Nobody is perfect, not even those companies that get high ratings from the socially responsible business sector. But it's clear that some are better than others in the way they balance the bottom line with their responsibilities to employees and their communities. In creating a list of the top 20 of these companies, journalist Milton Moskowitz does a balancing act of his own, weighing their track records in charitable giving, fair labor practices, progressive benefits, sound environmental practices, and, last but not least, satisfied employees.

The Allstate Corp. Northbrook, Ill. Employees: 49,100. Founded: 1931. Sales: $24.2 billion (1996). Publicly owned. The insurance company has been actively working to improve coverage in low-income neighborhoods after complaints about discrimination. In the past 10 years the percentage of female and minority officers has shot up, and more than half the employees are women. Opened a new on-site childcare center at headquarters.

Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc. Waterbury, Vt. Employees: 700. Founded: 1978. Sales: $167.2 million (1996). Publicly owned. The ice cream maker insists on a double bottom line: financial and social performance. Targets 7.5 percent of pretax earnings to charity; supports affordable housing for low-income families; and composts factory waste. Known for innovative approaches (conducting a write-in campaign for CEO) but came under fire for acting like the corporate bullies it once criticized and raising its cap on CEO earnings. Employees get free pints of ice cream.

Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center Boston, Mass. Employees: 8,535. Founded: 1915; merged with Deaconess in 1996. Privately owned. Beth Israel was the first organization outside the manufacturing sector to embrace the Scanlon gainsharing plan, under which employee teams submit ideas for improvement and share monetarily in productivity gains. Nurses take responsibility for overall patient care. On-site childcare center.

Donnelly Corp. Holland, Mich. Employees: 5,000. Founded: 1905. Sales: $439.6 million (1996). Publicly owned. The maker of rearview mirrors and windows for cars is organized along the lines of a representative government, giving power to employees who share in the rewards through the Scanlon gainsharing plan (see Beth Israel, above). Donnelly retrains workers whose jobs have been automated.

Federal Express Corp. Memphis, Tenn. Employees: 127,000. Founded: 1971. Sales: $10.3 billion (1996). Publicly owned. The workforce of the world's largest all-cargo airline has expanded from 84,000 to 127,000 in the past five years. While FedEx has been mired in a dispute with pilots and has been accused of using lobbying muscle to influence federal regulations, it also has the strongest maltreatment process in American business. Employees with complaints are guaranteed fair treatment: If their issue goes to company trial, they get to choose three of the five jurors.

Fel-Pro Inc. Skokie, Ill. Employees: 2,300. Founded: 1918. Sales: $350 million (1996). Privately owned. Gasket maker has benefits that just won't quit. Employees' newborns get $1,000 savings bonds; school-age kids get practically free tutoring; and college-bound offspring get a hefty scholarship. The company gives away more than 5 percent of pretax earnings. Plus: low-cost, on-site childcare and free income tax preparation.

Herman Miller Inc. Zeeland, Mich. Employees: 6,984. Founded: 1923. Sales: $1.3 billion (1996). Publicly owned. The value-driven furniture maker that invented the office cubicle places a high priority on its employees. Admitted to handling recent layoffs poorly and replaced top managers. The company will only use tropical woods that come from sustained-yield forests (i.e., no Honduran mahogany) and insists that all facilities devote 50 percent of land to green space.

Hewlett-Packard Co. Palo Alto, Calif. Employees: 112,800. Founded: 1939. Sales: $38.4 billion (1996). Publicly owned. As the godfather of Silicon Valley, H-P set the tone for the high-tech industry's progressive employee policies -- with flexible schedules, casual dress, openness to employee dissent, and a commitment to advancing women.

IBM Armonk, N.Y. Employees: 240,615. Founded: 1911. Sales: $76 billion (1996). Publicly owned. No. 1 crusader in the business world for establishment of programs that help workers balance family and career responsibilities, including flexible work hours, leaves of absence, childcare and elder-care referral services, and financial planning. Owns Lotus, long the social responsibility leader in the computer industry.

Johnson & Johnson New Brunswick, N.J. Employees: 89,300. Founded: 1886. Sales: $21.6 billion (1996). Publicly owned. Widely admired for doing the right thing, as dictated by its "Credo," a formal statement of responsibilities to customers, employees, community, and shareholders -- in that order. Biggest corporate supporter of Head Start programs. Has four childcare centers operating at different sites. Fitness centers at every site.

Johnson Wax Racine, Wis. Employees: 12,000. Founded: 1886. Sales: approx. $4 billion (1996). Privately owned. Still owned by the same family that started the company, Johnson Wax makes a slew of reliable household products while maintaining ethical and environmental standards that put other firms to shame. It has rarely, if ever, laid off any employees.

Merck & Co. Inc. Whitehouse Station, N.J. Employees: 49,100. Founded: 1891. Sales: $19.8 billion (1996). Privately owned. In the forefront of research for agents to combat hypertension, asthma, and AIDS. Has long told employees to "put patients first" and profits will follow. Five women in top management ranks. Merck gives away $125 million in drugs annually, including drugs to cure river blindness among people in Africa and Central and South America. Gave $20 million to United Negro College Fund over 10 years for scholarships in biomedical research.

Odwalla Inc. Half Moon Bay, Calif. Employees: 520. Founded: 1980. Sales: $59.2 million (1996). Publicly owned. Premier squeezer of juices did everything right last year when confronted with E. coli contamination of apple juice. Came to the support of victims, publicly acknowledged responsibility, offered no-questions-asked refunds. Truck fleet runs on compressed natural gas. Odwalla aids farming families in California's Central Valley and has scholarship funds for women.

Patagonia Ventura, Calif. Employees: 700. Founded: 1973. Sales: $154 million (1996). Privately owned. The most rabid protector of the environment in the business world. Contributes 1 percent of sales or 10 percent of pretax profits (whichever is greater) to environmental groups. Pays employees to work one month in an environmental organization. Uses only organically grown cotton. Half the employees -- and more than half of management -- are women.

Quad/Graphics Inc. Pewaukee, Wis. Employees: 9,300. Founded: 1971. Sales: $1 billion (1995). Privately owned. One of the nation's top five printers, Quad operates 16 facilities and prints about 400 magazine titles including Newsweek, Sports Illustrated, and Mother Jones. Three Wisconsin plants have childcare centers open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Two also have full-scale medical clinics. Allocates 5 percent of pretax profits for charity. In 1994 developed an ecofriendly ink.

Sara Lee Corp. Chicago, Ill. Employees: 135,300. Founded: 1939. Sales: $18.6 billion (1996). Publicly owned. The food and clothing maker boasts high-ranking women (chief financial officer, general counsel) and African-Americans (heads of Playtex Apparel and Gallo Salame units). Contributes 2 percent of pretax profits to charity; earmarks 25 percent of giving to organizations serving the disadvantaged.

SAS Institute Cary, N.C. Employees: 3,000. Founded: 1976. Sales: $562 million (1995). Privately owned. Software developer goes out of its way to take care of employees at its headquarters, with three childcare centers, fitness center, fully staffed medical clinic, and award-winning cafeteria. The childcare centers look after nearly 500 children of employees and SAS subsidizes the cost.

Shorebank Corp. Chicago, Ill. Employees: 500. Founded: 1972. Privately owned. South Shore Bank of Chicago invented the idea of community development banking back in 1973. President Clinton used it as inspiration for a national community development banking fund. Close to 4 percent of pretax earnings go to charity.

Southwest Airlines Co. Dallas, Texas. Employees: 22,944. Founded: 1971. Sales: $9.6 billion (1996). Publicly owned. The seventh-largest airline in the U.S., Southwest was ranked first in airline quality by a University of Nebraska/Wichita State University survey and also has the best safety record in the industry. Zany CEO likes to keep employees in good humor -- an attendant explaining a delayed departure from San Francisco airport: "Please excuse the delay, but the machine that destroys the handles on your luggage is in need of repair."

Whole Foods Market Inc. Austin, Texas. Employees: 9,848. Founded: 1980. Sales: $892 million (1996). Publicly owned. Nation's largest purveyor of natural foods has brought organic produce into the mainstream. Employees are referred to as "team members" and no one makes more than eight times the average salary of a full-time team member. CEO's pay in 1996: $197,000. Contributes minimum of 5 percent of after-tax profits to charity.