Define Your Corporate Culture Before It Defines You

Culture is an important part of attracting, hiring and retaining top talent. But if your organization isn't taking steps to codify and enforce the culture you want, you may end up with exactly the one you don't.

corporate culture
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Every workplace has a culture -- the set of values, mission, attitude, atmosphere and environment in which business is done. But if culture's allowed to evolve organically without guidelines and a framework from executives and without input from workers about what's important to them, you could wind up with a culture you don't want.

Own Your Culture

"There's a huge difference between owning your culture and being able to point to it as a recruiting, hiring and retention tool, and having culture be a deterrent to the kind of people you want to hire," says Donna Levin, vice president of policy, CSR and Workplace Solutions at Care.com.

"One of the first things we did when starting Care.com was to sit down and describe the kind of workplace we wanted; the kinds of people we wanted to work for and with, and set to translate those into action. Then, we used those traits, those values and qualities to hire," Levin says.

For Care.com, Levin says the concept of "There for you" is the linchpin of the organization's culture, and encompasses values like transparency, open communication, innovation, an entrepreneurial spirit, respect and humility.

Culture Is Constantly Evolving

The major danger in not codifying and regularly evaluating your corporate culture is that you'll make bad hires and end up with high turnover

"Not only do we use this clearly defined culture statement when we're recruiting and hiring, we use this as an evaluation tool for our yearly performance assessments," Levin says. "We not only evaluate how our people are aligning with the culture, but whether the culture is aligning with the people - for instance, we used to have 'Having Fun' as one of our major culture values. But after awhile we decided to remove that - so many people were saying that they felt pressure to have fun every day, and if that wasn't happening, it just added extra stress," she says.

There are also other dangers in areas like reputation and recruiting.

"We found through Care.com's 2012 survey of our customers that turnover was costing on-average 150 percent of each lost employees' salary -- dealing with the disruption, search, interviewing, all of that. If your culture's toxic, you're going to see this. And you'll also see your reputation take a hit as people turn to social media to tell everyone how awful their experience was," says Levin.

Since word-of-mouth is one of a company's best recruiting tools, this factor alone can have a huge impact on business success. "If you have a company of superstars, wouldn't you want to pull in people like them from their personal networks?" says Levin. Without a solid culture you may be destined for make bad hires and suffer high turnover.

Culture Means Different Things to Different Organizations

The notion of a desirable culture will vary from organization to organization, and can be different depending on geography and industry, says Levin, it's not a one-size-fits-all proposition. An investment bank with wealthy, conservative clients will have a very different culture than, say, a company that manufactures snowboards - one will necessarily be more buttoned-down than the other, and that's fine, as long as it's clearly stated and you're not misrepresenting your organization, says Levin.

"The great thing about establishing and owning your culture is you can guide the conversations and hire the right people for that culture. Some cultures don't work for some people, and that's fine, but you need to be upfront and truthful about who you are as a business so it works for both you and your employees," she says.

This is an area where many older, larger organizations get into trouble, says Sean Storin, founder of job search site One Degree, which uses cultural fit to match candidates with their ideal employer.

"Culture's become such a huge buzzword over the last few years, and some organizations are trying to leverage that to get better, brighter talent to come work for them without understanding what it's really all about," Storin says.

It's a great thing that these companies want to innovate and to learn how to adapt and change to be successful in an evolving marketplace, but too many don't understand how to go about it, Storin says.

The Invisible Hand

"The key to developing a culture is listening. There's an 'invisible hand of the market' aspect to this; employers want to drive culture, but employees are the ones who are actually going to build it. So if the company is deaf to what the employees actually want, what drives people's interest in an organization, then they're going to continue to be lost," he says.

Storin uses a conversation he recently had with two Stanford students as an example of the need for companies to go beyond paying lip service to culture. The students were each recruited on campus for internships - one for a major investment bank and the other at a global consulting firm. After their internships, both came away disillusioned and disappointed that the experiences were far from what the companies claimed, Storin says, and now the companyies missed the chance to hire two potential superstars.

"You can tell a great story on your website or have cool people recruiting on college campuses, but if the culture doesn't match up, the candidates are not going to stay. Like these two Stanford students told me, 'Regardless of how good it would look on my resume, I will never work there.' And when I asked why, both said the companies were too 'old' and 'conservative,' and that they just didn't fit in, even though the firms made it seem like they would," he said.

"In a tight labor market, the candidate or the employee has the ultimate say in what's important to them. And yeah, culture aside, no one's going to work for free, but when we look at why people are successful, why they stay at their jobs, why they make a positive impact on business and interact successfully with others - it's culture. So, firms can emulate culture all they want, but if they don't really listen to what their workers want and what's important to them, they'll never make it," Storin says.

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