Accreditation schemes

Nick Golding questions whether the number of accreditation schemes and polls is diluting the overall value for featured organisations

Case studies: Nationwide Building Society, Compass Group Article in full

Hanging out at restaurants like The Ivy or going to film premieres are guaranteed ways for celebrities to raise their profile, because in the world of showbusiness it is not what, or indeed who you know, but who you are photographed with that counts.

Employers are often involved in a similar battle to raise their profile and be perceived as a good company to work for alongside other well-known organisations already in this position. Many of these organisations are turning towards accreditation schemes to achieve this desired status for themselves. When The Sunday Times published its first Best companies to work for study back in 2001, it received just 205 entries from firms. From these hopefuls, a list of 50 organisations was compiled and published. The Sunday Times now publishes three separate lists for companies of different sizes.

A number of other lists have also emerged including the Financial Times Best workplaces report. Organisations can also work towards achieving the Investor’s in People Standard, which is designed to improve the performance of the organisation through people development, and participate in league tables such as the Business in the Community’s Corporate Responsibility Index.

And a new accreditation scheme has just been launched by Best Companies, the firm behind The Sunday Times’ lists. Under this, stars will be awarded to employers that can demonstrate high levels of employee engagement. Jonathan Austin, chief executive of Best Companies, explains: "We have put this together because with our current lists there are only 100 places up for grabs, but this was an opportunity for us to work with many more companies. We will accredit 259 companies this year and look to raise this to between 300 and 400 companies next year." Raising the profile of an organisation in this way has a number of benefits for those concerned, both in terms of how it is viewed externally and how it’s offering to staff is perceived internally. It is an opportunity for an employer to benchmark and look at how the benefits it provides to staff really stack up against those offered by competitors.

Rick Crawley, director of external relations and communications at Lancaster University Management School, explains: "There is no question that to be listed in [for example] The Sunday Times’ 100 best companies to work for is very important for a company in terms of raising its profile."

David Coats, associate director at think-tank The Work Foundation, agrees: "For large companies, this is a way to establish themselves in the public’s mind." Once a company has been mentioned it will want to remain in the list each time it is published, so improvement is encouraged. "Most companies are hungry to maintain the profile that accreditation gives them, so benefits and other employee-focused areas will be closely watched and improved throughout the year," he adds. One corporation whose benefits have improved as a result of measuring itself against fellow scheme participants is accountancy firm Ernst & Young.

It decided to increase the holiday entitlement and maternity benefits available to staff to fall in line with its competitors. Accreditation can also prove useful when it comes to the recruitment process, as it can help to make a company more appealing to potential employees. "Recognition in this way gives small companies a national profile and larger companies access to a far wider pool of labour, because people will see the company and say ‘oh yes I’ve heard of them, I may apply for a job there’," explains Coats.

Ernst & Young has certainly benefited from the exposure gained by its inclusion in the Sunday Times 100 best companies to work for list. Richard Gartside, director of reward at the firm, explains: "You get a massive amount of publicity off the back of the list, and because it is published over and over again and given away free at various events, the name Ernst & Young is put out and about among potential employees."

But, as many celebrities know, the pictures that capture them arm-in-arm with other famous faces are often just superficial stunts, and the moment the flash dies, so too does the smile. So what is the real value in taking the picture in the first place?

In the same way, accreditation systems, league-tables and lists also have their limitations and drawbacks. One which is true of some of the Investors in People standard and The Sunday Times’ 100 best companies to work for, is that employers put themselves forward for the accolade rather than being nominated by others. Human resources departments work tirelessly to get themselves up to the necessary standard before entering, in order to give their organisation a better than fighting chance of being included.

Some accreditation schemes and lists are judged on data from surveys on employee attitudes towards their employer. Yet, instead of providing a true snapshot of the day-to-day running of an organisation, employers are allowed the distinct advantage of preparing before staff are quizzed. Victoria Winkler, adviser on learning, training and development at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, says: "The Sunday Times’ lists are well known, and companies are going to be selective on what they put themselves forward for. If they do not meet the required criteria, they will not be as keen to do it."

Austin admits: "The company really has to want to do this, and it would be fair to say that it would only enter the fray if it thought it was going to win." Furthermore, with the increase in the number of accreditation and league-tables, there is a risk that their credibility is being undermined. As more providers of these schemes enter the market, glory for employers becomes easier to come by . Coats explains: "More and more accreditation companies have entered the market, and what is most important is that these companies do not lack credibility. It has to be possible for someone who is sceptical to interrogate what is being said and be [certain] that the story is a convincing one."

Some providers of these schemes are also expressing concern that employers taking part will not benefit in the same way if the market becomes overcrowded. June Williams, director of quality and delivery partners at Investors in People, explains: "There is always a concern that there are lots of other awards and standards, and it is always worrying that this will [be confusing] to the marketplace."

Case study: Nationwide Building Society

Nationwide Building Society is involved with both the Investors in People standard and The Sunday Times’ 100 best companies to work for, and came top in the newspaper’s best big companies list in 2001.

Tom Harvey, head of internal communications, says it is keen to participate. "100% benchmarking is given, so you are compared to all other companies." He adds that recruiting top graduates also became less of a struggle after coming top of the list, and there was a noticeable difference after the results came out.

The building society may be happy to be involved with credible accreditation schemes, but with so many standards entering the market there is a danger of this credibility suffering."It [can] become a sea of indistinguishable and not very interesting logos," says Harvey.

Case study: Compass Group

Food service company Compass Group has put itself forward for accreditation schemes sporadically over the past few years. It also runs internal accreditation programmes within the company for its 75,000 staff.

Although some employers feel obliged to continue their involvement with these schemes, Compass Group does not believe that being placed in The Sunday Times’ 100 best companies to work for one year, but not the next has had an adverse impact on its profile.

Sally Mason, reward director at Compass Group UK and Ireland, explains: "Some years we decided not to enter The Sunday Times’ [poll], and this is really down to timing as we need the time to analyse and review the data from the survey.

This is difficult to do if we are already running our own accreditation scheme in-house." Mason believes the information obtained from an internal accreditation system is equal to that of external polls, provided employees give honest feedback.