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Robert Levering on Occupying Wall Street

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Robert Levering, Great Place to Work co-founder started his career as a full-time organiser against the Vietnam War and continues to see himself as a social change activist. That background helps to set the context for the speech - reproduced in full here - that he delivered at our recent 'World's Best Workplaces' Gala at the New York Stock Exchange in Wall Street.

"When we reserved this space a couple of months ago, little did we imagine that there would be so many other people who would want to occupy Wall Street. But unlike the folks who are camping out in Zuccotti Park a few blocks from here, we are actually occupying Wall Street.

We’re inside the New York Stock Exchange, in what is indisputably the most prominent symbol of corporate capitalism in the world – a building that some of those people might refer to as the “belly of the beast.”

1011NewYorkerOne of the reasons we wanted to hold this event right here is that we also have a message for Wall Street. It may not be as strident as the message of our friends in the park. But it is also not at all like the one depicted on the cover of the current issue of The New Yorker magazine. We do not agree with the group of fat cats caricatured on the cover who are shown demonstrating in front of this building with signs such as “Keep Things Precisely As They Are.”

We do not believe things should be kept precisely as they are. On the contrary. The sad truth is that most workplaces are not great places to work. Most people find their workplaces to be mildly alienating at best – or downright exploitative at worst. Unfortunately, the companies represented here are the exceptions, rather than the rule. 

Before I explain how I believe Wall Street can help change this situation and work with us to create a society where great workplaces are the norm, let us reflect back on the significance of this event. A list of the world’s best multinational workplaces would have been unimaginable 30 years ago when Milton Moskowitz and I began research on a book about great workplaces. Nobody had ever done such a book before. So we were surprised that we found enough companies to justify our title, “The 100 Best Companies to Work for in America.”

Fast Forward

Fast forward 30 years and now we have similar Best Workplaces lists in some 45 countries. And tonight we are unveiling the mother of all lists – the World’s Best Multinational Workplaces.

What we see here tonight amongst all of you are companies that have gone to great lengths to listen to your employees and seek out their opinions about all kinds of issues. You provide great benefits, especially to working parents. You share the wealth with a broad cross-section employees. Look at the literally thousands of employee millionaires that have been created through the generous stock options programs at firms like Microsoft, Cisco and Google. Or consider the terrific profit-sharing plans at SC Johnson, FedEx and many other firms represented here tonight.

You also give back to your communities through a wide variety of volunteer and philanthropic activities. And you don’t lay off people at the drop of the hat. Many of you have gone to great lengths to avoid layoffs during the financial crisis. In fact, taken as a whole, your firms have added more than 150,000 new jobs in the past year.

Indeed, the companies honored tonight represent exemplary corporate citizenship. Being a good citizen starts at home with how you treat others in your family. And being a good corporate citizen starts with how a company’s management treats its employees.

What we want to stress, however, is that all of you here represented on this list and our national Best Workplaces lists are more than great places to work for your employees. You are also some of the very best performing companies in the world.

We have considerable statistical evidence to back that up, including data that shows that, for instance, the publicly held companies have appeared on the Fortune “100 Best Companies to Work for” list over the past 14 years have outperformed the S&P 500 by a ratio of 3:1. Indeed, these companies are great performers precisely because they are great workplaces.

Platinum Quotation

You are companies that believe in a quote that I like from one of my heroes who is here tonight, Dr. Jim Goodnight of SAS. He often says, “If you treat people as if they will make a difference, they will.”

You are companies that believe in what I call the Platinum Rule: “Employees do unto customers as managers do unto employees.”

Yes, there is a link between the quality of the workplace and a company’s performance. Yet Wall Street simply does not take that into account. By being so fixated on quarterly results and other financial measurements, Wall Street – and its cousins in the City in London, the Bourse in Paris and stock exchanges in Frankfurt, Tokyo, São Paulo – are missing important metrics for investors and managers. Wall Street and its cousins need to adopt measurements about the workplace.

Such measurements do exist. For instance, our Trust Index© employee survey measures the trust that employees have in the management. Nothing is more important for a company’s ability to execute on its business plan or to promote innovation than the level of trust within the organization.

The point is that by adopting such measures, Wall Street could help this growing movement of companies represented by the firms here tonight because it would mean that managers and executives would be forced to take into account how people are treated. This would not only help create better workplaces, but it would also compel managers to manage better and ultimately benefit customers and investors.

We want to congratulate you on what you are doing and hope that you will continue to be an inspiration for all companies – large and small, national and multinational – throughout the world. Any company anywhere can be a great place to work. And you are showing the way for others to follow.

Robert Levering is co-founder and board member of Great Place to Work® Institute.

 
 
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