tradeoffs you’re willing to make – or not – to maintain your culture in the pursuit of growth, impact, and profitability.” 

How can you put that into practice? Have a consistent feedback loop with your people. 

Consistently measure your employees’ experience and take action at all levels of your organization. The employee feedback loops create a conversation between employees and their organization. We must consistently hear our employees and act based on their feedback. Just as society is ever-changing, our organizations are constantly evolving. This means that we need consistent feedback from our employees on how to continue to be an awesome workplace. 

All in all – winning workplace awards is awesome! They can help us recruit and retain the best talent in our industries. But don’t forget that the work doesn’t stop there. Culture is continuously evolving, and being a Culture First company means we must continue the work beyond the award. As my fellow People Scientist Craig Forman says, “There’s no finish line to culture!”

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