The UK’s best could do so much better

Every March we are presented with the Sunday Times Best Companies to Work For list. Companies that achieve a position in the prestigious list use it as a branding exercise to position themselves as employers of choice.

These companies appear to offer the magical formula of making work fun. ‘Play hard, work hard’ is the mantra of a range of companies in the list. Employees at these organisations repeatedly cite skiing trips, weekends in Spain, boozy barbecues and awards ceremonies as indicators of their caring approach to employees. But this inclusive party culture is also an exclusive club for the under 35s.

Our analysis of data from the 100 top big companies on the 2005 list, as part of a research project into dignity at work, reveals that age diversity is certainly not a feature. On average, 56% of employees working for ‘best companies’ are under 35, and only 6% are over 55, compared with the general working population, of which only 36% are under 35 and 15% are over 55.

Why should this be a matter of concern? People working for ‘best companies’ are clearly very happy with their lot. Staff from a broad range of sectors all report work as ‘fun’, ‘a buzz’, ‘rewarding’ or ‘one long party’ – a seemingly endless endorsement of work as fun in a ‘best company’.

This is the case even when a long-hours culture appears to be the norm among the best 100 companies. The Sunday Times highlights that there has been a rise in the number of companies where people work between 40 and 50 hours a week from 32.7% in 2004 to 37.9% in 2005.

Yet in the reported top 10 companies for work-life balance, between 74% and 80% of employees report they are happy with the hours they work. This could be because there is no distinction between work and life – boundaries are continually blurred as weekends and evenings are spent together in organised ‘fun’. Work colleagues are also playmates and the company spans work and social life.

There are clear links between performance and fun. Fun at work makes people feel committed and energised, and the resulting performance is celebrated with award ceremonies highlighting the high achievers. Attendance at these events is often compulsory. In other companies, it is more a matter of ‘this is the way we do things around here’. High-pressure work environments (where rewards are performance-related) are integrated with late nights and weekends away from home, along with the apparent consumption of large amounts of alcohol.

From the investigation into the age demographics of the ‘best companies’, it is clear that only the under 35s can keep up. Little wonder these cultures are rarely diluted. Research by Working Families reveals that people who are unhappy with a long-hours culture at work do not stay and try to change things – they just leave.

Companies spend a huge amount of resources to seek employees not only with the right job skills but those who will ‘fit in’. Management gurus actively advise companies to “recruit for attitude, induct for culture”. While this may put diversity at risk, they say it is more important that the company employs and retains people who fit in and are comfortable with cultural values.

It will be difficult for the soon-to-be-introduced legislation on ageism to reach into the heart of this deeply ingrained culture of play and fun at work.

The top 100 companies are described by the DTI as a “key benchmark” for others. But if these are beacons of best practice, then surely they should be more closely investigated as to how this links to what might be the ‘best’ for a diverse workforce? Currently, this is without a closer interrogation of issues such as gender, race and disability, as to be an employee of a ‘best company’ is to be part of an exclusive youth club.

Given the constant references to the ageing workforce and a demographic time bomb, the UK government should be pointing out that the ‘best companies’ are missing out on some of the ‘best’ the UK labour market has to offer.

Sharon Bolton is director of the HR and knowledge management programme at Lancaster University Management School

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