Google’s Cafeteria Is Better Than Ours

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I thought our cafeteria was nice.

I’m a big fan of our company caf, the second-floor canteen in the Time-Life building where we stock up on oatmeal and chicken curry and a salad bar I like to believe is unfailingly sanitary. There are stations for freshly made sandwiches and grilled dead meat and “Oriental” noodle specials (cooked in a wok with a modicum of soy sauce, just like over thar in the Orient). The prices have crept up since a new catering company took over, and the frozen yogurt self-service machine is starting to smell suspicious. But it’s still the best company caf in the neighborhood; I know because workers from PricewaterhouseCoopers and FedEx next door used to sneak in before they cracked down on security post-9/11.

But I have awoken to the knowledge we are suffering prison-quality sustenance compared to the lucky stiffs over at Google. I’ve been trolling through sister mag Fortune’s list of 100 Best Companies to Work For via its excellent web presentation. It devotes a lot of space to Google, the No. 1 best company to work for this year. Check out the slide show of gorgeous food at the languorously named Oasis Café (ours, fyi, bears the imaginative name of Time Café). Here’s the caption to one droolsome image:

Oasis Café entrées (from left to right): Shrimp Scampi with Jasmine Rice; Steak Milanese with sauteed mushrooms & shallots, steamed green beans and fried green plantains with honey glaze.

As the article notes: no wonder Google gets 1,300 resumés a day.

Job seekers and the perennially envious employed can check out the other bells and whistles on Fortune’s Best Companies web extravaganza. You can click to lists of the 10 companies with the least expensive, on-site child care (No. 1: Men’s Wearhouse, at about $240 a month. Who knew?). You can filter out the 25 top-paying employers by state (in Tennessee, it’s First Horizon National; in Colorado, it’s PCN Construction). Eagle-eyed readers will note that the maps of employers are powered by–of course–Google.

I don’t think the site is a great tool to find a job, unless you’re a recent or soon-to-be college grad completely clueless about where to apply. A tool called “find the right company for you” asks users to click on the “qualities you are looking for in a great company,” then lists a mere six vague choices like company size and job growth. When I entered my preferred qualities (blue eyes, likes children–I mean, ethnic diversity, low turnover), here’s the answer I got:

There were no companies to match your requirements. Please try again.

Fine. Who needs ethnic diversity? I’m my own U.N. Here’s the answer I got:

There were no companies to match your requirements. Please try again.

I’m starting to smell a conspiracy. Have the best companies to work for blackballed me? Is it my unusually high consumption of company-provided Splenda? Or my penchant for bringing noisy snacks to important meetings?

To find out how exactly Fortune comes up with its rankings, I called Lee Clifford, the assistant managing editor who oversaw the package this year. Fortune’s ranking is produced by the San Francisco-based Great Place to Work Institute, a research group that developed something called the Great Place to Work Trust Index, described on its web site as “a proprietary employee survey.” About 1,500 companies contacted the institute or were recruited to participate. Any company that is at least seven years old with more than 1,000 U.S. employees is eligible.

To choose Fortune’s 100, more than 105,000 employees from 446 companies responded to the institute’s 57-question survey on subjects including attitudes toward management, job satisfaction and camaraderie. “The cool thing is that the employers don’t get to see the completed surveys,” says Clifford. The employees are chosen to represent a cross-section of the company, too. (“As we know, companies would send it to 400 people in their PR department if they could. And let me tell you, these employees are honest.”)

Then the institute conducts something called a Culture Audit on things like demographic makeup, pay and benefits programs, as well as the company’s management philosophy, diversity programs and such. The vetting doesn’t end there, according to Fortune’s web site:

After our evaluations are completed, if news about a company comes to light that may significantly damage employees’ faith in management, we may exclude that company from the list.

Ooo. Like what kind of news? “An example would be, say, the CEO is indicted and the stock tanks and they have to lay off half the workforce,” says Clifford. “It’s happened from time to time. Even though the employees wrote glowing things in the summer, you might assume things weren’t quite so rosy anymore.”

Fortune’s isn’t the only list in town. Working Mother magazine publishes its own compilation of 100 best companies to work for, geared, naturally, for the working mom (among the top 10: IBM, PwC, S.C. Johnson & Son). The Financial Times also has a similar ranking with a focus on Europe.

Corporations like to flaunt any and all awards or citations, no matter how obscure or ridiculous (see yesterday’s post about the national association of professional organizers’ awards). But it appears the cachet of being a good employer trumps all. In a 2006 survey by PR Week/Burson-Marsteller, CEOs from 252 companies said that among media scorecards, Fortune’s 100 Best Companies was the most influential. The Financial Times’ ranking came in 7th, Working Mother’s 8th. BusinessWeek’s Best (and Worst) Managers of the Year is 9th.

So when those surveys land on your desk, don’t shovel them to the bottom of your in box. It’s our chance as employees to weigh in on our employers and to express our satisfaction with the quality of our cafeterias. I plan to request a new yogurt machine.