HR Roundtable: What is Culture?

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Jan 4, 2019

The final (Cincinnati) Roundtable for 2018 convened to discuss the topic of culture. The term is rarely defined well because it’s so broad and interpreted differently by people and organizations. We had an amazing turnout of 140 people for the Roundtable, so the discussion was energetic and intriguing. Everyone started with the following three discussion starters to discuss – What is “culture” really?:

  1. How do jobseekers define/see culture fit?
  2. How do companies define culture fit?
  3. How can companies be clearer about their culture?

The masses dove right in to get to each question. It took quite a bit of effort to pull them all back to one large group to share their findings, but we did. Here’s what they had to share.

1. How do jobseekers define/see culture fit?

As an obstacle or excuse — This was a bit rough to begin, but it was honest. Most jobseekers hear the term “culture fit” as a mechanism to not hire them. Even if it is the truth, it’s used more by HR pros as a way to nicely reject someone with little to no explanation. This would be an area that HR could change and improve. People would rather have direct feedback than a catchphrase.

Through a company’s social media presence — This was very telling and observant. Candidates look for companies to see if they’re visible and what their message is on social media platforms. Both components are key. If a company isn’t active in social media, and yet they claim to be contemporary or cutting edge, it isn’t true. Social media can be a fantastic way to express many aspects of a company’s culture.

Visible diversity — This was an amazing answer and it took Steve by surprise. People stated that they do a visual look at the people they meet from a company and determine if diversity is visible and not just a statement on a website. This is extremely encouraging and will be a topic for a future Roundtable in 2019 !

Ask someone who works there — This may seem obvious, but it’s often overlooked. The best barometer of the “actual” culture within a company can be learned from people who currently work there. This may take a bit of effort to have these conversations, but they’re the most unfiltered picture you can get.

Can you see yourself there? — Too often the sole focus of a jobseeker is landing a job. That is understandable, but it’s a narrow approach. Culture fit within a company has a better chance of occurring if you can truly see yourself as a contributing part of the company. It’s not a company’s responsibility to make itself attractive to you. “Fit” is a two-way interaction.

2. How do companies define culture fit?

People who are like the ones who work hereThis may sound harsh, but this is true of most companies. Please note that this isn’t meant to be discriminatory. That’s illegal and an entirely different discussion. All companies have a visible culture which attracts like-minded people. For example, a multinational conglomerate will attract people who want that type of scale just as must as an entrepreneurial start-up will attract different people. Manufacturing attracts people who are more likely to want a hands-on work environment, and a consulting firm will attract people who want variety built in to their work.

We sometimes confuse “atmosphere” with “culture” — A company’s atmosphere can be defined by the visible facilities and workspace. How an office is designed and how personal spaces are placed. These facets will influence the behavior that is “allowed” and therefore be a factor in a company’s culture. But, ping pong tables and tap a keg Friday aren’t the entire culture. Culture involved the personal interactions of employees, leadership and customers as well as the work environment/space.

Policies and procedures — (Insert audible groan here.) This is a bummer of a response, but it’s a fact. Companies, and especially HR, try to define culture through a set of dos/don’ts. This isn’t “wrong” per se, but it is the traditional approach. What we often forget is that the behavior of people rarely complies with an enforcement march. It is far past time for HR and companies to realize this.

They’re not sure — Culture is often nebulous. Company’s know they have one, but they’re not sure how to define it. They can describe it as a feeling and give you examples of where it shines, but they can’t tightly define it. That may be okay to be honest because culture is also a set of shared experiences. There may not be a good reason to make this so stringently bound.

3. How can companies be clearer about their culture?

Have parameters and not rules — We just covered the issue of policies and procedures. There are the “same thing” with a slight twist. Building parameters that allow people to perform their job, have input and ideas, and foster innovation is a lot different than a set of dos/don’ts. HR must lead this shift for organizations to practice this approach. We need to give up our past in order to expand the future !

Realize that culture isn’t singular — Cultures exist all throughout your company. There are subcultures and microcultures that happen within departments and between business units. There is no “one” culture which captures all that a company is. There just isn’t. We need to quit trying to come up with some uber slogan to make sure that every cultural facet is accounted for because it doesn’t work. Once you try, a new culture emerges.

Understand the cultures ebb and flow — The only component that is common in all cultures is people. As a company adds/loses employees, a culture shifts. Cultures are not concrete even though we try to make them immovable. They move up, down and across on a regular basis. Learn to live within the movement instead of trying to confine it.

Know that your culture starts from the first interaction — When people have their first contact with someone from you company, culture happens. It can be expressed positively or negatively. Companies could improve the clarity of their culture by equipping employees to be able to share/live the culture internally and externally. The more you’re intentional in this, the less wild interpretation occurs. Don’t have people be “ambassadors.” Have them be living examples of your culture instead!

Live and own the culture yourself — There will always be room to evolve, tweak and shift your company’s culture because it’s ever moving. HR can lead in this area to embrace and communicate the culture by being a cultural thread itself that pulls the organization together. If HR would step into this role, then culture would come alive and it would add more value to what human resources provides. It’s a tangible difference that can elevate HR within a company’s fabric.

Everyone was a bit spent after this Roundtable because the energy was flying throughout the entire hour. It’s encouraging to see the forum continue to grow and have its culture evolve each month.