An Interview with Robert Levering
Robert Levering was coauthor of Fortune magazine’s annual “100 Best Companies to Work For” for twenty years, and he co-founded the company Great Place to Work. He is a long-time member of the Religious Society of Friends and currently attends Santa Cruz Friends Meeting (PYM). Robert spoke by phone with Western Friend on June 20, 2018. The following text contains edited excerpts from a transcript of that interview. To read the full transcript, see: westernfriend.org/media/great-place-work-unabridged.
Western Friend: Would you start by telling how you became the author of A Great Place to Work?
Robert Levering: Well, my first job out of college was working as an anti-war organizer. From there, I discovered I had a knack for journalism, and I got very interested in the story of the United Farm Workers Union in the summer of 1973. They had won some hard-fought struggles in the late ‘60s – particularly the grape boycott had been very hard fought. They had won a major contract with the growers in the late 1960s, and it expired the summer of ’73. Then the growers made a bunch of sweetheart deals with the Teamsters Union. The Farm Workers had won recognition in the ‘60s, and that got taken away from them. That summer of ‘73 was a very dramatic summer. And I felt passionate writing about it. I thought it was important to tell the story.
So originally, I was writing about farm workers and the labor movement. Then I was writing about workplaces more generally. After five or six years of magazine articles, Milton Moskowitz invited me to help him write a book about the corporate word. So we did this book called Everybody’s Business, which was an encyclopedia of the largest companies in America, written for laypeople.
That book sold very well. It actually got on some bestseller lists. Then an editor in New York suggested we write a book called, The 100 Best Companies to Work for in America. We decided we’d give it a try. We already knew, based on the work we had done for our first book, that there were tremendous differences in the quality of workplaces. So the book we wrote wasn’t about one hundred perfect workplaces; it was about the hundred best from among the hundreds we studied.
When the book came out, it also became an instant bestseller. In part, that was because no one had written a book like that before. More typical would be a management book explaining how to get the most efficiency out of the workers. Or books from the other side, the union viewpoint, that were looking at the workplace with ideological blinders on.
The concept that you can put all companies in the same category, it is just simply not true. Our book was popular, in part, because we considered each company on its own merits, and because we acknowledged companies’ strengths.
There is an approach to social change where you point the finger at the bad guys and shame them into changing. I’ve done a lot of that. A lot of Friends have been part of demonstrations and civil disobedience actions. But I do think that when you’re up against the corporate world, with its bevvy of PR managers and so on, pointing the finger at companies isn’t necessarily as good a method of social change as pointing out what’s good about them.
WF: And your work on that book lead you into consulting with companies?
RL: After we wrote The 100 Best, I went back to the twenty top companies in that book, and I spent a lot more time studying them. I tried to understand what they had in common. And it was a very disparate group. Some were huge and some of were small. And they covered all kinds of industries – from Wall Street to Silicon Valley.
What I found that they had in common, what I heard in interviews again and again, was that there was a high level of trust between the employee and the management in the great places to work. That was the key that made the difference.
So I developed a theory. I developed a definition of a great workplace. My definition was: A great place to work is one where you trust the people you work for, have pride in what you do, and enjoy the people you work with. And I wrote my book, A Great Place to Work, which was also an instant bestseller.
What happened next was that a fellow, Michael Kelly, who did employee surveys as his business, read my book and decided he would like to produce a survey using the principles in the book. So it was his idea. My wife at the time, Amy Lyman, taught organizational development at U.C. Davis, so she knew a lot about surveys. So the three of us created a survey and started a consulting company. Our idea was that maybe we’d be able to find some companies interested in using our survey. And, oh yeah! By the time I sold the company three years ago, we had offices in 45 countries and about 750 people working for us. We produced “best workplace” lists in about 50 countries.
WF: So the idea of “trust” turned out to be key. Could you unpack that a little?
RL: What I see is that there are three elements. The first is credibility, which really means, from the employee viewpoint, do they believe what the management says? Do they feel they can ask any questions and get a straight answer? Do they feel they can rely on management’s word?
The second element is respect. That has to do with what the employees think about how the management treats them. Do they feel that management shows appreciation for them? Does management ask for employees’ opinions? Does the company provide benefits that show it actually cares about the employees – benefits that actually make a difference in people’s lives?
Then the third element is fairness. In some ways, it doesn’t make a difference how much you are being paid if you don’t think decisions about pay and promotions are being made in a fair and open way.
WF: So were there any ways that your work drew upon your experience as a Friend?
RL: Well, in the very best workplaces, what I found was in accord in many ways with the values that Friends practice when we are at our best.
And I can also say that for me, while I had one foot in the corporate world and also had a spiritual practice in a community that was rooted in higher principles, that helped me personally navigate the corporate world. There are just so many examples in the corporate world – and the wider secular culture – of people putting very little stock in integrity. Fame and fortune and all that take precedence.
For me, I did have some very specific times when people would try to – “bribe” is too strong a word – but let’s say they would try to impress me with money or other kinds of things, hobnobbing with people or going places. But I found that, because of the core Quaker testimony of integrity, the corporate life just didn’t attract me. Other people I worked with, I could see them falling into that allure . . . I am really proud that our company never had any scandals. We were in a situation where we could have very easily gotten off the tracks.
WF: Not many Friends work in the corporate world today. I’ve heard it said that when Friends turned away from the world of business in the early part of the twentieth century – turned to education and social work and nonprofits – you could look at that change as an abdication of responsibility for the marketplace.
RL: Well, that has been of concern to me – how few Friends are actually in the real business world, the for-profit world. I have heard countless sneering comments by Friends about for-profit business, reflecting unexamined assumptions about people who work in that world, spoken with a tone of moral superiority. And that really is not fair. Not just that it’s not fair to individuals, but it’s also not fair to stereotype a whole sector of people.
It’s true that some of these companies do awful things to the world. And when people complain about corporate crimes, I know what they are talking about. But the reality is that something like four-fifths of people in the workforce work in the for-profit world. Millions of these people are great people.
WF: So what do you think corporations can teach Friends?
RL: I couldn’t answer that. Corporations are just too different from each other.
WF: Fair point. But if I ask less broadly . . . Is there any way that the principles you have uncovered in your work relate to Quaker ideas of “good order” or “authority”? You know, I see a concern among some Friends that somehow we’ve lost our way in terms of our foundational orientation, that we’ve become too quick to express a kind of knee-jerk reaction against elders and authority. I’d be interested in hearing your observations on that.
RL: I think that most people involved in the corporate world would find it strange that Friends worry about uses of authority, because companies tend to be pretty unapologetically hierarchical.
Of course, hierarchies can result in basic inequities. And I mean, there are horrible inequities in the corporate world – between the salaries of top management and the lower-downs, and in general. The causes of those inequities are extraordinarily complicated, because they are based in how companies started.
One thing I have learned, though, is that widespread employee ownership of firms makes a huge difference. Nearly half of the great places to work on our list had some significant measure of employee ownership. It makes a huge difference in the level of trust in the enterprise. If you feel you are actually sharing in the profits of the enterprise, that goes a long way toward making you feel like it is a fair place to work.
WF: So. How did you become a Friend?
RL: I got involved with Friends in high school. I went to an AFSC work camp in Harlem. My first meeting for worship was there. My mother, who was a very devout Christian, kept a book on her bedside table that I picked up from time to time. This was A Testament of Devotion by Thomas Kelly. I didn’t know until much later that he was a Quaker, but I really liked that book. Then I wound up going to Swarthmore College, which was founded by Quakers and has a meetinghouse on campus. Then after college, I got involved with the anti-war movement, specifically with Quaker organizations in Philadelphia.
So I came into the Quaker world largely through social action. Later, I became more interested in other aspects of our faith, particularly after having children, more interested in the religion side of the religion.
And you know, for all the years I worked in the corporate world, I almost never missed a meeting for worship. Even with all the travel I did, it was important for me to be centered down and to feel God’s presence. There’s value to our form of worship, to faith, and to the kinds of communities that we build. ~~~