If your idea of a company culture is what you get when people aren’t stepping up when it’s their turn to clean the office refrigerator, then you’ve got some catching up to do.

People can be pretty hand-wavy about what “corporate culture” actually is. One definition of it is operationalizing an organization’s values. And, increasingly, it’s being used to explain why people want to work for all the cool companies, such as Amazon, Google, and Zappos—even though compensation levels at those companies are often below industry averages—and why those companies are doing well. It usually involves components such as vision and values.

A variety of company norms (or, in some cases, company aspirations) can typically fall under the term “corporate culture.” These range from a commitment to only hiring excellent people (however the company defines “excellent”), giving those people permission to be “excellent,” and, often, laser-like focus on customer service and pleasing the customer. In general, according to GE’s Jack Welch, “When (re)building culture, create one wherein customer focus, open communication, permission, empowerment, humility, innovation, change and fun are celebrated.”

What’s particularly trendy these days in high-culture companies is paying people to quit if they find the culture isn’t for them. Zappos has for some time offered people $3,000 to quit after they complete the company’s training program, as a test of their commitment to the company. Amazon—which, incidentally, bought Zappos in 2009—recently instituted a similar policy, where every year it offers its employees up to $5,000 to quit, depending on how long they’ve been with the company. The goal, the companies explain, is to get rid of people who don’t want to be there.

(There’s been a whole round of articles on “what working in an Amazon warehouse is really like,” and “what working in Amazon corporate is really like” that imply that not everyone working for Amazon enjoys it. As commenters to the story point out, $5,000 isn’t that much money and people who quit are people for whom Amazon doesn’t have to pay unemployment, as it would if it fired them. Incidentally, some commenters also said that a number of warehouse workers are temps, for whom the $5,000 offer wouldn’t apply anyway.)

So how important is corporate culture? And how do you keep it from turning into The Circle? (Companies like Zappos have been referred to as “cult-like,” although of course people who leave are considered “just not Zappos material.”)

As with the issue of holacracy and organizational structure, the “corporate culture” issue also begs the question of which comes first: The good results or the characteristics of the organization? Is Zappos doing well because of its culture or its organizational structure? Or is it doing well for any number of other reasons and the corporate culture is just a coincidence?

Surely there are other companies around that espouse excellence, employee autonomy, customer service, and so on that are doing badly; we just don’t hear about them. Similarly, there are probably any number of companies that are doing well that have completely traditional corporate cultures, and we don’t hear about them because what fun is it to write an article about that kind of corporate culture?

There’s also been criticism that the notion of “culture fit,” or hiring people who will get along with the people already in the company, is being used to justify not hiring people who “don’t fit,” such as women or minorities. “My own assessment of well-intended strategies for testing ‘fit’ is that they can be as hit or miss as black versus red on the roulette wheel,” writes Micah Solomon in Forbes. “Peer evaluations, for example, run the risk of devolving into an assessment of whether a given candidate is a good drinking buddy or a worthy World of Warcraft adversary, not to mention doing an end run around the antidiscriminatory safeguards that traditional human resources procedures have evolved to support.”

That said, this doesn’t mean we should throw out the idea of corporate culture altogether. What does seem important is to make the corporate culture you do have and want something that you’re doing mindfully, rather than accidentally, and ensure that the company is acting congruently with that, perhaps starting small at first, rather than with proclamations.

For example, if you want your company to have good customer service, then telling people customer service is important is a good start—but it also helps to reward employees who do customer service well, and penalize (or, better still, train) employees who do customer service badly. Telling people that customer service is important, and then criticizing them for taking too long with calls, isn’t going to work well.

And whatever culture you define, make sure it includes taking care of the office refrigerator.

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