When Ultimate Software’s headquarters was in Pembroke Pines, Fla., employees often could be spotted at a nearby Italian restaurant called Capriccio’s, sometimes five days a week. Hiring managers would make job offers to prospective employees over plates of fried calamari and pasta primavera. The company regularly held parties and events there, including the celebration of its IPO in 1998.
Ultimate Software eventually outgrew that office and moved to a large headquarters campus in the neighboring town of Weston. But even today, the company still brings new employees to Capriccio’s as part of a two-day on-boarding and training session. The restaurant will even close to the public so groups of Ultimate Software’s new hires and their managers can mingle, eat, and samba.
“It’s a welcoming to the family,” says Vivian Maza, Ultimate Software’s chief people officer. “A lot of them cry. They come to me crying and hugging me, they can’t believe a place like this exists.”
Ultimate built its business treating employees like family. As it has grown, continuing the tradition of meals at Capriccio’s and other caring practices have helped the maker of cloud-based human resources software preserve its people-first culture. It’s no small feat given that over the past five years, the company’s workforce has more than doubled, to 2,880 from 1,328. During the same time, revenue jumped 41% to $516.2 million in 2015.
The characteristics that make a company unique can be a strategic advantage that drives customers to want to purchase from it, and employees to want to work there. Cultivating a corporate culture can be challenging under any circumstances. It’s even more so for Ultimate Software, No. 15 on this year’s ranking of Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For, and other fast-growing companies that do it on the fly.
In addition to Ultimate Software, companies such as Cadence, Arthrex, Encompass Home Health and Hospice, Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, and Slalom have maintained their respective corporate cultures while watching headcount grow 18% to 40% over the past year.
Buy In From the Top
To stick to their roots while adding people like crazy, companies need buy in from management, starting in the C suite. “They’re the guardians of the culture,” says Anil Saxena, a partner at Great Place to Work, the research and consulting firm that surveys thousands of employees to compile Fortune’s 100 Best Companies list.
Top execs set the tone by seeing to it that recruiters and hiring managers find people who are a good fit because of their credentials, and have the right attitude. If anything, culture fit matters more. Managers also have to make sure new hires are steeped in what a company stands for, as well as know they don’t have to sacrifice their individualism to contribute.
“Companies with cultures that are healthy and lasting want people who are willing to try things a little differently,” Saxena says.
In addition, fast-growth companies use their culture as a compass to direct operations and business decisions, down to the smallest detail.
At Ultimate Software, founder Scherr sets the tone. “He’s a gentleman, he’s a class act, he’s kind, professional, and has a sense of humor. And he’s very, very loyal,” says Capriccio’s co-owner Karen Cangelosi.
As the company has scaled, Maza says middle managers have assumed responsibility for passing along Ultimate’s way of doing things to their direct reports and new employees. She tells employees who are interviewing job candidates to give more weight to attitude and personality than skills. Her instructions: “If you don’t want to have dinner with that person, don’t bring them into the company.”
People who don’t work out because they don’t fit the culture or whose performance isn’t up to par usually don’t last long. “If you don’t get rid of employees early on you lose credibility with your team,” which damages the culture, Maza says. Because of the care they take in hiring, that doesn’t happen often.
Voluntary turnover at Ultimate is 4%, low for the tech industry. What’s more, Great Place to Work’s survey of Ultimate’s employees found that 98% are “proud to tell others I work here.” In the survey, the same percentage agree that “People care about each other here.”
Because Ultimate is growing so fast — headcount jumped 25% last year — the two-day new employee on-boarding sessions Maza used to run once a quarter now take place every month. On their first day, new hires get hats, buttons and other company gear, attend get-acquainted sessions, and take a tour of the 11-building campus that culminates with a visit to Scherr’s office.
“He’s very casual,” she says. “He doesn’t have a secretary. They can ask him anything they want. I need them to understand the CEO is like another family member.”
Ed Frauenheim and Kim Peters are director of research and content and executive vice president, respectively, at Great Place to Work, the longtime research partner for Fortune’s annual list of the 100 Best Companies to Work For and other best workplaces lists.
See the full list of this year’s best employers in the U.S. at fortune.com/best-companies, where you can also find job searching tips, career advice, and secrets from recruiters on how to get hired.