During most company inductions, the phrases ‘corporate culture’ and ‘company culture’ are usually thrown around, as the oftentimes bored H.R. representative unenthusiastically assures you that your new workplace is all about employee satisfaction. Conversely, amongst many employees there lies the assumption that H.R., senior management and the executive teams are in it for themselves, are not there to support employee interests and frankly, don’t care about the staff at all. What’s going on here?
And what is corporate culture?
Corporate culture is made up of behaviour, ideas, actions and beliefs that determine how employees feel and act, how the the company’s employees work together and how the staff is treated, regarded and respected.
It is sometimes described as the personality of the business, and can be influenced by:
- Hours of business
- Processes and systems
- Employee benefits
- Employee relationships
- The hierarchy and structure of the organisation
- Staff turnover rates
- External stakeholders
- The recruitment process
- The office layout, office furniture and office structure
Many people incorrectly assume that it’s common, even normal to hate their job, and see it as an unpleasant tool that must be used in order to pay the bills. A great number of people, however, love their work, or at the very least, feel respected, valued and appreciated, and view their contribution to society as one that is positive and important. These people work in companies with a positive corporate culture.
Did you know…Taco Bell restaurants that saw the lowest staff turnover rates had a profit increase of 55% in the same period?
Harvard Business Review outlines six components that make a great corporate culture, including:
How the company defines itself, what the overall goals of the company are and how it frames its work.
The guidelines set by the company that determine behaviours, standards and how business should be done.
The ways in which the company’s values are put into practice, through concrete actions and daily activities.
The staff who represent the company, the recruitment process and the interpersonal relationships within it.
The unique story of the company, how it portrays itself and how the world sees it.
Where the company buildings are located and how the offices are structured. This can even include details such as breakout spaces and ergonomic chairs.
“If you are lucky enough to be someone's employer, then you have a moral obligation to make sure people do look forward to coming to work in the morning.”
- John Mackey, Whole Foods Market
So, where does company culture start?
If you’ve ever spent time at a company with a poor corporate culture, you’ll know that it can seem like an impossible task to make any kind of positive change. Even if you spent every waking hour trying to be a team player, encouraging your coworkers, avoiding gossip and publicly supporting the company, you won’t make an ounce of difference if you’re at it alone. So where does corporate culture start? It can be created, fostered and maintained by a number of factors, including:
“I came to see, in my time at IBM, that culture isn’t just one aspect of the game, it is the game. In the end, an organization is nothing more than the collective capacity of its people to create value.”
– Louis Gerstner, IBM
What creates a negative corporate culture?
Every company is made up of unique personalities, influenced by its industry, location, nature of its work and countless other variables. We’ve established that a range of factors contribute to a negative company culture. Now we’ll outline a few more specific features in more detail, such as:
- A management team that does not listen to its staff, or a team of managers with a focus on delegation, hierarchical separation, and maintain non-collaborative practices such as closed-door policies. This also includes managers who are unapproachable, have short tempers and take credit for ideas and work completed by subordinates.
Example: Kevin is experiencing an issue with a stakeholder, who he believes is being unreasonable and rude. He tries to discuss it with his manager, Tarnee, but she continuously tells him she’s too busy, rolls her eyes when he knocks on her office door and brushes him off. Eventually, both the stakeholder and the employee become more frustrated, and the stakeholder takes their business elsewhere. Kevin is subsequently blamed for the loss of business.
- A non-collaborative environment, where every member of the team works alone on their own projects, and has a disincentive to assist their colleagues. This may be done through strict project timelines being attributed to particularly employees only. It is also created by a culture of rejecting ideas and suggestions, and ignoring staff strengths.
Example: Val is employed at a coordinator level, but the manager role above her is currently vacant, so she’s been taking on extra work (with no extra pay). She has an important deadline and asks Paul if he can help her. Paul feels somewhat sympathetic to Val, but knows that his manager Richard will not reward him for helping, and may even punish him for taking longer to complete his own work. Rather than having a team that works together, Richard focuses on individual tasks, regardless of workload. Paul says no to Val’s request, and Val is forced to work an additional 10 hours that week to complete all of her work.
- A heavily competitive environment, breeding insecurity and jealousy. Competition in the workplace is common and can be a healthy way to drive results and encourage staff to reach their goals, but can easily turn sour if used as a tool to get ahead, degrade or embarrass. Creating an unhealthy culture of competition can lead to sabotage and team members working against each other’s interests, as opposed to working together to achieve team goals.
Example: There is an opening position at Digital Management, and current employees Roger and Stephanie are both interested. Before the recruitment process has even commenced, Roger starts carefully monitoring Stephanie’s work, ccing her boss into emails where he points out her mistakes. On one occasion, he even announces during a meeting that she has made a minor grammatical error in her presentation. Stephanie, in turn, starts sabotaging Roger’s work by deleting files and failing to inform him of important details. Neither Roger nor Stephanie get the job, but now have issues working together, and both find fault with their newly appointed colleague.
- A culture of humiliation.
Example: John is asked to give a presentation at a large meeting. He misunderstands the brief and prepares incorrect figures and information. His manager states that he has prepared useless and irrelevant content, and that he should learn to listen. His colleague makes a snide remark and tells him to pick up his game. John feels humiliated and angry, and believes the behaviour is particularly unprofessional. He tells himself that he will get back at his colleague as soon as an opportunity presents itself.
- A strong inclination to assign blame.
Example: Audrey, Mike and Mitchell have been working on a presentation together. When they submit it to their boss, she notes that there are several errors and issues she’d like addressed. Immediately, Audrey says that she had nothing to do with any of the mistakes, and that she should not be held responsible. Mike sends a separate email to his boss with a list of the reasons why working with Audrey is difficult, and when asked, Mitchell tells her he wasn’t given a chance to properly review the material, and that Audrey is bossy and rude.
- A fear of failure amongst employees.
Example: TIffany wants to step up to lead a significant project, but has recently seen her colleague, Mark, get berated in front of his team for pitching an idea that wasn’t well received. As a result, she decides to lead the project, but only puts forward her team’s ideas, plays it safe and avoids any innovative or new plays.
- An atmosphere of extreme pressure.
Example: A big client meeting has recently been scheduled, and Megan is asked to run through some budget figures. She’s nervous, but feels confident in her knowledge and experience. In a meeting, the senior management team keep stressing how essential her presentation is to the success of the relationship, going as far as saying that if she messes it up, it’s unlikely she’ll be considered for future promotions. Her confidence is now gone, and she feels extreme pressure to present perfectly. As a result, she lets her other work slip and spends long hours worrying about minor presentation details.
- A culture of negativity and bad mouthing, both by employees about their company and by employees about each other.
Example: Julia takes pride in her work, but has lately noticed that her industry colleagues have a negative opinion of her company, something she regularly hears from them at networking events. She casually mentions it to her manager, who says that he has been treated poorly by his boss, and makes an effort to tell anyone who will listen about his experiences. Not wanting to cause trouble but concerned by this information, she tells another colleague, who then spends 10 minutes bad mouthing her boss, making Julia feel that she has made the situation worse.
- A lack of passion, pleasure and enjoyment.
Example: Gloria works for a design company and her boss, Joanna, feels her work isn’t up to scratch. When she asks Gloria about it, Gloria states that she is bored, disinterested in her assigned projects and is working as hard as she thinks everyone else in the does (that is, not very hard at all). Joanna threatens to fire her, which makes Gloria even less encouraged to do her work, and she begins to actively seek alternative employment.
- A high staff turnover.
Example: John has just started with a company as a team leader, and is determined to get to know his team. He finds, however, that because there is such a high staff turnover, his employees don’t know each other, don’t trust each other and don’t like working together. John tries to implement some collaborative processes, but by the time he gets any traction the team has changed personnel, and with it the team dynamic has completely shifted.
- Any kind of special treatment or nepotism.
Example: Sylvia is an associate director, and has a team of 10 who work with and for her. Although the team is operating well and achieving results, Sylvia decides to create a position so that her nephew, Gordon, can gain some experience. In order to give Gordon work, she takes some key projects away from other team members and gives Gordon some high level responsibilities. Gordon completes the almost finished projects and receives the credit for the hours of work his colleagues put in. Sylvia frequently takes him out to lunch, where they discuss both personal and business matters, and members of the team resent him for receiving what they see as unfair opportunities.
- Sick leave, personal leave or annual leave time off discouraged.
Example: Deepak has the flu, and decides he needs to take a few days off to get better, and is also concerned that his presence in the office will lead to other people catching the flu. Whilst he is at home resting, his boss calls him five times, asking him about work-related matters and urging him to come back. Feeling stressed, he eventually comes back to work before he feels his best, makes small errors and prolongs his illness. His colleagues berate him upon his return, telling him that they had to stay back every day over the last week to cover his workload.
- Discrimination of any kind, including on the basis of race, gender or sexual preference.
Example: Peter has worked at the same factory for 10 years, and although he has a good working relationship with his colleagues, does not spend time with them outside of work. He decides that he would like to get to know them better so strikes up a conversation with a colleague in the break room. Whilst sharing the details of their weekends, Peter mentions his partner, Aiden, in passing. His colleague immediately changes his expression, and makes a derogatory remark about same-sex relationships. Peter is upset and embarrassed, and quickly exits the situation. From that point on he feels that his colleagues speak to him less frequently and appear to be laughing at him when he walks past, but is scared that if he tells an H.R. representative it will make things worse.
- A lack of diversity.
Example: Mavis has just started working at a new company, and has noticed that she is the only woman in her team. Furthermore, one of the team’s projects is related to issues she sees as primarily relevant to women. She voices this concern and asks if some extra female members of another team could be part of the discussion, but is met with confused looks. Her colleagues tell her that they have a good enough understanding of what’s going on, and that it would be too difficult to bring in any outsiders. She feels that the project is missing a key element, and feels uncomfortable speaking up and voicing the only dissenting opinion.
“You can have the best strategy ever, but you will lose it if the culture does not sustain the strategy. The culture is the most difficult thing to create, because you are talking about people; human beings who change every day in their behaviour, attitude and perceptions. You need to make it an ongoing activity and that means leading by example.”
-Marco Bizzarri, Gucci
What creates a positive corporate culture?
- Clear and considered company values.
- Strong communication between all levels of management and staff, as well as the communication of corporate goals, issues and the current company trajectory.
- The sharing of ideas.
- A thorough recruitment process that doesn’t just focus on job specific skills, but also on personality traits that fit the company culture.
- A focus on teamwork and collaboration, within an environment where each employee, regardless of their pay grade, is working towards the same goal.
- Energised employees.
- Clear role tasks and responsibilities.
- A diverse workforce, made up of people from all different backgrounds, ages and demographics.
- Employee opportunities and encouragement.
- Helpful employees who want to help others where they can. At the same time, employees who take responsibility for their own work and avoid passing boring or difficult work to others.
- High employee engagement.
Did you know...employees who are happy are 12% more productive than their non-happy counterparts?
How does your company compare? Ask yourself the following questions:
- Do you feel appreciated, valued and heard?
- Do you feel a divide between the executive team and everyone else?
- Do you enjoy going to work?
- Are you passionate about what you do?
- Can you approach your boss with a problem?
- Is there a lot of negativity in your workplace?
- Does your workplace encourage unhealthy competition?
- Does your workplace encourage transparency?
- Do you ever feel intimidated or bullied?
- Is there any special treatment at your workplace?
So, who is getting it right?
“To make customers happy, we have to make sure our employees are happy first.”
-Tony Hsieh, Zappos
Zappos is an online clothing and shoe company based in Las Vegas, U.S.A. It was founded in 1999 by Nick Swinmurn, and was acquired by Amazon in 2009 in a deal worth approximately $1.2 billion. According to the website:
The original idea was to create a website that offered the absolute best selection of brands, styles, colors, sizes, and widths of shoes. Over the years we’ve evolved our company and product selection but never have we lost our focus on the customer.
In July of 2009, we announced our plans to join the Amazon family. How did we do that? With a companywide email from our CEO, Tony Hsieh, that read “Zappos and Amazon sitting in a tree...” With both companies sharing such a strong passion for customer service, we were very excited to begin growing together.
Regardless of our structure or where we’ve called home, our goal has always been and will always be to make Zappos the best place for customer service in the world.
But financial and commercial success aren’t the only things Zappos is known for - the company has a long record of producing high quality, satisfied and passionate teams, offering their staff benefits and opportunities, and providing amazing customer service. Some of the features that make Zappos a workplace with a strong corporate culture include:
- New employees are offered $2,000 to quit. The company believes that if a new recruit is tempted by the money, they aren’t a good fit for the company
- Employees are expected to know the ten company values and keep them in mind during every business transaction
- Customer service processes without scripts
- A commitment to employee autonomy
- 6 weeks paid paternity leave
- A commitment to transparency, both to employees and customers
- Regular team building exercises with a focus on teamwork
- Recruitment based on cultural fit
- Internal opportunities
- Employee discounts, including 40% off company products
- Employee and family benefits, including life coaching, dry cleaning, parenting classes and CPR training
“We want to understand what works here rather than what worked at any other organization.”
-Laszlo Bock, Google
Google is a company that needs no introduction, as a search engine, information source and both a noun, and a verb. It has grown to include products, services, technologies, software and advertising features, with a 2017 revenue of $110.8 billion. It has won multiple awards for being one of the best companies for employees, and is well known for its flexible workplace and impressive benefits.
Unsurprisingly, the executive team at Google hired a team social scientists to research what their employees wanted, analysed the results and made immediate changes for the better. These included pay increases, ensuring the lunch line wait time is approximately three to four minutes (enough time to meet new people but not so long as to be a time waster), and even providing 8 and 12-inch plates to encourage healthy portion sizes.
Other benefits of working at Google include:
- 12 weeks parental leave
- On-site childcare
- Widow benefits - the widowed spouse of a former Google employee receives 50% of their salary for 10 years plus stock options, and any children receive $1,000 per month until they turn 19
- Internal promotion options
- Free, high quality meals
- Bikes and cars provided for staff to get to meetings
- Access to the Global Education Leave program
- Bring your pet to work day - every day!
- A commitment to new ideas. Staff are encouraged to spend 20% of their time pursuing ideas and projects - this has led to the creation of Google News, Google Alerts and Google Maps Street View
- On-site doctors, medical services and gyms
Google also has a strong commitment to maintaining an ‘informal’ environment, with an employee stating:
At lunchtime, almost everyone eats in the office café, sitting at whatever table has an opening and enjoying conversations with Googlers from different teams… Every employee is a hands-on contributor… no one hesitates to pose questions directly to Larry or Sergey in our weekly all-hands (“TGIF”) meetings – or spike a volleyball across the net at a corporate officer.
For both Zappos and Google, a focus on employee satisfaction, benefits, autonomy and opportunity has enabled both companies to find phenomenal success.
Did you know...some studies have shown that companies with a strong corporate culture see only a 13.9% staff turnover rate, whilst those with a poor corporate culture can see turnover of up to 48.4%.
How can you find out about a company’s corporate culture before accepting a position?
- Do your research - ask around, search online and find out as much as you can about the company before meeting for an interview. Even if the company has a stellar customer service record and treats their employees well, you won’t feel the motivation to come to work if you don’t believe in the company values, or find its services unethical.
- Prepare questions for the interview in advance, and don’t be afraid to ask pointed questions.
- Study the interview process. Bad companies often have a strange recruitment process, ask inappropriate questions, reschedule frequently or expect free work from new recruits. All of these are red flags.
- Whilst at the offices, look around to get a sense of how happy the staff is, how the employees interact with each other and how the receptionist greets you. Look at how the office is structured, and if the layout encourages collaboration or an 'us and them' energy.
Once you’ve completed your due diligence and have accepted a job, you should still be on the look-out for signs of poor corporate culture, particularly within your probation period. These include:
- A chaotic and messy office
- In-groups, cliques and private groups that exclude and isolate others. These may be present during non-working hours like lunch and post-work drinks, or during work hours at desks and in meetings. Whilst it is perfectly fine to make friends at work and spend more time with some colleagues than with others, isolating and ignoring colleagues is unacceptable, as is leaving them out of work-related events or making them feel isolated
- An inflexible workplace. This includes a short window for annual leave, an expectation of working consistent extended hours and a lack of concern for the well-being of staff
- A culture of bullying
- Broken promises
- A lack of praise or constructive feedback
- An overworked team
- A lack of team spirit
- Poor pay
- A strong commitment to hierarchy
You can change your corporate culture!
- Identify the root cause of the issues - how are you playing a role? Are there members of staff causing ongoing problems? How has the structure of the office, meetings and incentives contributed to the problem?
- Revisit company mission and values - do they reflect what you want to achieve, and are you actively working to achieve them? Read more about writing a great mission statement, here
- Commit to creating a more inclusive environment - consider staff retreats, team building exercises and a communal breakout space for staff to get to know one and other
- Work towards running a diverse workplace - be open to different points of view and encourage your team to see the value and benefits of having a diverse workplace
- Support a cause - come together as a company to support a cause or charity, through fundraising and volunteer work. This will create a sense of gratitude and solidarity
- Offer flexibility - give your staff the time off they deserve, work with their schedules and family situations, and you’ll witness a new found loyalty and appreciation from your employees
- Be transparent - conduct regular staff meetings and maintain honest relationships
- Give staff autonomy and responsibility - stop micromanaging and enable your staff to shine
- Identify employee strengths and work with, not against them
- Carefully recruit the right people - don’t just consider skills and experience but think about cultural fit and personality
- Conduct thorough exit interviews to find out what went wrong and how you can improve
- Seek input from staff, employees and stakeholders, by conducting interviews or anonymous survey
- Consider bringing in a performance coach
- Reward and encourage staff - this can be through financial reward or verbal acknowledgment
- When providing feedback, do so in a constructive way, and encourage staff to give you feedback, too
- Redesign your office to better suit your vision. Check out the Jason L range including flexible stand-up desks.
Ideas to get started
You can motivate and encourage teamwork in many ways, and running a team training day is a great place to start. Consider incorporating some of the following into your session:
Two Truths and a Lie
Each person must make three statements, one of which is a lie. Everyone must vote on which one they think is a lie, and discuss what verbal and non-verbal cues informed their decision.
Each person must write down something they have done, like an activity such as bungee jumping, and the group must guess which action belongs to which person. During the activity, discuss themes such as profiling, assumptions and stereotypes.
Let Me Introduce Myself...
Ask your team to partner with someone they don’t know very well. Give them 10 minutes to find out as much as they can about each other, then ask each person to introduce themselves, only by using the information they discovered about their partner. Discuss the kind of topics each pair focussed on, and how they chose to present the information.
Give your group a list of famous people who have died, such as Gandhi, Jesus, Marilyn Monroe etc. Give them 20 minutes to decide as a group who they would bring back to life and why. After the decision has been made, ask them how they communicated their point, how the team worked together and how difficult it was to come to a decision.
Set up obstacles inside or outside the office, and divide the group into pairs or teams. One person in each team must play the role of caller, who must guide their team around the obstacle. The team members must be blindfolded, and can only rely on the caller for guidance. Discuss how the teams communicated and the barriers (both literally and figuratively) they faced.
Compile a list of trivia questions about the company and its employees, then divide your team into groups to try to answer as many questions as they can. The team with the most correct answers, wins.
Survival of the Smartest
Imagine a survival scenario, and come up with a list of survival items such as water, matches, a knife, a blanket etc. In teams, your staff must put the items in order of importance, and explain their choices to the group.
Paper Plane Competition
A simple but fun way to get everyone moving!
Ask your team to bring in baby pictures and hang them on a board in the office. Everyone has to vote on who the baby pictures belong to, and the person with the most correct answers gets a prize.
Find more great inspiration here
And for an ongoing project, leave out a 1000 word puzzle in the breakroom for employees to work on. This will enable staff who do not know each other to work together on a mini-project, and give staff a sense of camaraderie. Get inspired to elevate your communal areas with our cafe furniture.
Don’t forget about taking your fun outside of work hours, either! Consider activities such as:
- A cooking class
- A dance class
- A cocktail making class
- Dinner and drinks
- Lazer tag
- A murder mystery party
- Vineyard tour
- An informal BBQ
Corporate culture is an essential part of a successful business, both in terms of having passionate, committed and loyal employees, and building a strong reputation, maintaining clients and providing the highest quality of service. If your corporate culture isn’t up to scratch, consider making some serious changes, sooner rather than later.
1. 31 Team Building Activities Your Team Will Actually Love
2. How to Write a Mission Statement in 5 Easy Steps
3. How to Build A Company Culture That 10X Your Employee Productivity
4. Understanding Company Culture
The Balance Careers
5. How Google Became the Best Place to Work
7. Creativity and Innovation Quote Edward de bono Creative Corporate culture
World of Digits
8. [Infographic] The Dynamics of Organizational Culture
9. What Really Drives Employee Happiness? [Infographic]
10. Six Components of a Great Corporate Culture
Harvard Business Review
11. Corporate Culture
12. Corporate Culture
13. Givers take all: The hidden dimension of corporate culture