What Makes a Great Employer? 5 Important Qualities your Business Needs

By | November 5, 2010

champagneCongratulations to Leeds-based advertising agency, Gratterpalm,  winners of this year’s Best Employer category in the Yorkshire Post’s Business Excellence Awards.  Over the last few years the School has sponsored  this category  and, as chair of the judging panel,  I’ve had the  privilege of visiting many businesses throughout Yorkshire to hear them present on their approaches to people management.

The gratifying thing is how many great businesses out there do genuinely take the engagement, commitment and motivation of their employees seriously. We saw many that had much to be proud of and I’ll talk about the finalists a little later. But first, let’s look at what exactly it is that lifts the truly great employers above the many good employers?

Stand-out business qualities

There seems to be a set of intangibles qualities that differentiate the employers we judged as “excellent”, and these five things stand out.

1. Authenticity

All the firms we saw had an authenticity to their practices that gave them a credibility that was difficult to quantify but evident on observation. It’s about a genuine commitment to the human side of the organisation (not the resource aspect of those humans that we are sometimes guilty of focusing on).

2. Reciprocity

The best businesses give, but expect reciprocity with their employees, especially in the current climate. This is about keeping promises. Employees join with expectations of support from employers and in making that commitment they expect commitment in return. It’s not about the vision for the business but the transaction we make with employees. It would be easy when faced with economic pressures to cut costs by reducing training and development budgets for example. But we saw a number of businesses bucking this trend – Morrisons and Gratterpalm as examples – and investing in people despite the recession; they are seeing massive payback in commitment and engagement as a result.

3.    Partnerships

Leading employers work in partnerships at all levels, with employees, with unions, with all the stakeholders in the employment process. By working collaboratively, we can create real benefits for all involved. As just one example, two of our finalists, Morrisons and Create are working together to support each others’ goal. By employing people through Create’s process to bring the homeless into the workplace, Morrisons are supporting their own CSR agenda (and their challenges of recruiting staff) whilst supporting Create’s own social aims.

4.   Family orientation

Great employers have a family orientation. I’ve lost count of how many times we read or heard people tell us that ‘it is like a family to work here’. It would be easy to view this as superficial but in fact what it highlights is the importance of genuine and open relations between and with employees. It’s about providing an open business climate that both supports and challenges to get the most out of the people we employee.

5.   Results

Underlying all this is a recognition that results matter. Regardless of what the organisation’s goals or objectives are, great employers recognise that there is a benefit for their business in supporting people and giving them a great place to work.

The Business Excellence Awards finalists

I’d like to finish by sharing what we thought was particularly commendable about the finalists this year.

  • Gratterpalm, the winners, impressed us with the quality and focus of their training and development (you can even follow their ‘G Academy’ recruits online), and the extent to which recognition, support and motivation were embedded in the business. We were also impressed by the integration of people management practices across the firm and the careers within it and by the clear focus on how supporting people contributes to the bottom line.
  • Morrisons is a massive Yorkshire success story and their success is clearly built on the support it gives and gets from its people. The judging team noted the strength of Morrisons’ culture and its evident commitment to developing employees (and its shop-floor to top-floor initiative). The extent to which employees had a voice within the business was also seen as a real strength.
  • Create stood out this year as well. This wasn’t  just because they are a social enterprise with a clear commercial drive to push their social aims of developing employment opportunities for people who have been homeless, marginalised or vulnerable. It was also to do with the way they provide genuine and long-lasting support to people, whether they’re moving in to the workplace or are employed by Create themselves.  We particularly noted the highly effective use Create made of peer-mentoring within their training and support.

In addition to these finalists, two other firms deserve mention:

  • Arena are previous winners who again demonstrated why they are an outstanding employer. Particularly noted was the commitment they made to maintain employment despite the pressures of the recession.
  • Lucre are in PR, communications and event management. They have a clear, performance-focused culture that stresses outcomes and rewards yet maintains a high level of support for employees alongside this.

Every year, our judging task seems to get harder and harder and it is perhaps divisive to single out a handful of firms in this way. But as so many of us spend so much of our time working for other people, isn’t good to know that many, many of them take their commitment to their employees so seriously?   

About Dr David Spicer

David is Senior Lecturer in Organizational Change at Bradford University School of Management where he lectures in the areas of change management and organizational behaviour on undergraduate, postgraduate and executive programmes. He is also a visiting professor at TiasNimbas Business School in Holland and Germany and alumnus of Harvard Business School’s Global Colloquium for Participant Centred Learning. He holds degrees from the Universities of Bristol, Stirling, and Plymouth.  His research is concerned with organizational learning and change, and he is currently working on a major project looking at the dynamic capabilities of Motorola and Intel.


+        Organisational learning in small firms

+        Organisational learning in a downturn

+        Styles of leadership – East vs West

+        Cultural change in mergers and takeovers

3 thoughts on “What Makes a Great Employer? 5 Important Qualities your Business Needs

  1. Sam

    Of the five suggested characteristics, I think Reciprocity and Family orientation is easier in smaller companies. I am not sure how attached employees are with big corporations. I run a small business in India and we do have this culture of working in a family. I think it creates a more conductive environment for work with greater commitment and ownership from the employees, but how do you create such an environment in a large organisation where people don’t even know each other?

  2. Simon

    This is an insightful blog – I have to say that I have experience of working in a truly engaging business – a great company to work for – first direct – and I do think that its possible to have high levels of engagement in big companies. One of first directs values is “family” – it plays out in the ways that employees behave towards each other – there’s a real sense of being in it together and respect that is apparent in most family relationships. It comes from creating a compelling vision that everyone is involved in and understand the part that they play in the success of the business. Granted this is easier in a smaller business – but there’s evidence that it can be done in larger businesses too!

    Well done to Gratterpalm – and wow what a success Morrisons is turning out to be – who would have thought that 10 years ago!

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