Culture check: How’s yours?

Your company culture plays directly into how your firm is perceived internally and externally. Find out what questions to consider as you examine this critical element of your business.

May 21, 2012
From Robert Half Finance & Accounting

Although corporate culture is an abstract concept, it’s very real to a firm’s employees who live and breathe it — even if they can’t put their finger on exactly what it is. It’s also a big consideration to prospective employees who want to work for a company known for its positive culture. Can you blame them?

Because your company culture plays directly into how your firm is perceived internally and externally, it’s worth paying as much attention to it as you do your annual revenues. You may not think of it as something that affects the bottom line, but it can. Firms that have a favorable “personality” or reputation in the marketplace tend to be more successful in attracting customers, recruiting and retaining employees and winning new business.

Conversely, there may be financial and reputational costs to having a negative corporate image. Just recently, a departing employee of a prominent company went public with criticism of the organization’s culture, faulting it for changing for the worse. Before someone broadcasts similar accusations about your business, it may be wise to revisit what your culture is, how it’s perceived, and how it may have changed over time.

Here’s a checklist of questions to consider as you examine this critical but sometimes in-the-background element of your business:

Is your culture widely understood? For firms to embrace their culture, there needs to be widespread agreement on how it’s defined and how it’s factored into everyday work life. An open dialogue is a starting point and, sometimes, documentation of what makes your culture unique. This shouldn’t be just an occasional or solitary discussion, but a factor that’s considered whenever new policies, products or growth strategies are being envisioned.

Some firms express their culture through a mission statement, core values, a statement of purpose or even a “manifesto.” It doesn’t matter so much how it’s expressed, but that there’s a consistent understanding about aspects of your culture, such as what’s important to your firm and how people are expected to interact with one another and with clients.

Is your culture what you think it is? Even if you’ve discussed and documented your culture, is it really what you think it is? Sometimes the culture is not what a firm’s leaders believe or want it to be. And as we saw in the earlier example, cultures can change over time in both good and bad ways.

New ideas, policies or people can result in a remake of “the way things are done” at your firm, whether intentionally or not. So even if your firm’s characteristics seem to be well articulated, you still need a periodic “culture check” to see what might have changed.

How do you know? In addition to open and ongoing discussions with staff members, give them opportunities to privately express their opinions through anonymous surveys or third-party assessments. Don’t wait to find out how your culture has changed by reading about it in a public forum.

Do behaviors reflect the culture? Despite your best efforts to embed your culture, it doesn’t always take root in individual and organizational behaviors. A firm’s leaders need to send messages that are consistent in words and actions. If managers say that revenues are secondary to ethics, they must act in a way that shows support for these priorities.

Culturally correct behaviors should be rewarded so they become ingrained in the organization and in the actions of all employees.

Do you hire for culture? You can reinforce your culture by hiring like-minded people into your organization. Whether you are recruiting at the college or experienced level, the questions you ask of candidates are particularly important if you hope to find a good culture fit.

Make it the goal of your questions to gain glimpses into how well candidates will adapt. If your firm emphasizes collaboration, for instance, ask applicants about their past experiences and attitudes related to working on teams. Try to gauge their reaction to and level of enthusiasm for what you describe about your environment.

Be honest in answering questions about your culture as well, and give candidates a chance to talk to various staff members to gather multiple viewpoints. Some firms have individual styles more suited to a particular type of worker, while others may attract a completely separate set of people with distinctive priorities or work styles. If your firm has a conservative style and an around-the-clock work ethic, there’s nothing wrong with that, but it may not appeal to someone who’s looking for a “work hard, play hard” environment.

An organization’s culture shapes everything from how it does business to the type of people it attracts and the results it achieves. In other words, there’s a lot riding on your culture. Be sure it’s taking you where you want to go.

Unlocking the mysteries of positive corporate culture

Certain companies have box-office appeal, that certain something about them that makes newcomers flock to them and keeps current employees working hard. But unlike Hollywood hype, corporate culture is something that stays around a long time. A culture is hard to change for the better after it’s gone terribly awry, but it’s easy to destroy with poor leadership.

So why do some companies have great corporate culture and some don’t? Because of their underlying values. Nontraditional, forward-thinking companies that boast great corporate cultures:

  • Listen to their employees and genuinely care about them. The companies realize that all people have the capacity to contribute valuable ideas.
  • Make sure that employees see how they fit into the big picture and know that they matter. Employees treated this way tend to believe in the company and its products or services.
  • Trust employees to do their jobs to the best of their abilities. As a result, staff members regularly go the extra mile to exceed expectations.
  • Know that honesty and integrity play a huge role in a positive corporate culture. Employees don’t have to compromise their beliefs to do their work well.
  • Give employees the real picture, not corporate-speak from managers.
  • Don’t compromise quality for quantity.
  • Have a participatory management style that empowers employees, rather than a dictatorial management style.
  • Help their employees balance work and personal demands. Working long hours isn’t rewarded unquestionably; companies with motivated employees are more concerned about results than the number of hours logged at the office.
  • Offer opportunities for lifelong learning.

Founded in 1948,
Robert Half Finance & Accounting, a division of Robert Half International, is the world’s first and largest specialized financial recruitment service.  The company has more than 360 locations worldwide and offers online job search services at www.roberthalf.com.