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What It Means To Be A “Great” Organization

There are many approaches for how to determine how “great” an organization is, from seeing internal survey results to taking a tour of their campus or by emotionally quantifying how much they contribute to social causes. All of these factors can help inspire people and show glimpses of why a company might be doing good in the world and these all ultimately play a part in how good a company is overall.

However, in all companies, no matter how incredible, there are always things happening behind the scenes. In most cases, no matter how many tours you take and books you read, unless you an employee of said company, you will not know what it’s actually like to work there. As someone who spent years at a company on the “Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For” list, I can attest to this.

In that case, what is the best way to determine how “great” an organization really is? An easy and simplistic approach is to look to Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, who said:

“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”

While this quote was about society in general (and the US prison complex is a prime example of what he meant by this), countless parallels can be made between the operations of companies and countries. Now, this is absolutely not to suggest that the Fortune 100 companies you think are amazing are in fact akin to prisons. Rather, the intent of the quote, which has been reiterated by different individuals in the century and a half since, essentially boils down to:

You can tell how ‘great’ a society (or organization) is based on how they treat their lowest members.

It’s easy to look at any organization we read about in lists of the greatest places to work and be flooded with examples of why it’s so great: “Great pay, great benefits, incredible culture, and so much more!” Though, that is either coming from the company’s PR team or from the very people who are receiving all those benefits and then some.

While most companies will not allow it (which is always an immediate red flag), the best way to judge a company’s true character is to see how they treat their new, easily replaced, front-line employees — especially those currently on some sort of disciplinary plan. How are those employees treated? Are they called “lazy” when they don’t go above-and-beyond, “not a culture fit” when they speak up or question leadership’s decisions, and immediately threatened with disciplinary action when they don’t meet their expectations? Are they blamed for departmental failures beyond their control? Are they immediately laid off with no warning when the economy dips at all?

In many organizations, the newest employees in the lowest-paying positions are like the henchmen in movies without a name tag and the red shirts in Star Trek. Everyone knows they will be the first to go when things get tough — those who are sacrificed to save the important, popular, and powerful. A “great” organization is only great when they maintain integrity even when things get difficult. Greatness comes from doing what is difficult and right rather than what is easy and wrong. Treating some people great is very different than treating all people great.

As I’ve suggested in another article about company PR, the best way to see how great an organization really is is by talking to those who are at the bottom of the totem pole. Does the company make everyone feel safe and appreciated? Is everyone given the attention and support they need to thrive? Is everyone a trusted and valued member of the organization?

Only when you know how the lowest members of an organization are treated will you know if a company is truly great.

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