What We Talk About When We Talk About Corporate Culture

Entirely too often, the word “culture” is casually tossed around in the office as if the word offers clarity to the undefined “it” that businesses desire to achieve.  When a project manager references culture in their office, chances are they aren’t referring to a desire for Renaissance-era frescos.  When they speak of culture, they mean they want everyone to work in harmony with their peers, yet this idea proves elusive to many teams.  Even with a strained definition like “harmony,” it is difficult to imagine a more ambiguous yet sought-after thing.  Employers will tell their employees it has to do with their interactions with clients.  The clients should feel like they are special or perhaps like they are family.  What does that actually mean in practical terms and how does one go about creating a corporate culture?

If culture trumps strategy, then one would naturally expect there to be a fair amount of effort by corporate governance to create positive culture; yet, there are seldom regular culture meetings on the calendar.  Corporate culture has everything to do with perception: how a company wants to be perceived externally by outsiders or by its own employees internally.  Admittedly, if a corporation has managed to cultivate a positive culture, it is not always clear how this was accomplished nor how to maintain it.  Recruiting into a specific culture is particularly challenging.  And it is at this point, the recruitment of new employees, that we begin our examination.  Let’s say for a moment that a medium-sized corporation, with an IT staff of 15, has managed to cultivate a positive culture where the employees feel at home, their feedback is productive and valued, and, perhaps most importantly, as a team, they have innovative ideas for their department.  The department’s success leads to an expansion, so they are told to form a task force to recruit two additional staff members into their ranks.

Among other things, this task force will create some kind of a job listing.  Stop me if this sounds familiar:

  • 5-10 years of experience
  • Salary commensurate with experience
  • Full benefits package
  • BS required

In other words, there is absolutely no attempt to protect and maintain the current group’s culture nor is there any indication to potential candidates of the group’s dynamic.  Given that a positive work culture can be extremely difficult to cultivate, wouldn’t it make sense that we do everything possible to preserve it once it’s there?  Why allow HR departments to boil the listing down to a handful of bullet points?  Culture starts with recruitment and recruitment begins with job listings.  Listings seem to be concerned with alerting candidates to the revolutionary notion that their work is expected to meet industry standards of best practice and that monetary payment will be offered in exchange.

What if we assumed that industry standards and best practices are also assumed by the applicants (and if not, HR will screen them out of the mix), and focused instead on attracting the candidates who would make a meaningful and positive addition to the existing team?  Imagine if the job posting talked about the group’s dynamic, the fact that, for whatever reason, they all insist on wearing Hawaiian shirts Fridays and they go paintballing every third Saturday.  Then the posting went on to describe the bonding the group experienced when they all went through Gemfire Admin training together in Seattle last year.  Finally, the posting ended with a discussion of collaboration.  Not just the word “collaboration,” but an actual discussion (with stories) on how the team has learned to collaborate—through virtual meetings, by offering constructive criticism on each other’s work, or maybe through the team meetings that are held every morning at 9 AM at the Game of Thrones themed coffee shop down the street.  Whatever it is that makes the team unique is what the focus of the recruitment listing should talk about.  This will save a perfectly good, high-functioning team from hiring someone with cookie-cutter experience who simply will not appreciate the existing group’s culture.  It’s what we don’t talk about that we should be talking about when it comes to corporate culture.

Many in the business world are likely thinking that this all sounds like a swell idea but HR will never allow such a break from the norm.  To some extent, the naysayers are correct, and one should never break the rules established by HR (after all, most of their rules stem from a desire to keep us from accidentally committing a felony).  This is a conversation that needs to take place before the job listing is even on the table.  Maybe it’s a talk with HR, or maybe an influential VP, or even with the board of directors, but a task this important should not be left for the last minute.  In IT we have an unfortunate tendency to postpone human interaction whenever possible, and this is not one of those times.  Talk to someone with the authority to change things now, today.  Talk about the importance of preserving the team’s culture, talk about how bringing one parasite into the mix will have a negative impact on overhead.  Speak their language (avoid extended Star Trek metaphors) and make this an issue that they can’t stop thinking about.  Anything worth changing is worth changing now.  Be the voice of innovation.

To continue this conversation in a future installment, we can talk about how one might conduct an interview as follow up to such a listing.  Have ideas or anecdotes you’d like to share on this topic?  Feel free to drop me a line: brandon@opensource.io

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