A great corporate culture isn't something you can buy. It's organic; it has to be cultivated. Inc.'s Best Workplaces celebrates companies that actively strive to build vibrant and engaging cultures. More than 1,600 com­panies applied this year--three times as many as last year. Together with my company, Quantum Workplace, a leader in employee-feedback software, Inc. assessed these companies according to their employee-engagement and people practices.

Employee engagement is a measure of the behavioral and emotional connections workers have with their companies. Each participating company administered an employee survey on issues like career development, communi­cation, trust in leadership, team dynamics, and individual needs. Employees answered 30 questions using a six-point scale ranging from Strongly Agree to Strongly Disagree. To have its results qualify, each company had to achieve a statistically significant response rate based on employee count. Survey scores account for employer size to level the playing field between small and large businesses.

Our findings show that honored companies had a set of baseline employee benefits. Health insurance, dental insurance, and retirement plans aren't extras. They're table stakes. Employers are also sweetening the employee experience with benefits like longer maternity leave, paternity leave, innovative health and wellness initiatives, and flexible scheduling.

To ensure the integrity of the audit, Quantum Workplace used pro­prietary measures to identify data irregularities that suggest the survey was compromised. Companies that were suspected of trying to unduly influence the ultimate score were removed. In all, 169,000 workers are included in this survey, making it one of the broadest research studies of its kind. The 50 highest-scoring companies are included on these pages.

Perhaps what was most encouraging in this process came from open-ended comments. These would take thousands of pages to print, but one insight stood out: Strong company cultures breed stunning individual and team performance. Workers at the best companies don't view their employers as sugar daddies. They aren't mesmerized by whatever giveaways seem to be the latest fad--be it gourmet lunches or beer fridges. Phrases like "Do my best work" and "I work on an amazing team" were seen countless times, indicative of the virtuous circle of culture and performance.