A Deeper Look at What Culture Means to an Organization

Several years ago, an HR friend invited me to visit him at work. He was the head of recruiting for a national company that makes uniforms. I was geeked to get a look behind the scenes of this well-respected employer. I knew I had crossed into another organizational dimension when I pulled my car into the company’s “campus.” Its footprint was enormous, and I felt out of place even before walking into the ornate building. The minute I entered the lobby, an identically dressed duo of receptionists gazed straight through me. They wore matching red blazers over perfectly pressed white blouses, and each had a blue scarf around her neck. The men milling about the massive edifice wore crisp white shirts with striped ties or business suits. Looking down at my bright yellow golf shirt with khakis, I began to feel out of place. The receptionist “twins” were welcoming … to a point. I had to sign in and note my reason for visiting and whom I was scheduled to see. They then pulled out the visitor name badge and asked me to wait until my friend came out of some unseen catacomb to take me into the inner workings of this behemoth. In his office, I told him how uncomfortable I felt because I didn’t look like the people around me. He reminded me that I was at a uniform company!! The employees were wearing the products the company sold. It all made sense after that.

I had walked into their culture. It was obvious they owned this look and approach, and if you were an employee, you had better buy-in as well. It was required. The concept of “culture” is nothing earth-shattering or new other than the reality of companies now understanding the power of what a culture is and the pressure to conform to its norms. HR has been named stewards of culture forever, but usually, it acts as an outsider that facilitates contrived social events. It’s time to peel back the layers of culture to understand HR’s opportunity within this vast facet of organizational life.


So, just what is culture? A formal definition is: “The totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought.”—The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. An alternative definition is: “Culture is the number one reason employees stay with or leave your company.”—Steve Browne, HR savant.


You may be asking, “How is that a definition of culture?” It’s based on having more than three decades of HR experience. If employees leave because they have a terrible boss, it’s because your company’s culture allows that person to be awful. If they stay for the pay, their decision is reflective of your organization’s compensation structure. Every aspect of how your company works can be tied to culture. Here are a few elements that HR needs to understand when it comes to culture.


Culture Is Not the Same for All

Too often company leaders, and especially HR, try to mash culture into a one-size-fits-all model. We create programs, slogans, posters and kitschy T-shirts to communicate these efforts and ensure we get buy-in from staff. It never works. Why? Because people are not the same. Every individual brings his or her own mix of skills, strengths and attributes to the job and the company. So, if everyone is unique, why do we continue to force conformity on our workforces?


There Are Many Cultures in Your Company

We have taken the term “culture” to describe all attributes of our companies. That’s not realistic. You have an overall organizational culture as well as microcultures within departments, locations, geographies, etc. The more you try to force people into small boxes, the more likely it is that someone will jump out and do something different. The reason is not that the person is being rebellious; it’s simply human nature to explore new boundaries.


Senior Management Doesn’t Own Culture; HR Does

This is an area of debate in the business world. It is true that your company’s senior managers strongly influence decision-making and the environment in the organization. Traditionally, the executive team has owned culture by default. The only reason for this is that no one ever pays attention to culture until economic challenges or other problems arise—and then the response is to convene a “culture committee” or a strategic culture initiative, which usually doesn’t turn out so well. That’s why HR should step up and take the reins of culture from the get-go.  We are in the best position to make culture come to life because we are in charge of the people practices of the organization. Remember the uniform company? Let me share a different environment, and then you can compare the two. My office is a menagerie. When you enter, you encounter myriad colors, sounds, and toys. Yes, toys. I have three lava lamps sitting on a small wooden file cabinet, including an “original” from the ’70s with purple globs floating up and down; one that my kids gave me that constantly changes color; and the newest addition, a gift from a friend that looks like a Jedi lightsaber! In front of the lava lamps are a traditional Magic 8 Ball and an Affirmation Ball, which has a smiley face and gives only positive answers. And above one of my two chairs hangs a sword (in a sheath). It’s fabulous because I require all team members who visit me to sit below it. On my desk, you’ll find a jelly bean dispenser, various tchotchkes, and a mix of books you can borrow and read. My walls are filled with mismatched art, including a framed sofa-size print of the legends of rock ‘n’ roll. (I quiz people on how many artists they know.) Finally, you will always hear music. I never turn it off regardless of who comes to visit. Recently, the founder of our company popped in to say hi. He’s an incredible person and a true icon in our community. After looking around my office, he stood there for a few minutes and said, “Brownie, I love your office. I love it because it describes what you do for us. Don’t change that.” Did you catch that? The company’s founder feels that my office reflects who I am and what I bring to the company and its culture. Is there any bigger endorsement you can get?


Culture starts with you. If you approach HR from the perspective of rules and compliance, take a look at the culture that creates and see how people respond to it. Instead, try building a culture that is intentional, inviting, inquisitive, and intriguing. Notice any difference in what people reflect back to you? Also, remember that there is no “right” or “wrong” culture. HR wastes too much time and effort mimicking other companies known for their culture. Come to grips with the fact that your company won’t be Google, Southwest Airlines, Starbucks or Zappos, unless you happen to work at one of those places. But it will be your culture. That’s a great thing!! The idiosyncrasies and nuances of your company make it what it is. Own it. Build it. Love it.


Work Well Daily Team
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Wellness is a life-long journey. At Work Well Daily, we approach wellness from a broad and holistic viewpoint. Our experiential elements address the physical, social, intellectual, and occupational aspects of wellness, while our media components help our audience address deeper emotional, financial, and spiritual facets. Meanwhile, WWD companies are aware of the importance of environmental wellness and can develop appropriate strategies.

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