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How Screwing Your Workers Gets You Rated as Top 100 Places to Work

Darden Restaurants, which owns chains like Red Lobster, bought its way into a sleazy rankings list.

Fortune magazine loves  rankings: the richest businesses, top business celebrities, 50 most powerful women, and so on. But one thing you won’t find in Fortune's 2013 list of the “100 Best Companies To Work For” is that number  65, Darden Restaurants—owner of the nation’s biggest sit-down dining chains with 2,000 restaurants—is being sued in a class action in federal court for wage theft and nearly 20,000 servers and bartenders have signed on. 

That’s not the only big suit Darden faces for underpaying servers—not letting let them punch the clock when they start working, assigning them to do other set-up tasks without pay, or not sharing tips, as the legal complaint states. Another similar wage theft class action suit, filed in New York in 2011, has been  joined by 500 workers.

Yet in each year that this embarassing litigation unfolded—2011, 2012, 2013—Fortune repeatedly put Darden on its 100 best workplace list. Darden ranked 97th in 2011, 99th in 2012, and 65th in 2013. “What makes it so great?” the magazine’s most recent listing  asks. “The parent of Red Lobster, Olive Garden, and six other restaurant chains employs 135,000 part-timers, who are eligible for low-cost health insurance.”

Now, beyond the fact that Darden’s critics have  documented that many part-time workers cannot afford the benefit that Fortune cites because of low pay, and Darden doesn’t offer hourly employees earned paid sick days, there is something even more eyebrow-raising about its Fortune “Best Company” trophy: Darden essentially has been buying it and then bragging about it.

“Once again, we’re honored,” CEO Clarence Otis  said in 2012. Exactly how Darden finessed this credential—at a time when the company is  under attack by Wall Street for  poor profits and may sell off some brands, which would toss thousands of employees to the cost-cutting winds—is a version of what lobbyists call “pay-to-play.”

The bottom line, as 24/ noted, is not just that Fortune’s ratings are “useless,” but how this ratings game brings together corporate vanities and fawning publications in a charade that papers over how real-life workplace issues have led nearly 10 percent of a supposedly “Best Company” to sue management over padding profits by wage theft.

“These warm and fuzzy public relations moments… are based on sloppy research by the list creator,” 24/7wallstreet  reported after a six-week investigation, and are “tainted by financial relationships that violate the best practices of the polling industry.”

Want To Be A Best Workplace?

Curiously, Fortune doesn’t rank America’s best workplaces. Since 1998, that task has been  outsourced to the Great Place To Work Institute (GPWI), a San Francisco company created in 1992 by ex-business journalists who describe  themselves as progressives. Co-founder Robert Levering opposed the Vietnam War, attends Quaker meetings, hikes and listens to classical music—and now leads a successful private company that grades big corporations for social responsibility.

“We start with a profound respect for organizations considered by their employees to be great workplaces,” wrote Levering in an  open letteron its website. “The leaders of these companies are our heroes, and we stand in awe of what those organizations represent — beacons of hope in what is too often a sea of workplace mediocrity.”

Behind this progressive veneer is a company that has made millions from marketing its services to several hundred U.S. companies with more than 1,000 employees. For fees that start at several thousand dollars, firms can be included in those ranked as “Best Companies” for Fortune and other media worldwide. GPWI offers social responsibility assessments and audits for more fees. It holds annual best workplace conferences, attended by firms that bought GPWI services, where executives—such as Darden CEO  Clarence Otis—are featured as keynote speakers.

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