When You Ignore Culture, You Get Employees Resigning in the NY Times

“I knew it was time to leave when I realized I could no longer look students in the eye and tell them what a great place this was to work.”

That is the defining statement from Greg Smith, the now famous departing employee who resigned from Goldman Sachs last week via an article on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times.

As I read the various commentaries about Smith’s article, it seemed like reading the movie reviews before you see the film. That is, the movie being the actual resignation letter.

I would never get into the cause of this breakup because I have always said, in any situation, there are three sides: My side, your side and the truth. What intrigued me after I read the resignation was his statement about corporate culture.

I visited a former co-worker a year ago, who used to work with me on building an onboarding program. Her statement on last my visit was the same: I can’t stand it here and tell you that this is a great place to work because it is horrible.

Just this past week, I had tea with another senior executive that I worked with in the past. We reminisced about what started out as the greatest place on earth to work but turned into the place from beyond. And the amazing part of our conversation was that we both could basically pin-point the approximate thing that it began to send it downhill: a change in senior leadership.

As the Godfather would say, “how did things ever get so far apart?”

The Bait and Switch

What happens when the culture that you bought into changes? Consumer laws protect all of us from bait and switch, but when bait and switch as a concept infects your organization, you are on your own. When we start that new job, you are signing on because you have bought into what sounds (and seems) like it is the place for you.

As you begin the journey, we all hope that this remains the case. But what happens if you begin to notice that the culture is shifting or is on a slippery slope heading south? Whether we admit it or not, we have all been there — or if you have not gotten there yet, “just keep on living,” as my father would always say.

What normally happens is when we finally come around to admitting it, we realize that the thrill was long gone but we were in some way hoping for a redux to what we signed on for.

Culture is in the driver’s seat

Culture, in so many companies, has shifted during these tough economic times, and the stress for survival has caused fault lines to appear in the cultural framework. These fault lines,  if not examined and repaired, will eventually produce a level of discontent with the talent pool that is a breeding ground for this type of behavior.

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One of the most important facts about culture is that organizational value systems impact the way change happens. Some key questions include:

  • What is important to us as an organization?
  • What are our values?
  • What behaviors are rewarded and recognized?
  • How is bad behavior dealt with?
  • Do the values and vision align with our daily decision making process?
  • Who is really in charge?

These types of questions are extremely critical for leadership to understand, because this is what directly influences the way change is accepted or not. Values are the guiding principles that should direct decision-making and the performance of work. This is what not only what employees, but customers, expect from the organization.

Culture on display

The cultivation of culture is the same as the principle of cultivation in gardening: weeding, fertilizing, watering, and lots of attention. When you see a culturally-driven company you see a company that, from the senior executives down to the mail room, having a thorough understanding of what the company is all about.

I stopped in the new Apple store in Grand Central Station last week and discussed the new iPad with a store associate. The organized chaos from the sales floor showed that it was apparent that each one of these associates knew what their mission was about. The culture of Apple with their associates is a sight to behold.

With the advent of social media, this gentleman Greg Smith chose old media to display his feelings. This is not the last time that this type of display will come forward, but I do feel we should all take take a look at the Greg Smith’s of our organization, and regardless of your feeling towards how this was handled, recognize that this is your new employee.

When you ignore your culture, this is the byproduct — whether it is The New York Times, Twitter, Facebook or Glassdoor.

Ron Thomas is Managing Director, Strategy Focused Group DWC LLC, based in Dubai. He is also a senior faculty member and representative of the Human Capital Institute covering the MENA/Asia Pacific region.

He was formerly CEO of Great Place to Work-Gulf and former CHRO based in Riyadh. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as Global Human Capital Strategist, Master Human Capital Strategist, and Strategic Workforce Planner.

He's been cited by CIPD as one of the top 5 HR Thinkers in the Middle East. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia

Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living.

Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly's Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy.

His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Workforce Management and numerous international HR magazines covering Africa, India and the Middle East.