Among other awards that San Francisco-based BPM LLP has received over its 20 years of existence, the firm was named one of the Bay Area's "Best Places to Work" by a local business journal in 2006.Asked what such awards mean to BPM, managing partner Stephen Mayer recalled the central plot point of the 1980s film, "The Gods Must Be Crazy." In the movie, the pilot of a passing airplane drops a glass Coke bottle in the middle of an African desert, where it is discovered by a tribe that has never had contact with the outside world.

"These awards are sort of like that Coke bottle," Mayer said. "It's something that no one had, and then everyone realized that they needed."

Admittedly, it's not shocking that the firms that are winning such awards are the ones touting the benefits of such recognition. But there is little question that a few trends emerge from among companies that are recognized as the "best" places to work - marketing, recruiting and retention efforts align easily; employee surveys are seen as actionable tools for management; and other key metrics (which often translate directly to the bottom line) emerge.

Anne Elvgren, chief marketing officer for Connecticut's Blum, Shapiro & Co., said that the firm placed tops among the accounting firms included on a recent "Best Places to Work" list compiled by a business journal in Hartford, Conn. That list, like the others mentioned, heavily weighed responses from an anonymous survey of companies' employees.

Mentioning a study that found a direct correlation between satisfied clients and satisfied employees, Elvgren said that after the article detailing the award winners ran, numerous referrals came in. "It does differentiate you," she said.

BPM's Mayer agreed. "It's incredible for recruiting," he said. "Not just for staff, but for clients." He said that on many of the jobs that the firm takes on, clients are most concerned about the issue of turnover. Last year, BPM was able to boast of its 11 percent staff turnover, a key selling point in an industry that Mayer said averages more than 20 percent.

In the Bay Area especially, an always-evolving land of mergers and acquisitions, the competition for accounting talent can be fierce. "Awards like these are a key piece of how we market ourselves," Mayer said. "We want to reinforce that 'fun' image both internally and externally. We want people to think of BPM as a firm where people love to come to work."

Similarly, Blum Shapiro is facing competition on a number of fronts, including the Big Four, as well as a couple of the large regional firms and other independent firms employing upwards of 60 workers.

"We compete heavily with all of them," managing partner Karl Johnson said. "We're out recruiting on campuses and through referrals, and this is one more thing that headhunters have to sell on."

A LEARNING EXPERIENCE

The process of applying for such awards can often prove a fruitful exercise on its own. Johnson said that the more involved employee survey required to compete for the "Best Places" award revealed a number of themes - mostly centered on communications concerns between different departments and between different levels of employees - that the firm was able to focus on improving.

There's a wide array of awards out there for the taking - recognizing everything from products and services, to management practices and community involvement.

KPMG has been touting its recent acceptance onto Fortune magazine's "100 Best Companies to Work For" list at No. 97 - the first time the Big Four firm has received the honor.

The list is one that KPMG needed to find a place on in order to keep up with the Joneses. This year, rival Big Four firms Ernst & Young (No. 25), PricewaterhouseCoopers (No. 58) and Deloitte (No. 76) all also made the list, which is co-sponsored by the Great Place to Work Institute. (Two-thirds of a company's score is based on employee surveys, while the remaining third is based on a company's score for innovation.)

KPMG's vice chair of human resources, Bruce Pfau, said that although the company has applied for the Fortune recognition a couple of other times, making the cut this year didn't come as a gigantic surprise.

The Big Four firm internally surveys its employees twice a year and had seen those overall survey numbers begin to climb about 30 months ago. Other key metrics started to move in tandem - the staff turnover percentage started to drop and the offer-to-acceptance ratio for jobs greatly improved.

Pfau said that KPMG believes that one of the keys is "influencing the influencers" of the labor market, to be in the general "top of mind" for academics, C-suite execs, clients and the general business community. At the end of the day, he said that word of mouth has proved to be the most effective form of recruiting for both new workers and new clients.

Even the feds are getting onboard.

Jesse Hoskins, who heads the Government Accountability Office's Human Capital Office, said that the GAO was able to solidify an already good brand with its 2005-07 designation as one of the best places to work in the federal government by the Partnership for Public Service, which has also recognized the agency for its recruitment practices.

Hoskins said that the award has undoubtedly helped with the agency's acquisition of talent. He also said that the directors of each of the GAO's managing units were told to make the most of any commentary they received. He said that in his own unit, of the two dozen written comments he received, about half were positive, while half contained things to work on. Out of those comments came the installation of a new Web-based time and attendance program, getting rid of a paperwork glut.

Blum Shapiro's Johnson summed it up: "Paying attention to these awards, what your employees think, makes a difference. It's hard to measure, but it's real."

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