Yes, Your Company Culture Is Really Just a Myth

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Nov 5, 2014

For years, I’ve been arguing that your company doesn’t have a culture.

If you believe you do, it’s because you are incorrectly applying the word “culture” to a group of people who behave a certain way because their lives are dominated by a few powerful figures in your office.

That’s it. Your crappy software company or little marketing agency doesn’t have a culture — it has a CEO and a leadership team that has particular points of view about how work should “feel.”

Hiring for fit is nonsense

You? You show up and go along with the flow. You cash your check. If you don’t like the vibe in the office, you eventually quit.

I’m on record saying that “culture” is what we talk about when a company’s products and services are unremarkable. We pay employees in culture when we can’t pay them in cash.

I have also written that hiring for “fit” is a lie. Most people don’t know how to hire, so they zero in on likeability and gut-level bullshit that cannot be measured by good folks, like me, who believe that you can measure human capital decisions.

Fit is nonsense, but lots of leaders push back and tell me, “Oh, Laurie. Screening for skill is easy. It’s the gut-level stuff in the trenches — personality, likeability, trustworthiness — that’s the hardest to measure.”

That’s garbage. Fit is a lie we tell ourselves because we don’t know how to weigh the one-two-punch of competency and character. What’s worse is that hiring for fit is often a cover for lazy, racist, sexist, bigoted, exclusionary, elitist, ageist and homophobic preferences in the work environment.

What HR leaders need to do

So, I’m on record all over the damn Internet with those statements. I have called BS on culture and fit before it was cool to hate on Zappos.

I won’t walk any of it back, either, but it’s getting harder and harder for me to watch HR professionals play in the intersection of culture and fit without wishing someone would get hit by a car. When you talk about culture and fit, you sound like a tool.

Human resources leaders have an obligation to guard against group-think and homogeneous hiring methodologies.

We have an obligation to ensure that the best ideas get heard and that the best employees move forward within an organization. We have an obligation to advocate on behalf of the cranky, grouchy, unlikeable employees who question everything and don’t go along with the flow.

When we don’t do our jobs and question everything — including culture and fit — Goldman Sachs happens.

Afraid of the hard truths

I want my friends and colleagues in human resources to start making evidenced-based decisions. I want them to think before they jump on the business jargon bandwagon. While I think it’s okay to love your CEO, I think the cult of celebrity CEO leadership compels many people to lose their freaking minds.

So remember where you heard it first. Culture and fit are lies we tell ourselves because we are afraid of the hard truths behind the unglamorous, unsexy, boring world of work.

Maybe you should stop lying to yourself and your employees. That’s one pretty easy way to fix the reputation of human resources.

This was originally published on the Laurie Ruettimann blog.