I just got off the phone with a reporter who was asking about Google, which topped Fortune's best place to work list for the third time. He wanted to talk about Google's lavish perks and how being a great place to work might be a result of their success rather than a cause. I agreed that money does buy a lot of goodies and massive financial success is such a powerful perfume that it can make everything smell better than is really the case. But I am less cynical about Google than most winners of such awards because of things that have been in place, and from what I can tell, have largely been preserved, from the start that go beyond their famous luxuries, good food, and generous compensation -- and put them a cut above many top tech firms that provide similar goodies.
The first reason is that Google does not unduly emphasize status differences among people at different levels or within in the same level. If you watch how people interact there -- receptionists and executives, young engineers and senior executives, and people from less prestigious versus more prestigious parts of the company -- the more powerful people treat the less powerful people with an unusually large amount of respect, even deference, and the less powerful people don't cower or kiss-up nearly as much as I see in most places. Yes, Googlers are sometimes guilty of being arrogant when it comes to outsiders (although I see signs of modesty creeping in), but I have to give Larry and Serge credit for creating such norms mutual respect from the start and building an organization that appears to have sustained them (in fact, just yesterday, I found an old interview that Jeff Pfeffer and I did with Larry Page in late 2002, and he talked about the importance treating everyone with respect and how often the people Google hires showed him that his initial opinion was wrong).
The second reason, as senior executive Shona Brown told me in 2006 or so (she was #4 in those days, and now heads Google.org), is that Google appears to be a place where it simply isn't efficient to act like an asshole. When The No Asshole Rule first came out, I did a talk at Google and asked the crowd if Shona was telling the truth. The general sentiment was she was right, but more telling was, afterwards, a young woman came up to talk to me. She patiently waited for everyone else to leave. Then she seemed rather nervous as she started talking about Shona's words. This woman admitted that she really wasn't a very nice person. But after a few months at Google, she learned that she had to be nice to everyone, because otherwise, she couldn't get anything done! Now that is a sign that an organizational norm is working.
So, while Google is imperfect, as all human organizations must be, it is nice to see that "don't be evil" still appears to infect the company's soul, that Google seems to demonstrate it is possible to be an effective and civilized organization, and that treating people probably does help bolster and sustain performance in this iconic company.