Layla* says it’s the prestige that keeps her working on the sales team at Google. “It never hurts to have Google on your resume,” the 23-year-old tells Refinery29. “I definitely feel like I get more attention.” And why wouldn’t she? Google rules the tech world, and this year the company ranks at number seven on Glassdoor’s Best Places To Work list. Google has some of the most talked about perks in the game — free food and fitness classes, a high-tech gym on an enormous campus, pods to nap in, sky-high salaries — and, of course, bragging rights.
We often weave together our self-worth with our jobs. If you’re employed by a cool, fun workplace that people envy, that must mean you’re also cool, fun and worthy of envy…right? But do perks and kudos really make a company one of the “best” places to work? Even with all the bells and whistles, these so-called top companies, like Google, still exist and thrive within our flawed system — and it’s not unusual for any company, even the impressive companies with the top-notch benefits, to have issues going on internally. So what purpose do “best places to work” lists and conversations serve, if any?
Glassdoor provides insights about jobs and companies derived from current and former employee reviews. Their website states that they “offer insights into the employee experience powered by millions of company ratings and reviews, CEO approval ratings, salary reports, interview reviews and questions, benefits reviews, office photos and more,” and that their methodology factors include the quantity, quality and consistency of these reviews. In an email sent to Refinery29, Glassdoor says that three of the common themes among their top places to work winners include mission-driven cultures, transparent senior leadership, and career growth opportunities for employees.
Does Google have the three main traits of Glassdoor’s top 10 criteria? Layla isn’t so sure. She’s been there since 2018, when she first started out as a contractor. “Because it's so big, you really don't get a lot of professional development. It’s so hard to get promoted,” she says. “It will take you two times as long to get promoted at Google than it will at any other company. For example, if I had started at a high-growth, well-funded startup, I could have been a sales manager in three or four years. To become a sales manager at Google, it would take eight years.” And while Google is known for paying its employees exceptionally well compared to other places, Layla says the salary increases are “absolutely atrocious”.
Layla agrees that the perks play a significant part in what makes Google a “cool” place to work. “The amenities are definitely like a Band-Aid,” she says. “They don't fix the issues. They make it better, though.” Still, she has hope for the future of the company. “There are some internal issues that need to be fixed, but they are actively trying to be addressed,” she continues. “I feel like they're trying, and that's more than I think some companies can say.”
Some of these internal issues have made it into the public eye. This past March, April Curley, a Google employee from 2014 to 2020, sued the company, claiming that “it systematically discriminated against Black workers by placing them in lower-level jobs, underpaying them, and denying them opportunities to advance,” according to The New York Times. The lawsuit also alleges that at Google, “Black people comprise only 4.4% of employees and about 3% of leadership and its technology workforce.” Google has since filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit.
A Google spokesperson tells Refinery29: “We’re proud to be recognised as a great place to work, where people of different views, backgrounds, and experiences can show up and make an impact. We’re deeply committed to building a diverse workforce and providing competitive salaries and benefits to our employees.”
Another brand that has graced Glassdoor’s top 10 list this year is Lululemon, a company with a controversial past of its own, at number nine. The founder, Chip Wilson, has made questionable comments (one famously about how Lululemon trousers weren’t made to be worn by “all women”) and just last summer, Insider published an investigation on the company’s work culture, including allegations of racism and racial insensitivity. Although Lululemon has distanced itself from Wilson and put out statements regarding these past controversies, it’s hard for those on the outside to know whether or not those changes have been made on the inside, too.
In response to Refinery29’s request for comment, a company spokesperson from Lululemon responded: “Chip Wilson does not speak for Lululemon, and his comments do not reflect our company views or beliefs. Chip has not been involved with the company since his resignation from the board in 2015. While Chip is remembered for founding the company over 20 years ago, his sole connection to the company today is as a shareholder.”
Samantha, a former retail worker at Lululemon, posted her experience as a key holder for her store in the r/lululemon subreddit after she stopped working at the company. “I left my job at Lululemon this past week,” she wrote. “The inclusivity that they preach is fake. They don’t care about how you feel, just that you buy. Most employees hate working there. Managers don’t care if you have a life, need time off, are sick; and most won’t actually do any work. Even full time employees don’t get any paid time off.”
Along with what Samantha alleges, she says there were also the usual customer service suspects: cliques, gossip, clashing personalities and rude customers. “I left without notice when I left Lululemon. I pretty much said, I'm done,” Samantha tells Refinery29 in a phone interview. “I spoke with three other key holders, who were like, I wish I could leave, I've been here for five years and I wish I could leave because I hate it here. They felt like they were very unvalued and very overworked.”
And, Samantha alleges, diversity has been an issue. “They show diversity on their website, their models are diverse,” she says. “But walk into any store and you’ll see they do not have any diversity in person. As far as I have seen, they don't look for it either in their hiring process.” Although Samantha was disappointed with her experience, she’s not surprised. “I don't think they're any different than any other company out there,” she says.
In response, a company spokesperson from Lululemon tells Refinery29: “[We are] committed to creating and maintaining an inclusive, diverse and positive work environment which we commit to in our IDEA mission and strategy... We remain steadfast in our IDEA journey and are committed to sharing our progress as we continue to learn and grow. We welcome and encourage employee dialogue and feedback and offer employees several ways to share their concerns and feedback, including through anonymous channels. We take feedback like this extremely seriously. As we always do, we will review these claims and take action as appropriate.”
Even the "best" places to work can have downsides, big and small. In reality, there’s no such thing as a perfect company or an ideal place to be employed. Almost always, with any job, there are other hardships weighing on employees beneath the surface. In fact, the thought that there’s even a “best”, most fulfilling place to work might be a myth entirely.
“There's a moralisation of that idea that the best way to be a person in the labour market, especially if you have a degree, is to find work that you love and deal with the kind of sacrifices that that entails,” says Erin Cech, PhD, assistant professor in the department of sociology at University of Michigan and author of The Passion Principle: How the Search for Self-Expressive & Fulfilling Careers Reproduces Inequality, previously told Refinery29. “It’s such a narrow way to think about making meaning in our lives,” Cech adds. “Why is work the place that we're supposed to find meaning?”
People weren’t always in search of fulfilment at work. Denise M. Rousseau, PhD, a professor of organisational behaviour at Carnegie Mellon University, tells Refinery29 that up until around the 1950s and 1960s, we accepted work for what it was — work. Now, workers are far more interested in working to live, not living to work. “‘Labour is labour’ was kind of accepted,” she explains. “The aspirations for a fair day's work, with a fair day's pay … having friends on the job, that was probably what counted more broadly as ‘good’ work.”
Dr Rousseau says that there are plenty of things that can make a company a good place to work that don’t necessarily show up in reviews on a website. The first is “job crafting”, which happens when one has the agency to change the nature of their work to reflect their interests. For example, a writer may choose to cover only topics that personally interest them, a teacher may get creative with their assignments and lessons, a fitness instructor may create an itinerary of classes they would want to take themselves. “You, as an incumbent in the job, are creating or changing features of the job,” she says. “One of the things that we find is that when people have room to craft their jobs, performance is higher as rated by their manager.” When people are allowed more creative freedom over their jobs — whether in a creative field or not — Dr Rousseau says they’re more likely to introduce new meaning to the job.
Another often overlooked factor that makes a company a good place to work is if you’re able to show up each day as your authentic self — something that’s harder to come by than you might think. “As corporations rose, it became that people no longer worked with friends — they worked in a role where they had to put their game face on,” says Dr Rousseau. “You wore a suit to work and acted a certain way on the job, and you were a different you at work than you were at home.”
Dr Rousseau brings up a study about this from Dan Cable, a professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School, who tested out three different approaches on groups of new hires in a call centre located in India. The first group received the standard onboarding that the company was already using, the next received the same plus a speech from the owner about their philanthropic efforts in the community, and the third group was asked to show up as their real, authentic selves at work. They said to the workers, “you're going to be on the phone and you're going to be talking to clients and customers, and you be you,” Dr Rousseau says of the study. “You be you in a way that you feel brings real value and expresses who you are in your interaction.” After six months, the third group had the least amount of turnover.
Dr Rousseau agrees that it’s very gratifying to be able to truly be yourself in all facets of life and especially at work. But in traditional white collar careers, it’s often hard to let your personality shine — and it's even more complicated for those with marginalised identities. “The corporate model has changed people’s behaviour and led them to behave in more narrow ways,” Dr Rousseau points out. “You talk a certain way to the authorities, you interact with the customer in a certain way, you put on your game face.” However, just knowing that job crafting and the ability to show up as your authentic self are going to make you happy in your job doesn't mean it'll be the driving factor behind seeking out your next one. There's one giant benefit from our work that outshines others: compensation.
In many parts of the world, like the United States, employees rely on their companies to provide various benefits that shield them from extreme financial burden: healthcare, retirement plans, life insurance and salary protection in the event that they’re unable to work. Although these benefits are tied to employment, they’re necessities — accessible healthcare greatly affects one’s quality of life, a retirement plan can help secure a more comfortable future and income protection has been called more important than sick leave. While these benefits shouldn’t be exclusive to holding the “right” job, having them built into the structure of many companies makes it easy to settle and set aside the search for deeper fulfilment. In all honesty, fun perks are an amusing distraction. “[If] I'm going to face a lack of upward mobility and DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion] initiatives at any company, I might as well get paid better and get free food,” Layla says.
While we shouldn’t rely on our work to make us happy, work is something we spend a large chunk of our time and energy doing, meaning that we need to find ways to make it, at the very least, bearable. According to Dr Rousseau, what makes a job a good one is if we have the things mentioned above: being able to show up as our authentic selves, the ability to make our job what we want it to be and, maybe more obviously, the removal of any financial strain from our lives.
There are inherent flaws in expecting the right job with the right company and the right perks to make us feel purposeful and happy in our lives, and many things that make a job a good one can’t be measured by simple reviews on a website. Even Dr Rousseau is wary of the notion that a job can make us feel purposeful. It’s important to look outside of your worth as a worker to lead a meaningful life. Take up hobbies, foster your relationships, do things that are fun and joyful and make you proud to be, well, you.
Ping-pong tables, free gym memberships, cool campuses and fancy meals may ease the weight we feel under capitalism’s pressure — but only so much. At the end of the day, you’re just one easily dispensable employee of many, and a company will take anything that you’re willing to give for as little as you’re willing to take. If some fun benefits and a shiny name on your resume make that all worth it, that’s up to you.
*Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.