Ask any SEO battling with the latest algorithm update to describe Google and ‘ethical’ is not the first word likely to spring to mind. But this year, research organisation Ethisphere have voted Google one of the world’s most ethical companies (WME).

According to Ethisphere, ‘WME honorees not only promote ethical business standards and practices internally, they exceed legal compliance minimums and shape future industry standards by introducing best practices today.’

In the 2014 winners’ list, cynical readers will point out that Google is not just the most ethical company in the Computer Services category, it is the only company in the Computer Services category. This is also the first year that there has been a Computer Services category. However, for the purposes of this post, let me take off my cynical hat for a moment and look at the company’s ethical track record to find out whether they are a deserving winner.

Company Culture

Google Core Values

In terms of company culture, we know that Google tries hard to cultivate a fun and stimulating working environment. Thinking of the offices instantly conjures up images of games rooms, floor-to-ceiling whiteboards and helter-skelters between floors.

According to current and past employees, it’s not all peaches and cream (though they can probably order it at one of the free Google cafés). The celebrated campus buildings are ‘too small,’ with three or four people sharing a cramped cubicle, according to one Quora user. And given that the search engine giant attracts the world’s brightest and most ambitious minds, many are frustrated to find themselves ‘oiling the cogs’ of the Google machine rather than shaping the future of the company. For others, the Google workspace is just too awesome for its own good, the massage chairs providing a constant source of distraction (reserving my sympathy with that last one)!

However, looking at the big picture, it appears that Google offers its staff much more than scooters and ping pong tables, with healthcare services, travel insurance, childcare facilities and academic scholarships among its more meaningful benefits. Employees can also spend one day a week working on a personal project of their choice, giving them a chance to pursue their other passions, and the CEOs touch base with their employees by holding regular Q&A sessions. Overall, it would appear that Google has an ethical approach towards running a company.

Google’s Wider Impact

As for Google’s ethical impact in a wider context, the company’s green credentials include cooling their power-hungry data centres, running a free bus service for employees and encouraging them to drive electric cars, with hundreds of chargers on-site. Google also invests heavily in solar and wind power, with the ambition of becoming the world’s first carbon neutral company in the foreseeable future.

Google is not afraid to voice its opinions on social issues, including LGBT rights. In 2010, Google began covering the extra tax paid by its employees in gay and lesbian relationships – a tax that doesn’t exist for straight married couples – raising the bar for its Silicon Valley neighbours. The company has also signed various referendums and sponsored Pride celebrations around the globe.

Google is also addressing the gender imbalance in the tech industry by offering academic scholarships for women. The company also donates thousands of employee-hours and billions of dollars each year to good causes, including anti-human trafficking charities, wildlife conservation projects and computer science education programmes.

Don’t Be Evil

Critics of the search engine giant argue that the much-cited motto, ‘don’t be evil’, has been tricky for the CEOs to define: ‘evil is what Sergey [Brin] says is evil,’ according to Eric Schmidt. Others worry about what Google is doing / will do with its monopoly on our personal data. The company also has to navigate complex issues of censorship in China, and is engaged in an ongoing game of cat-and-mouse with the Chinese authorities.

But on balance I think that Google is an organisation with a bias towards good, not evil. At least to an outsider’s perspective, it seems that Google goes to great lengths to ensure its employees are healthy and happy, is conscious of its impact on the wider world and shares its vast resources with those that need it. I’m especially looking forward to seeing how Google’s carbon neutral plans develop over the next few years.

So the next time anyone asks me what I think of Google, while I couldn’t possibly comment on whether it’s the most ‘ethical Computer Services company in the world’ – that’s a big statement after all – I can bite my tongue when the next Panda update rolls around, as it turns out Google isn’t so bad after all.