HR & Management

The five best and worst companies to work for

31 min read

08 June 2015

Top companies usually have one thing in common: killer perks for workers. However, Real Business found that employers who treated staff well often didn't need to rely on flashy perks, while those who treated staff poorly often ended up included in class action lawsuits.

Sometimes simply receiving a paycheck is not enough of an incentive to keep employees dedicated and focused. 

Indeed, in this day and age, employees expect to be knocked off their feet by an amazing experience just as customers do. But company culture and small gifts are often all that is needed to inspire productivity and a happy workforce.

With the right combinations of management style, employee treatment and motivation, you can ensure the greatest levels of productivity, and a happy workforce to boot – as was seen by these five companies.

Five of the best:

(1) DreamWorks Animation

Dreamworks consists of a three-acre campus, with stone walkways, Mediterranean-inspired buildings, and even something that resembles a lagoon. The added stream and fountains are allegedly supposed to disguise the noise of two nearby freeways.

Essentially, the environment is meant to cultivate creativity, as is its management strategy. It has to have worked given that its constantly noted as one of the most innovative companies in the world, with a 97 per cent retention rate.

“DreamWorks Animation is an incredibly creative and collaborative operation because of the culture,” said communication strategist Evan Rosen, who studied the company for his book “The Culture of Collaboration”.

Its perks are all geared toward reducing stress and distractions. For example, it boasts a doctor’s office; yoga and kickboxing classes; a kitchen on every floor stocked with all types of snacks; and Monday-night movie screenings. Outside, cabanas and wooden picnic tables seem to be laden with free breakfasts and lunches as well as dinner for employees working late, Rosen said.

Rosen added that everything from the complimentary food to the layout was chosen with the belief they lead to great ideas.

“Many times true innovation, true original ideas, don’t happen in a conference room or in someone’s office,” said Dan Satterthwaite, head of human resources at DreamWorks. “They happen in hallways, they happen outside. It’s the function of people running into each other that was really thought through in the layout of the campus.”

DreamWorks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg is also convinced that you cannot have an environment where people feel if they make a mistake they’re going to lose their jobs, which is one of the reasons why it focuses intently on company culture. Essentially, he claims that DreamWorks needs to be a place where employees can push the boundaries of creativity.

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(2) Netflix

People find the Netflix approach to talent and culture compelling for a number of reasons. The company is fond of saying it hires only “fully formed adults,” and the company treats them as such.

Patty McCord, former chief talent officer of Netflix, explained that the company had two policies in mind. First of all, the best thing you can do for employees – a perk better than foosball or free sushi – is hire only “A” players to work alongside them. 

This led Netflix managers to develop a “keeper test” to evaluate employees: If one of your employees told you he or she was leaving for a job at a peer company, would you fight hard to keep that employee at Netflix?

If the answer is “no”, then the employee will be asked to leave. It may sound harsh, but McCord suggested that it meant working in a professional environment where everyone was respected.

Secondly, if they wanted only “A” players on their team, they had to be willing to let go of people whose skills no longer fit, no matter how valuable their contributions had once been. 

With these two principles in mind, McCord claimed that the company started asking employees to rely on logic and common sense instead of on formal policies. She noted that salaried employees were told to take whatever time they felt was appropriate, whereby bosses and employees alike were asked to work it out with one another. 

“We did provide some guidance,” McCord said. “If you worked in accounting or finance, you shouldn’t plan to be out during the beginning or the end of a quarter, because those were busy times. If you wanted 30 days off in a row, you needed to meet with HR.”

Netflix also don’t have a formal travel and expense policy – they simply require “adult-like” behaviour there, too. The company’s expense policy is five words long: “Act in Netflix’s best interests.” Essentially, the company expects employees to spend company money frugally, as if it were their own. This eliminating the need for a formal policy.

Tawni Cranz, Netflix’s current chief talent officer, said the company has been able to maintain its open culture by creating the foundations of freedom and responsibility – “not having a lot of rules, not having policies, not using sort of bureaucracy or hierarchy to govern”.

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(3) Zappos

Zappos’s CEO, Tony Hsieh, has made it clear that by focusing on company culture, everything else such as building a brand with sustained revenue growth and passionate employees, would fall into place.

Zappos’s culture is guided by a set of core values, which aims to empower employees, create a sense of community in the workplace, and serve a higher purpose beyond bottom-line metrics. But it actually doesn’t matter what your core values are, Hsieh said.

He added: “What matters is that you have them and commit to them. And by committing to them, you’re willing to hire or fire based on them independent of actual job performance.”

Employees should have control and progress in their careers, he noted, which is why the company developed a set of skills for call centre reps to learn. Employees essentially control their salary increases as they acquire the skills that interest them at their own pace.

Of course, Zappos is also known for encouraging its employees to “create fun and a little weirdness” in the workplace and build personal connections with co-workers.

Much like Netflix, Zappos carefully vets each new applicant in order to protect its company culture. It even offers new employees $4,000 to quit after their first week to find out whether employees truly want to be there.

“Is this someone I would want to have a beer with?” Hsieh asks himself when interviewing applicants. 

Furthermore, instead of measuring call centre efficiency by the traditional calculated amount of time spent on the phone, Zappos has developed a scorecard, tracking the personal and emotional connections made with customers, measured by the number of thank you cards and cookies the call centre reps get sent.

Hsieh suggested that delivering happiness and “wowing” customers first needs to start with “wowing” employees.

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(4) Google

Having Google on a list of best places to work is inevitable! 

Recent Glassdoor research revealed that Google was, once again, among the “50 Best Places to Work“. 

“Google employees are now more vocal, reviewing the company at a higher rate,” said Glassdoor career trends analyst Scott Dobroski. After scanning Google employee feedback submitted to Glassdoor, Real Business found the reasons why.

Google employees are motivated by the fact that they believe their work has a positive impact on the lives of others. A Google developer wrote: “My work is used by lots and lots of users. It’s cool stuff that makes people happy.”

Dobroski noticed that a key theme was the extension of paid paternity leave from seven to 12 weeks. New dads and adoptive parents working at Google can now take up to 12 weeks of paid paternity leave, while moms continue to be entitled to 22 weeks.

“Not only is the policy generous, but the atmosphere at Google is such that you can take the full leave and not hurt your career,” wrote a Google employee.

Another excerpt concluded: “We strive to maintain the open culture often associated with startups, in which everyone is a hands-on contributor and feels comfortable sharing ideas and opinions. In our weekly all-hands meetings – not to mention over email or in the cafe –Googlers ask questions directly to Larry, Sergey, and other execs about any number of company issues. Our offices and cafes are designed to encourage interactions between Googlers within and across teams and to spark conversation about work as well as play.”

Of course, Google does tend to stand out because of its perks and benefits. From on-site physicians and nurses to reimbursement for classes and degrees that help Googlers with their jobs, the company sets the standard when it comes to taking care of employees.

Dobroskiy suggested that by offering above-average compensation and benefits, Google attempts to remove every barrier that could distract its employees from their ability to be top performers.

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(5) Riot Games

Riot Games is far less flashy than Google. It doesn’t have slides, gyms, or sleeping pods – although it does offer free lunches – however, Riot has occasionally found itself to be ranked higher than Google in terms of best places to work.

What sets its apart is that it offers up to $25,000 for employees to leave the company, an initiative it calls “Queue Dodge”. New hires can drop their Riot job during their first 60 days, no questions asked, and receive ten per cent of their annual salary in return.

Rather than allow mismatches to fester, we want to resolve them quickly,” explained Riot an announcement. “This is good for the company, and good for the professional.”

But according to Riot Games co-founders Marc Merrill and Brandon Beck, they don’t believe in “secret sauce”. Not for game development, anyway, Beck said.

“It might exist for the recipe for Coca-Cola or Kentucky Fried Chicken, but the primary value of a game company isn’t locked up in a secret recipe,” Beck said. “The primary reason they thrive or don’t thrive is people.”

He added that in order to be really successful at game development, to innovate and do cool things that players have never seen before, requires a shift in the balance of power away from supervisors and into the individual craftspeople on the team. And if the individual developers are doing the problem solving, the role and challenge of a modern manager becomes akin to a bit coach and a bit cheerleader.

“It’s easy to allow someone else to make a decision when you trust that she shares your values and beliefs,” he said. “People, and how well they team together, are by far the most important part of the recipe. And talent alone is not enough.”

It’s a humble pill to swallow, but Riot Games seems to have achieved its status as the company employs people who share the same vision, respect each other, and love what they do. No frills needed! Who wouldn’t want to work in an environment like that?

Read on to find out which the worst companies to work for are, including one which tracks its workers movements.

If a firm serves its customers poorly, does that also mean it treats its staff poorly? According to Belinda Parmar of LadyGeek that is exactly the case. 

Parmar suggested that the corporate world is an increasingly intimate space which calls for company bosses to engage more with their employees. The need to accommodate this change, however, is hampered by the fear of appearing weak and vulnerable, meaning that most businesses still suffer from an empathy deficit. She claimed that the CEO of a British bank told her: “We all know it’s important to be empathic, but how do I galvanise 48,000 people in my UK operations – most of whom think that empathy is for wimps?”

A business’s empathy quotient can be assessed, she said, allowing CEOs to see how well rival employers communicate with their staff and clients alike. By combining three channels – internal (employees), external (customers), and social – she created a ranking system called “The Empathy Index“. 

Essentially, she explained that employers who lack empathy toward their customers also fail to communicate and engage with employees. We took a look at some of the companies found at the very bottom, and couldn’t help but agree with some of them.

Five of the worst:

(1) Ryanair

Ranked as the second worst company on “The Empathy Index”, Ryanair has constantly made headline news for all the wrong reasons. In 2012 the company charged a customer £236 to print out five boarding passes, whereby CEO Michael O’Leary claimed that “99.98 per cent” of its passengers printed their boarding passes in advance.

“To those who don’t, we say quite politely: B***** off,” he said.

Taking Parmar’s customer service/employee treatment link into account, does the world’s second worst brand treat its employees much like it does its customers?

According to Ryanair cabin crew, they are required to go on training courses with fees of up to £2,000. If rejected during a probationary period, however, they are still forced to pay the sum – often leaving them with a hefty training bill. 

Furthermore, cabin crew must take three months unpaid leave a year and have to pay £360 for their uniform. They are also required to work a number of standby days each month whereby they must be available within one hour of being called. 

Its pilots don’t fare any better as they pay for all their own expenses, including uniforms, identity cards, transport and hotel accommodation. Their contracts bind them to fly exclusively for Ryanair as self-employed pilots. This means that they have no pension scheme or medical insurance unless they set it up themselves.

They even tried to release a public letter, warning that the “confusing, uncertain and unpredictable employment situation” at Ryanair was becoming “an increasing distraction in daily flight operations”. Employees added that it was causing “stress and worry” for pilots and had implications for safety.

David Learmount, operations and safety editor of Flight International magazine, said: “Ryanair are pushing their luck on human factors when they employ pilots like a warlord employs mercenaries. There is the worry that if they are self-employed that might place additional pressures on them to work even if, for any number of reasons, they might not feel entirely fit to do so.”

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(3) Sports Direct

Much like Ryanair, Sports Direct is often found at the bottom of a customer service chart. Its reputation for mistreating members of staff, however, is much more prevalent.

In fact, in his 2014 speech on the “Victorian” exploitation of workers on zero-hours contracts, Ed Miliband outright called the company one of the worst places to work for.

He said: “Sports Direct has thousands of its employers on zero-hours contracts, the vast majority of its workforce. It is a modern company with stores on many high streets and, judging by its success, where many people shop. But it is a bad place to work.”

Read more about Sports Direct:

In a Youth Fight For Jobs article, Matt (whose surname wasn’t included), alleged that it was store policy to hire as many people as they could onto zero-hour contracts. He added that employees needed to be on the shop floor ten minutes before their shift started, which was unpaid. In short, he said, every six shifts Sports Direct got a free hour out of its staff. 

What is perhaps the most shocking, is his claims that they were not allowed to enter the shop via the front entrance. There was also a sign on the back door that said if it was opened without a supervisor present, you would face immediate dismissal for the crime of opening it. He also suggested that staff members were subject to a body and bag search at the end of every shift. 

Meanwhile, a recent Channel 4 investigation revealed that employees working in Sports Direct depots were subject to a points system, whereby employees feared losing their jobs on a day-to-day basis.

Sports Direct has a “six strikes and you’re out” disciplinary procedure. A whistleblower even told Channel 4 that you got a strike for having time off for sickness, as well as excessive chatting and long toilet breaks.

In a letter obtained by Channel 4, which is addressed from Sports Direct to employees, it said: “Do not forget, if you take a sick day, you will lose your money, your holiday pay will go down and also you will receive a strike for absence from work.”

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(3) Amazon

Admittedly, Amazon has never ranked low when it comes to customer service, but everyone’s heard the tales of workplace horror before – don’t deny it.

Amazon makes use of monitoring technologies to track the movements and performance of its employees. In an investigative report by Financial Times correspondent Sarah O’Connor, she suggested that the company tags its employees with personal sat-nav computers that reveal the route they must travel to shelve goods, and sets target times for their warehouse journeys. 

Much like Sports Direct, there is a “three strikes and you’re out” culture. Furthermore, employees claimed that they were hired for 12 weeks before being sacked and re-employed so that the company did not have to give them the same rights as full-time staff members. 

In a recent lawsuit, it was alleged that workers were required to continue working and complete their tasks even after unpaid half-hour breaks began. Once done, they would have to wait in line to go through a security screening. This typically left them with “less than 18 minutes” to have lunch.

Several emails, however, have claimed that such treatment goes beyond Amazon’s warehouses and into its offices as well.

Reporter Hamilton Nolan recently cited an email received by a former employee, suggesting that “Amazon is an amazing company. As long as you don’t work there.

“The work/life balance is c**p,” the email read. “I once was asked why I turned my blackberry off on some random Saturday afternoon. The fact I was in a movie theatre with my family was not ok. Your blackberry stays on at all times. Apparently Bezos said something about ‘if you aren’t working at least 60 hours a week you aren’t working’ or something to that affect.”

Better not complain though, Nolan claimed, as bosses seem to regularly tell employees that there’s a thousand other people out there that would love their job. It noted that as employees come and go as the wind, the software engineers had actually designed a tool called the “old fart tool” – basically you put in your employee number and the tool tells you how much of the company was hired after you. 

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(4) Apple

Since 2012, workers in both its retail stores and factories have started spilling tales of woe to the media. Take, for example, a 2014 class action lawsuit against Apple by 20,000 of its own employees at its retail outlets

It turns out that Apple requires employees to clock out before being searched. Store workers alleged that they were not paid for the time spent waiting for Apple security to check their personal bags each time they left a store. The premise was that it often took them two hours to go from standing in the line to finally exiting the store. And Apple is a defendant in a large antitrust case in which 65,000 tech workers claimed Google, Intel, Apple and Adobe conspired to keep their wages down.

“Very often workers were not given meal breaks for seven or eight hours, and sometimes not at all,” said the plaintiffs’ counsel Tyler Belong, who noted that the technology company didn’t give them lunch breaks, rest breaks or final pay checks in accordance with law.

The case also claimed the company’s policies allowed Apple to “invoke fear” into the class members that if they so much as discuss the various labor policies, they run the risk of being fired, sued, or disciplined.

One of the most recent complaints to be filed against Apple involves its factories. According to the BBC, factories – most specifically those in Shanghai – didn’t allow workers to take time off and gave them cramped dorms to live in, and did not pay them for their time attending mandatory meetings. 

Standpoint Research analyst Ronnie Moas said: “For Apple to pay their workers $2 an hour while they have $150bn in the bank is nothing short of obscene. They have workers who are doing back-breaking and eye-burning work in depressed states of mind and in many instances have already committed suicide. Instead of treating their employees like human beings, they are treated like animals.”

According to employee Cory Moll, employees with years of service were being paid less than new hires doing the same work. Those workers who did ask received a consistent response: “Money shouldn’t be an issue when you’re employed at Apple.” Instead, managers said, the chance to work at Apple “should be looked at as an experience”.

Moll suggested that Apple defined employees working 40 hours a week as part-time if they can’t guarantee open availability, whereby they are offered Apple’s “part-time” health insurance plan. Furthermore, he claimed that Apple’s understaffing can make the workload “overwhelming” during high traffic periods and leaves him “singled out” by frustrated customers. 

He said the contrast between the lengths Apple goes to satisfy customers and its inflexibility in the face of employees’ needs is “demoralising”.

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(5) Microsoft

Over the last few years, Microsoft has garnered a reputation as a rough place to work, with ex-employees complaining that the company is political and bureaucratic.

Stack Rank This! Memoirs of a Microsoft Couple,” may be written by two former employees, but the same complaints are still being voiced on review site Glassdoor.

Stack ranking is a Microsoft review process that ranks employees compared to other employees. Even if everyone in the team performs great, only a few will be credited with for being top-performers. The duo claimed that rank had an immediate effect on salary, bonus and stock awards.

According to Vanity Fair author Kurt Eichenwald, whom interviewed several employees, stack ranking effectively crippled Microsoft’s ability to innovate. “Every current and former Microsoft employee I interviewed – every one – cited stack ranking as the most destructive process inside of Microsoft, something that drove out untold numbers of employees,” Eichenwald wrote. 

Furthermore, management go out of their way to label employees.

It was suggested that the whole department was sent to a mandatory training where they were assigned different colours based on the results of a personality quiz. The manager then drew up a poster with employee names and colours and posted it in the hallway. The author noted that their work had basically been assigned to them based on a personality test.

The Microsoft Redmond Campus is like its own little city with every convenience right there. “Whether intentional or not, the conveniences led to a culture or mindset where you were basically at work 24/7,” the authors said. They argued that they ended up working crazy hours and only associated with other Microsoft employees because of it.

Crucially, they said, the managers all thought it normal.