Workplace Culture

Home-Cooked HR Drives Through the Workforce 100

By Aysha Ashley Househ

May. 3, 2018

“Congratulations, you’re hired!” It’s the statement every hopeful job candidate wants to hear.

Then the onboarding begins. You join your fellow newly hired employees gathered not around a conference table or in a sterile classroom setting, but at a dinner table awaiting the host.

The host also happens to be the company’s CEO.

Dan T. Cathy is head of Atlanta-based fast-food eatery Chick-fil-A. His onboarding policy includes dinner at his home as his personal welcome to the company’s corporate ranks. It’s one example that sets Chick-fil-A’s culture apart from its competitors in the fast-food industry, according to Darya Fields, senior manager of culture and engagement at the company.

Chick-fil-A also has an ambitious career-growth track for hourly workers and a tuition reimbursement program for high school employees, as well as the enticing closed-on-Sunday policy.

Such employee-friendly policies are shifting the perception of indifference surrounding workers in traditional low-wage industries like fast-food, retail and hospitality. The 2018 Workforce 100 list, which ranks the top 100 companies excelling in human resources practices, features a growing list of companies in those industries — including newcomers Chick-fil-A (No. 45) and In-N-Out Burger (No. 22) — that prove a commitment to quality HR practices contributes to a successful culture and financial profitability.

Hilton HR
Back row from left: Hilton’s Idris Stover, Matthew Schuyler, Laura Fuentes and Amanta Mazumdar. Front: Christine Maginnis and Gareth Fox. Photo by John Harrington

As further proof that good people management practices aren’t exclusively found at high-flying tech companies, this year’s Workforce 100 also includes Starbucks (No. 8) and Hyatt Hotels Corp. (No. 39) and grocery chains HEB Grocer (No. 26), Wegmans (No. 66) and Trader Joe’s (No. 69). This is Trader Joe’s Workforce 100 debut.

Hilton (No. 64) offers a robust internship program along with quality benefits, pay and a welcoming work environment. It also offers advanced scheduling opportunities, a practice that sounds basic on the surface but historically is not common in the hospitality industry. At its corporate headquarters just outside of Washington, D.C., hospitality takes on new meaning with the recent launch of The Social, a 10,000-square-foot hub located in the ground floor of its global headquarters that acts as a gathering space to promote productivity among employees and is open to the public.

“Some companies are great employers for certain segments of their population. For us, it’s important to be a great place to work for all, and that is the underpinning of the value proposition we put into effect in our HR strategy,” said Matthew W. Schuyler, Hilton’s chief human resources officer. “We spend time listening to the needs of all our team members around the world, and we try to create, build and sustain people programs that meet their needs.”

Hilton’s internship program stands out as a quality people practice, according to Robin DiPietro, a professor at the University of South Carolina’s College of Hospitality, Retail and Sport Management.

The hotel offers a series of internships and apprenticeships around the world. One popular program acts like an accelerator for recently graduated students, Schuyler said. The hotel recruits from schools such as Cornell, Penn State and Michigan State that have well-known hospitality programs and puts the recruits in a management development program. They rotate from department to department, and come out either as assistant or full-fledged managers at smaller Hilton properties.

The idea is that these are the people who will move up the ranks into management positions at bigger properties over time.

“We’ve had a lot of success in that program in terms of garnering next generations of general management talent,” Schuyler said. “It’s a key sourcing initiative for us to have interns. We literally have thousands of them around the world.”

Chick-fil-A has a yearlong onboarding process, which helps new employees not only learn their administrative duties, but also thoroughly immerses them in the company’s culture and values, according to Fields.

See the 2018 Workforce 100 winners

“I would say what happens at Chick-fil-A from a retention and engagement standpoint is less about our process and practices and more about the culture as a business,” said Fields. “I think that because Chick-fil-A started as a small, privately held, family-owned business there’s very much a strong sense of accountability to one another.”

Chick-fil-A has an annual turnover rate of less than 5 percent among its 1,600 corporate employees, according to Fields, and individual franchises account for 120,000 employees overall. The corporate headquarters office offers many benefits that attracts workers. There is an on-site child care center for parents who need a place for their children to stay during work hours. Chick-fil-A employees can enjoy free lunch at the on-site café, work out at the wellness center with facilities that include gym equipment, personal trainers, nutritionists, massage therapists and free fitness classes.

Darya Fields, senior manager of culture and engagement, Chick-fil-A.

Even with these perks, Fields believes the culture is the selling point. That stems from the fact that it grew from the people that founder S. Truett Cathy knew and went to church with, Fields said. The company also follows four core values: share to serve, better together, pursue what’s next, and purpose driven.

“Our corporate purpose [‘To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that’s entrusted to us and to have a positive influence on all who come into contact with Chick-fil-A’], is our north-star principle,” said Fields. “Just the fact that we’re doing more than selling chicken, we’re here to have a positive impact on our community.”

In 2012 Chick-fil-A found itself entangled in controversy when Dan T. Cathy, now chairman and CEO, commented that he does not believe in same-sex marriage. Six years later, the company remains steadfast to its core beliefs and has moved past the backlash in part by reaching out to the community at large and changing the focus of charitable giving from churches to schools.

Human resources has also evolved within the company.

“It’s a relatively new function here because all of our focus has really been on the restaurant operation side. So, HR is really a relatively new practice within the last six to eight years,” said Fields, who has been with the company since 2013.

In-N-Out Burger, which declined to comment regarding its HR practices for the story, shares commonalities with Chick-fil-A beyond drive-thru windows, according to University of South Carolina’s DiPietro, who also has 20 years of fast-food experience. DiPietro first worked for Burger King in high school and then as a manager after college before eventually becoming the director of training and operations.

“I made my way up from making drinks to basically doing the manager training for 31 restaurants in the Midwest,” DiPietro said. She worked on her doctorate while at Burger King but then left the company to research and teach restaurant food service; “to help the industry long-term with solutions for HR and operational issues,” she said. The change has been a rewarding second career, according to DiPietro, as she has gotten to continue working within the industry and with students who will become future managers.

Both companies have roots as family-owned restaurants with a family-like environment and generous benefits, which has helped them achieve success. Both companies pay their employees above minimum wage and offer free meal perks. Both companies have a higher customer check average, which means higher revenue and in turn allows them to provide better benefits, according to DiPietro. However, she believes Chick-fil-A’s closed-Sunday policy is the biggest draw.

“I worked 20 years in fast-food and if I could’ve worked for a company that didn’t work on Sundays, I may still be there,” said DiPietro with a laugh.

DiPietro added that when she asks her service and restaurant management students to provide examples of companies with great service, In-N-Out and Chick-fil-A are among those mentioned.

“Both companies have cult followings. I don’t mean that in a negative way,” DiPietro said. “By having that cult following of loyal customers, they also have these loyal employees that really enjoy the company.”

Both companies also offer career growth opportunities, according to Amelia Green-Vamos, corporate communications manager at Glassdoor. The research arm of Workforce partnered with Glassdoor to include data on employee satisfaction in the Workforce 100 rankings (see facing page).

“You’re seeing people being offered training programs, so it’s hands-on and in classroom environments,” said Green-Vamos. “For instance, at In-N-Out Burger they have In-N-Out University, which is something that helps prepare managers to be really well equipped to manage their teams.”

Another highlight of both Chick-fil-A and In-N-Out is that employees feel comfortable with their executive leadership, according to Green-Vamos.

“You’re hearing and reading things about senior leadership as being approachable, supportive, available for questions and helping people grow on their own careers,” Green-Vamos said.

Robin DiPietro of the University of South Carolina’s College of Hospitality, Retail and Sport Management.

Along with dinner at his home, Cathy spends time with new employees throughout their first year. He tours key sights and landmarks in Atlanta that have impacted the founder and business. The president and chief operating officer, Tim Tassopoulos, hosts roundtables, and Chief People Officer Andrew Cathy hosts onboarding and culture sessions.

“They’re just exposed to a variety of senior leaders. It’s not just a welcome and you’re on your way,” said Fields.

DiPietro points out that even the language these companies use contributes to a successful HR environment.

“The three companies [Chick-fil-A, In-N-Out and Hilton Hotels] don’t refer to them as employees, they refer to them typically as associates, team members,” said DiPietro. “And they use that term ‘work with them’ instead of ‘work for them’; shows respect I think.”

It seems more companies are catching on to the fact that they need to take a different approach to workplace culture.

“It needs to change quicker with regard to HR practices. But I do think that companies realize that they need to change,” said DiPietro.

It might be a more folksy attitude toward HR, but the approach Chick-fil-A is taking appears to work, according to Fields.

“Because we’ve been so small, we don’t have a lot of the formal HR processes and practices that you might see at a lot of other companies,” said Fields. “To me, it’s something about the culture and the spirit of the people who are here.”

Associate Editor Andie Burjek contributed to this story. Aysha Ashley Househ is a Workforce intern. Comment below or email

Aysha Ashley Househ is a Workforce editorial associate.

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