WASHINGTON: Just what makes a workplace great?

The answer is more elusive than you might think, given that more people are versed in the dysfunctional work environment than in the truly exceptional workplace. Fortunately, the research consultancy that produces Fortune Magazine's 100 Best Companies To Work For rankings - the Great Place to Work Institute - knows a thing or two about what builds trust and engagement among workers.

What stands out on this year's list, published last week - software provider SAS took top place - is that many of the firms picked represent 'female-friendly' workplaces. Groups not typically found in the highest ranks, such as minorities and women, tend to be more visible in these environments. Furthermore, these organisations bend and adapt to their employee base - they do not ask their staff to conform to the corporate 'way'.

So what else is key to their success?

Among other things, their work-life policies are stigma-free.

Take one firm's well-intentioned policy. A part-time partnership track was carved out, allowing top performers to assume more responsibility while simultaneously cutting down hours. The problem? Only women took advantage of the benefit. The result was that, companywide, part-time partners found they were not taken all that seriously.

The best workplaces offer work-life accommodations that all employees are encouraged to use - top-down and bottom-up - including sabbaticals, compressed work weeks, remote working and job sharing. It is understood at leading companies that the wide adoption of benefits long considered mainly for women helps the workforce at large.

Top-ranking firms also have zero tolerance for unfairness.

In their new book, The Great Workplace, Dr Michael Burchell and Dr Jennifer Robin note the strong message sent by SC Johnson, a company that institutes real consequences for unfair treatment. If the consumer products company sees prejudiced judgment, it handles the problem swiftly by not tolerating such behaviour at all.

In addition, top firms that truly care about fairness provide an appeals process that allows grievances to be addressed.

Dr Burchell and Dr Robin point out this best practice at American Express, where the office of the ombudsman acts as 'a confidential and neutral resource where employees can seek guidance without fear of retribution'.

Taking a stand on equitable treatment can be particularly important for women, some of whom have sounded their grievances only to be ignored, sidelined or even fired. Industries dominated by males can take a page from this book, and recognise that filing complaints about unfair treatment often results in a more harrowing experience than the initial harassment or abuse.

Last but not least, firms that provide the best workplaces acknowledge the power of the unspoken.

Kraft, a company acknowledged for its diversity policies, understands that not all success criteria are spelt out for new employees. Its Jump Start programme offers new staff an orientation in the unwritten rules and strategies for succeeding in the corporate culture. The programme is designed to help collapse the learning curve in terms of how to build influence, find mentors and maintain strong relationships.

Other companies could benefit from adopting this practice, helping those not in the key power constituency by sharing the secret rules of the game.

In the end, employer and employee need only follow a simple formula: Commit to my long-term success, I commit to yours.