An imperfect science

A look back at 25 years of the 100 Best project reveals the benefits and pitfalls of workplace surveys.

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In 1995 Oregon Business magazine’s fax machine was ringing off the hook. It was the second year of our 100 Best Companies to Work For in Oregon project, and applicants were faxing in their survey responses by the hundreds.

Kathy Diamond, the editor of the magazine at the time, felt inundated. “There were times we thought we’d burn up the phone line faxing out applications,” wrote Diamond in her editor’s letter. Oregon Business staffers sifted through hundreds of applications, whittling down the serious contenders, and then scoring the responses to create a 100 Best ranking. The survey took more than 600 hours of staff time and over six months to complete.

It is a fascinating reminder of how technology has changed the nature of how we work. The fax machine, that archaic and mostly redundant piece of office apparatus, which most people under 30 have no idea of how to operate, was an essential part of conducting the 100 Best project.  

We are celebrating the 25th anniversary of the 100 Best Companies to Work For in Oregon survey this year. I have been going through the archives to get a sense of how the survey has evolved. I am certainly glad that we no longer rely on the laborious fax machine. The survey is mostly conducted online, and as a result takes much less staff time.

As the project approaches its silver anniversary, we are taking the opportunity to consider the pros and cons of workplace surveys, and analyze their changing role in the modern business world. We talked to former Oregon Business staffers to get a historical perspective on the role the survey has played in shaping best workplace practices. We also interviewed long-time participants to learn why they take part and any downsides they see to participation.

The 100 Best Companies to Work For in Oregon actually didn’t start out as a roster of 100 companies. In 1994, Oregon Business magazine editors picked 10 companies they thought were among the best workplaces in Oregon. The editors deliberately avoided major companies like Intel and Hewlett Packard, which they said consistently rank among the top employers in the country.

Instead, they picked smaller Oregon companies, which despite their limited resources, create reasons for employees to swear their loyalty.

Why make such a hoo-ha about the happiness of employees? The notion that satisfied employees leads to financial success was gaining traction. The best companies concept was born.    

In 1995, Oregon Business magazine published the first 100 Best list. The survey took the form of a six-page questionnaire on benefits, pay and workplace culture, which HR personnel filled out.

The goal was to spark company leaders to create better workplaces, an intent that still guides us today. “No single business asset matters more, in our opinion, than people,” wrote Diamond.

“Surveys are a sacred part of our society because when they are done properly you are being asked about your honestly held opinion. That is truly sacred. That is what a good survey gets at.” Palmer Morrel-Samuels, CEO of Employee Motivation & Performance Assessment

But it wasn’t until 2001 that employees’ opinions on their workplace were taken into account. The survey consisted of both an  employee survey and an employer survey, much like the project operates today.

The switch to asking for employee input made sense, said Gillian Floren, the editor at the time. “The intent, after all, is not to create a popularity contest among HR departments but rather to assess and recognize great companies. Who would know better than those most intimate with the place, the employees?” she wrote.

Inviting employee feedback generated some controversy. At least a few former 100 Best companies dropped out. One HR person admitted to the fear that inviting employees’ input would expose the company as a “pretender.” wrote Floren in an introduction to the list.

Despite initial pushback, the focus on measuring employee satisfaction remains the focus of the project. It is a nod to the shift towards a knowledge-based economy, where the ability to retain high caliber workers is directly tied to profits.   

It is noticeable that the companies that stay on the 100 Best list for the longest are businesses that embrace the employee feedback from the surveys. When employers make changes based on employee responses, this is when the mission of the project is the most powerful.

These are companies like Vernier Software & Technology, which has been on the 100 Best list for 17 years – the most of any participant.

“We always listen to the feedback,” says Kathy Higashihara, project manager at the tech firm. “We take it to heart what employees say and try to make changes. The majority of comments are positive, but if a comment is negative we try to act on it.”      

Tec Labs is another long-term participant in the 100 Best list (16 years).“The best places to work is a cornerstone of our culture,” says Gary Burris, e-commerce and industrial sales manager at the pharmaceutical manufacturer. Changes the company made as a result of employee feedback include introducing short-term and long-term disability, life insurance for every employee, and a 401(k) match.

“Because the employees see Steve Smith, our CEO, embrace the survey, that makes people feel they are being heard so it gives more value to the survey,” says Burris.

For large companies, in particular, where the survey is the only avenue through which employees can express their opinions to the top brass, the survey is a powerful tool.


But opening the survey to workers can also create pitfalls.

For one, it opens up the risk that employers will coerce their employees to fill out the survey, and even put pressure on them to respond positively. Our survey guidelines warn against coercion, but we have limited ability to enforce this. In the end, we rely on the good faith of the employer to behave ethically.

Brandon Sawyer, former 100 Best project manager for Oregon Business, said there were occasions when employees contacted him alleging foul play. “Sometimes we got complaints from employees saying this is a terrible place to work and that they were forced to answer questions positively.

“It is distressing when you have a situation where you don’t know who to believe,” says Sawyer.

We have designed our survey methodology to prevent situations of foul play. We reserve the right to delete surveys that show anomalies, for example.

Administers of other surveys run into similar issues. Working Mother magazine has an annual best companies to work for survey, which showcases businesses that have good benefits for working mothers. Companies fill out a survey of their benefits (it is not an employee satisfaction survey) and businesses that score in top 100 are listed in the magazine alphabetically.

Suzanne Richards, director of the Working Mother Research Institute, the publication’s research arm, says they have run into issues where employees have disputed benefits companies claim to have. “If they say we don’t have this benefit, we will look into it. We look for outliers,” says Richards.  

Working Mother researchers spot check participants’ websites to confirm the benefits. Participating firms have to confirm the information they submit is accurate. “It is a good faith survey,” she says.

Another issue we come up against occasionally is the apparent lack of thought some employees put into survey.  As the project manager for the 100 Best survey, I sometimes feel that employees at certain organizations override their true feelings about their workplace to ensure their company gets into the list. Companies that have strong sales incentives tend to fit into this category.  

There are some stopgap measures survey purveyors use to ensure participants take the time to think about their responses and answer honestly and accurately.

Palmer Morrel-Samuels, CEO of Employee Motivation & Performance Assessment, a specialist in workplace surveys, warns against designing surveys that ask participants to rank how much they agree or disagree with statements. Instead he recommends questions that ask respondents for a specific number or percentage. This builds in validity to the responses.

“People are notoriously poor at making rankings,” says Morrel-Samuels. “Don’t ask about satisfaction. Ask about frequency. How often was it the case manager acted fairly? How often do you have an employee that resigned?”

Seattle Business magazine, which does a similar 100 Best Companies survey, gives a higher weighting to companies that have a greater level of employee participation. If a company has high scores but only a small portion of employees responded, it won’t do as well as a company that scored well and had a higher rate of participation.          

It is clear that participants in Oregon Business’s 100 Best survey fit into two camps: employers that genuinely want to get employee feedback and create a better workplace; and employers that participate solely to get on the list.

Adam Davis, founder of DHM Research, said it is common for businesses to overlook the importance of the data from workplace satisfaction surveys, as well as what they can do to improve worker morale. “I have 40 years in the business. I have seen so many people not appreciate what an invaluable research tool it is, but what an important employee relations tool it is too,” he says.

DHM Research was a research partner on the 100 Best project from the early years and helped craft the survey questions.

The employee relations aspect of workplace surveys has taken on new significance given the cynicism gripping many workplaces these days. The attention the media has put on income inequality and corporate greed has contributed to a skepticism of surveys and polling, says Davis.  

“I have 40 years in the business. I have seen so many people not appreciate what an invaluable research tool it is, but what an important employee relations tool it is too,” – Adam Davis, founder of DHM Research

“It is a difficult climate these days. There is a lot of negativism and suspicion that is very different today than it was a decade ago. People have less trust in institutions, including private-sector companies and management, generally speaking. There is a much more toxic environment out there.”   

The 100 Best Companies survey is also time consuming and takes commitment on the part of both the employer and employee. Companies that struggle to get enough employees to fill out the survey may find this is a warning flag they are not doing enough to promote the survey as a tool for improving employee satisfaction.         

As our 100 Best Companies survey approaches a quarter of a century, we are happy it endures as a vehicle for promoting best workplace practices. We have come a long way since the 1990s when the fax machine was the main method of communication. Paper surveys have not gone away entirely, however. We still offer companies the option to mail in paper surveys in English and Spanish.

Looking back at how the project has evolved, it is clear that surveys do not exist in a vaccum and must adapt to the changing workplace. The growing cynicism of workplace surveys and polling are a reality that we must face, and we should perhaps do more to push home to companies that they should emphasize to employees that they truly care about learning what their employees think and will follow-up on employee feedback.

“The pre-contact and follow-up are incredibly important. I do not see enough companies recognizing that,” says Davis.

Alas, it is an inherent contradiction of the survey that we tout the benefits of getting on the 100 Best list, but in reality the employee feedback is the most valuable aspect of taking part.

“I would want businesses to value the 100 Best survey more for what it can positively mean for them regardless of how they rank, which is often against companies from different sectors with different cultures and motivations to participate in the program,” says Davis.

At the end of the day, we strive to make the 100 Best Companies to Work For in Oregon survey a good faith effort to show the best in class of workplace practices.

Says Morrell-Samuels: “Surveys are a sacred part of our society because when they are done properly you are being asked about your honestly held opinion. That is truly sacred. That is what a good survey gets at.”


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