Bookmobile HR, or Why Changing a Workplace Culture is so Terribly Hard

In HR we talk a lot about “hiring for culture” – it’s a nice, professional way to say, we want to hire people who “fit” in with the rest of us.

We try and define our culture constantly, but usually end up with a list of every great quality we wish our employees had and our new employees “will” have before they can get hired. Then we start mixing our new “perfect” employees with our old “broken” employees and we don’t understand what went wrong with our “culture.”

It’s a pretty simple concept, that most HR Pros don’t get and leadership ignores. You can’t change culture by just hiring some people to mix in with the old people.

Changing culture is like getting rid of cancer

Changing culture, by changing people, only works (and maybe not even than) if you do everyone at one time – walk the entire staff out at 5 pm on Tuesday (including yourself) and the new team shows up on Wednesday morning. It’s like getting rid of cancer; you don’t just cut out one piece, you cut out the whole thing – or it grows back.

I’ve seen this in play. I watched a line leader replace every single member of his team (12 total) over a two-year period, and he ended up with the exact same culture. Why? Because as a new member is brought in, they pick up the culture beginning the moment they step in the doors. So, even though you replaced everyone they were still infected by those who were still left — and then went on to infect the new ones that came in.

So, how do you change culture? The easy answer is little by little, over a very long time in most cases.

If your leadership wants to change your culture fast, you have a couple of options:

  1. Quit (always an option);
  2. Create a major event that is completely outside the normal culture.

Sounds easy, right! Companies that have major cultural shifts in a short period of time usually gain this by doing something totally out of the norm, such as major layoffs or major compensation design changes (think salaried to hourly, or bonus to commission).

How to change a work culture

Something changes that disrupts the culture so much that change has to result. The problem with this is you really can’t design the new culture. It’s just going to happen, and what you end up with is a new culture – just not maybe the one you want!

Article Continues Below

My solution: I do it slowly over time, and I use the Bookmobile method.

I want a culture where people work hard, and weren’t given a lot, because I think they appreciate stuff more. So, I have one selection criteria I use during the interview process to “pre-select” for the culture I want. I ask one question: “How many times, growing up, did you go to the Bookmobile?”

There are really only two answers to this question: 1. I never went to the bookmobile, because they didn’t have that in my area (suburban rich kids, mommy took them to the library in their SUV); or 2. I went all the time, because when it came to the neighborhood, all the kids showed up. In the end I want Bookmobile People – they got their education off a bus, that showed up in their neighborhood, and allowed you to take a book and trusted you would bring it back.

Bookmobile people are the culture I want: Willing to do a little more to get their education, you can trust them (or the Bookmobile lady wouldn’t let them get any more books) and no one’s mom drove them to the Bookmobile.

They had to have their own initiative if they wanted to read. So, little by little I’m building a Bookmobile Culture.

This post was originally published on Tim Sackett’s blog, The Tim Sackett Project.

Tim Sackett, MS, SPHR is executive vice president of HRU Technical Resources, a contingent staffing firm in Lansing, MI. Tim has 20 years of HR and talent background split evenly between corporate HR gigs among the Fortune 500 and the HR vendor community ? so he gets it from both sides of the desk. A frequent contributor to the talent blog Fistful of Talent, Tim also speaks at many HR conferences and events. Contact him here.