In a fascinating study, two Italian researchers from the University of Rome Maria Assunta Barchiesi and Agostino La Bella documented the fact that the most admired companies in the world as reported in Fortune have social responsibility as a key part of their core values.

It’s more dominant than customer service, employee focus or any measure of excellence. Further, financial goals like growth and profitability are actually not reflected at the values level. The suggestion is that elevating social responsibility involves an orientation that leads to financial performance over time – or at the very least does not inhibit it. Although I think that is the instinct of many executives, this evidence is reassuring.

The corporate reputation data base is generated by the survey of some 15,000 business analysts by the Hay Group in partnership with Fortune magazine to evaluate firms with revenues of $10 billion or more along nine attributes: long-term investment, innovation, global competitiveness, financial soundness, use of corporate assets people management, management quality, product/services quality, and community responsibility.

There is a strong financial performance overtone to the scales. In order to avoid annual upticks due to short-term programs, the authors selected the 37 firms that were in the top 50 for five years. In doing so, Whole Foods Market and Unilever, two firms with social responsibility as a core driver, were excluded even thought they were high in the 2014 list.

The authors then sought to identify the core values of these 37 firms directly or through their website. They were able to do so for 34 of them. They coded the values into five categories depending upon whether the orientation was focused on customers, employees, economic growth, ethics or social responsibility. They further coded the values as to whether they were predominate or not.

So, for example, Marriott’s values were toward employees (put people first), excellence (pursue excellence), customers (innovative and creative ways to meet customer needs), and social responsibility (act with integrity and serve our world). They found that 85% of the sample had social responsibility as a core value and the few that didn’t usually had only a single core value around customers, employees, or excellence.

Interestingly, no firm had economic growth as a basis for a core value. In fact, social responsibility was coded as a predominant value in 20 of the 34 firms while the number of firms for which a predominate value was customers (8), employees (9) or excellence (7) was under 10. This evidence, of course, does not show that prioritizing social responsibility causes firms to be successful. But it does show that an orientation toward social responsibility is associated with success.

It may be that the culture and strategy of such firms attract the best people, or appeal to key customer segments, or foster innovation – but that is hardly proved. It also provides some quantitative data toward the proposition that social responsibility is a widespread movement within the business community, which is an interesting development and a far move from Friedman’s famous 1970 adage, “the social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.” I am indebted to Matt Palmquist’s “Nice Guys Finish First” published in Strategy & Business for bringing this study to my attention.