Google ranks No. 1 on Fortune’s ‘Great Places to Work’ list

The search giant jumped three spots. Last year’s No. 1 company, SAS, remains in the top 10, at No. 3.

Just one day after Google took a huge public stand against two bills in Congress that the company said would censor the Internet, the company will be on people’s lips again, but for a very different reason.

The search and Web services giant stands atop the Great Place to Work Institute’s annual list of the 100 best companies to work for, published Thursday in Fortune magazine. The top company for the past two years running, SAS, dropped to No. 3, and Boston Consulting Group took the No. 2 spot.

The Great Place to Work Institute’s CEO, Susan Lucas-Conwell, says there wasn’t a huge gap separating the top 10 companies. “On any given day, any horse can win that race, particularly among the top four or five slots,” she says.

One thing each of the companies in those slots share, Lucas-Conwell says, is great communication—specifically, transparency—and trust among employees.

Google’s winning attributes

Lucas-Conwell says it probably wasn’t any one factor that put Google over the top, but there are several ways that the company stands apart in terms of communication. Employees “trust they will get a fair story,” she says. A lot of that has to do with the policy that any employee can approach any executive within Google.

“If we look at an old-fashioned company, where you would have to go up to the C-suite floor and have to be invited to an appointment with the CEO by his secretary or his secretary’s assistant, Google is a completely different company,” Lucas-Conwell says.

Marissa Mayer, Google’s first female engineer and its 12th-ever employee, will talk to anyone, she points out, as will founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt. “That is rare,” Lucas-Conwell says.

It’s unlikely that Google employees wait around in the food court for executives to show up for a chat, she says. “But the fact that they know they can do that is a sign of transparent communication.”

Whether a company builds trust with employees is a huge part of the Great Place to Work Institute’s judging process. Two-thirds of a company’s score comes from the Trust Index, an employee survey. The rest is based on the Culture Audit, an analysis of company policies.

Consistency is another thing that Google gets right, Lucas-Conwell says. The company’s ethos is simple and clear: “Don’t be evil.”

Shared traits

The companies in the Great Place to Work Institute’s list go beyond transparency with their communications, Lucas-Conwell says. They’ve all developed ways to connect directly with their employees—staffers at Google are going to respond to different modes of communication from those that appeal to associates at the No. 4 company, Wegmans Food Markets.

“What they care about is very different,” Lucas-Conwell says.

For example, Google makes meals available to its employees all day, every day. That’s important “to a population of engineers who are passionate about what they’re developing,” she says. “You can go on campus on Saturday and have breakfast.”

However, Google’s employees aren’t necessarily looking for constant communication with managers, as Wegmans employees are. “Somebody in a grocery store, who’s out there facing customers all the time, could have a very different need,” Lucas-Conwell says.

The companies on the list “truly believe that their businesses are successful thanks to their employees” she says.

SAS founder James Goodnight put it this way at the Great Place to Work Institute’s global awards ceremony: “The most important thing is that my employees go to bed and wake up wanting to come back to work the next day.”

A PR coup

In its two-year reign as the No. 1 company to work for, SAS gained quite a bit, says Pamela Meek, senior director of external communications. “The news blitz is glorious if you’re in PR,” she says. “We’ve received glowing media coverage on ’60 Minutes,’ ‘Oprah’, The New York Times, CNN/Money, Bloomberg/BusinessWeek, Forbes, and hundreds of local news outlets.”

Upon news of the announcement that SAS was the No. 1 place to work in 2010, the company got huge Web traffic spikes, in particular on its jobs page, which saw a 4,100 percent increase. Traffic to SAS’s home page jumped tenfold. The second time around, traffic saw a comparable spike.

On top of that, the company’s executives have been asked for interviews for academic case studies and books, speaking invitations jumped, social media activity about the brand increased, and many more people asked for company tours, Meek says.

SAS didn’t simply let the attention come to them, however. The company did plenty to seize the moment. Meek says SAS issued a press release that linked back to Fortune’s list, invited media outlets to an employee champagne toast, included a banner on its homepage, linked the Fortune story on social media sites, added the Great Place to Work Institute’s logo to its letterhead, featured the ranking in its annual report, and talked up its corporate culture in its blogs.

Meek warns that a public relations coup shouldn’t be the main reason companies have for seeking that top spot. You should want to create a trusting, meaningful company culture. “You can’t hire a PR agency to create a glamour-shots application and expect to do well in the rankings if your employees don’t feel good about your company,” she says.

Having such a culture creates huge rewards, Meek says. SAS’s turnover rate is consistently below 4 percent, for instance. “We save as much as $100 million a year in recruiting, training, and lost productivity costs,” she says.

The top 10 places to work:

1. Google

2. Boston Consulting Group

3. SAS

4. Wegmans Food Markets

5. Edward Jones

6. NetApp

7. Camden Property Trust

8. Recreational Equipment (REI)

9. CHG Healthcare Services

10. Quicken Loans

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