What is Company Culture?

Company culture is one of the most important factors in deciding where to work. A culture that fits your working style will help you become more productive, effective and happy in your job. Before accepting a new position, it is important to learn about the company’s working environment and mission.

While organizational culture is talked about these days, a major question often gets overlooked: What is company culture in the first place? Company culture stems from an organization’s values, expectations, goals, and mission. Don’t underestimate the influence corporate culture will have on your job satisfaction.

The Definition of Company Culture

Company culture can be tricky to define. Put broadly, organizational culture refers to the working environment that is formed by company-wide attitudes and practices. A company’s culture permeates every facet of the business, from how managers interact with their direct reports to who gets promoted or let go.

Much of what defines a job has little to do with the work itself. A job with the same exact responsibilities may be drastically different from one firm to another. Those differences come down to culture. Corporate culture includes:

  • Mission
  • Values
  • Expectations
  • Employee engagement
  • Incentives
  • Goals
  • Leadership style

Any number of values -- such as transparency, flexibility, accountability -- could be a core part of a company’s culture. No one idea is necessarily better than another. It’s about what works best for the organization and its mission.

A company’s culture, however, can’t simply be spoken into being. A company can claim to embody one value, but if its actions don’t reflect that quality, it isn’t a part of the culture. A positive culture is determined by a shared sense of purpose and priorities that are put into action at every level of the organization.

What Isn’t Company Culture?

Company culture isn’t decided by surface-level trappings such as employees wearing jeans or a ping pong table in the break room. While more visible aspects of a workplace such as decor, dress code, or amenities can be a reflection of a company’s culture, they do not define it.

If a company offers free snacks in the breakroom or fills its offices with bean bag chairs, it can still be rigid and restrictive when it comes to new ideas. With so much emphasis these days on culture, many companies eager to recruit and retain employees will look to shortcuts to present an image they can’t back up. Don’t judge a book by its cover.

Why Company Culture MattersWhy Company Culture Matters

Company culture is important to job seekers and has only become more so over time. A LinkedIn survey found that 66% of employees prioritized culture overall other factors when contemplating a career path change. Job seekers want to get a sense of what it will feel like to spend eight hours or more a day in a certain environment.

Good company culture has a huge bearing on employee happiness. When a company focuses on building and establishing the culture, it usually sees less turnover. A strong learning culture translates to 30-50 percent higher engagement and retention, according to the consulting firm Deloitte. This is because employees who are happy in their positions tend to be more productive and creative.

When culture flows from shared goals and purpose, it can be an effective motivator. When team members all know what the organization is collectively moving toward, they have a fuller sense of why their duties matter.

However, for all the focus on culture, effectively making it a reality is easier said than done. Only 28 percent of executives said that they understand their company culture, Deloitte found. A survey from Columbia Business School and Duke’s Fuqua School of Business found that only 15 percent of executives said that their corporate culture was where it needed to be.

When job seekers find a workplace with a consistent, strong culture that resonates with their own values, they don’t take it for granted.

Types of Company Culture

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to creating an effective working environment. Every company has its own objectives, and as a result, the company cultures may vary wildly. Two diametrically opposed cultures may be equally effective for their goals.

Here are just two examples that highlight different ways of building good culture.

Netflix

Netflix, the massively popular streaming service, has long had one of the most discussed company cultures, ever since they released a 125-slide presentation about it that has been viewed more than 18 million times.

The company emphasizes qualities such as high performance, self-discipline, freedom, innovation, and flexibility, and structures its organization, compensation, and policies to reflect those goals. For example, Netflix always pays top-of-market rate -- but doesn’t hesitate to let a worker go should he no longer justify that rate. The company also shies away from prescribed processes, instead trusting that its employees work in the business’s best interest.

This model wouldn’t work for every business or every employee. But it has allowed Netflix to become one of the most successful ventures in Silicon Valley.

Costco

Far from a trailblazing tech-industry disrupter, Costco isn’t breaking any ground with its products. But that hasn’t stopped the wholesale company from becoming a gold standard of workplace culture. Costco has long embodied an employee-first mindset, with insistence on paying a living wage, along with good benefits and work-life balance.

The company values energy and positivity. While every company appreciates good performance, a wholesale destination isn’t necessarily looking for the constant innovation at every level of the business as Netflix is. What they’re looking for is happy employees who create a good experience for their customers.

Examples of Company Culture Values

Remember, culture will be a result of the qualities you actually reward and emphasize in your organization. If your stated values are simply nice-sound buzzwords, they won’t be reflected in the reality of your culture. These are several possible values that companies seek to embody:

  • Respect
  • Fairness
  • Integrity
  • Openness and transparency
  • Collaboration
  • Customer service
  • Team-building and collaboration
  • Communication
  • High performance
  • Accountability
  • Loyalty
  • Results
  • Adaptability

How to Learn About a Company's cultureHow to Learn About a Company’s Culture

So you’ve been offered a job in your field. The salary is right, you’re qualified for the position, and the responsibilities align with your career goals. Sounds like home run, right? Not so fast -- first, you should make sure that the culture is a good fit for you.

You can never know for sure what a working environment is like before you start a job, but there are many ways to gain insight into a organization’s culture.

Ask in Your Interview

It never hurts to ask. During your interview, you can start to get an idea of the company culture by directly asking the people you meet with. Be careful, though: Their answers might reflect more what the company aspires to rather than the reality of working environment. Still, you can start to get an idea of the company’s stated values and whether they align with your ideal workplace.

Don’t be afraid to ask for specific about how the company reflects its values in real ways. You can ask about policies or procedures that encourage certain values, employee retention, and what criteria are used for hiring and promotion. These sorts of questions will give a better sense of a company’s culture than broad mission statements. Is it a place that you can feel comfortable asking for a raise at the appropriate time? Now is the time to find out. 

Check the Company’s Website and Social Media

Many companies make a conscious effort to show off their culture through their online presence. Company websites often feature recruitment/careers pages that highlight what makes their working environment appealing to employees and jobseekers.

But even if the business doesn’t explicitly discuss culture on its website and profiles, you can still start to get a sense of it. Take a look at what elements of the business it chooses to emphasize online -- does it tend to post about employee successes, satisfied clients, or teamwork and collaboration? The image the company presents to the world says something about its priorities.

Head to Glassdoor and Indeed

To find perspectives on the company culture that aren’t filtered through the company’s idealized version of itself, head to independent career-oriented websites like Glassdoor and Indeed. These sites offer current and former employees the opportunity to review the good, the bad and the ugly of their workplaces. Their comments will often center around the company’s culture, from the tone set by the CEO to the sense of camaraderie with teammates -- of lack thereof.

Yet again, you should read the statement with a critical eye. While current employees and recruiters have reason to embellish their workplace to sound more appealing, former employees may be biased in the opposite direction. You never know if the reviewers on these sites are aggrieved from a firing or other conflict, so take their statements with a grain of salt. But if you start to see consistent patterns in the reviews, then give those ideas more credence.

Get References

The best way to figure out how a team works is to hear about it firsthand from someone you trust. If you know anyone who works at a prospective employer, don’t hesitate to reach out and ask about the corporate culture. The closer your connection to this person, the better -- if they care about your professional success, they will be candid with you to help you make the best decision possible.

However, it’s not always possible to have a direct line to someone who is in the thick of it. If you don’t have a personal connection with any current or recent workers at a possible new workplace, you can still find personal references. Use the professional networking website LinkedIn to find second-degree connections -- someone at the company who knows someone you know. Reach out to your shared connection to see if he or she can put the two of you in touch. Most of the time, people are eager to help out.

How to Build a Great Company CultureHow to Build a Great Company Culture

Whether it seems like it or not, every company has an organizational culture. When we talk about company culture, it’s often in the context of the exciting ways new companies are breaking the mold and rethinking the traditional working environment. But even a straitlaced, old-fashioned workplace has a culture -- it’s an inevitable outflow of the company’s priorities.

However, it is possible for a company to intentionally go about crafting a specific culture in the office. Doing so takes time and effort.

Promotion and Retention

Netflix, in its famed company culture manifesto, has pointed out the Enron touted values such as integrity, communication, respect, excellence. But the energy company’s accounting fraud scandal revealed those ideals were no more than words. What caused the disconnect? Netflix believes that it’s because the company was promoted and rewarding employees for actions contrary to those values, thereby encouraging that behavior.

If you want to get your stated values to become part of your culture, your company must promote, compensate and reward employees for consistently demonstrating them. Your culture is a reflection of how your workers at every level of the business operate. The prospect of moving up in the company is the biggest incentive for an employee to adhere to certain sets of principles.

Make the Mission Clear

A mission statement should be more than a slogan -- it needs to be broadly applicable to the whole company, but it also needs to be meaningful and relevant enough to motivate your workers. The company’s mission should speak to what you want your employees to be thinking about when they go about their work.

Crafting an impactful statement of purpose and putting it in the forefront of your messaging to new employees can go a long way. Employees want to feel that they are part of something. Framing their work as part of a grand, company-wide ambition will encourage them to be their best selves.

Lead By Example

What happens when certain values are thrust upon everyday employees but aren’t reflected by executives, directors and managers? Those values fall by the wayside. Workers will recognize what goes on at the top and seek to emulate it.

For example, Netflix decided to stop tracking vacation time because it values employee freedom and responsibility. But the policy wouldn’t work if leadership didn’t set an example by taking vacations themselves -- otherwise, employees would assume that the lack of a policy really meant that they shouldn’t take a vacation. The idea would no longer instill the intended values.

Highlight Successes

Most workers respond to positive feedback. If you want to incentivize a certain culture, pay attention: Make note of when an employee does something that reflects the values you aim to instill -- and let them know that it didn’t go unnoticed. Others will make note of the kind of work that is recognized within the organization, and strive to embody those same values.

How to Hire People Who Fit the Company CultureHow to Hire People that Fit the Company Culture

Above all else, your company culture is a result of your people. That means you should put real thought into how you go about the hiring process. You want to make sure your recruiters and hiring managers are identifying the right people to make your ideal company culture a reality.

The online shoe and clothing retailer Zappos, for example, famously prioritizes culture fit in its hiring. In addition to skill assessments and technical interviews, Zappos conducts interviews with job candidates that specifically catered toward evaluating whether the candidate shares the company’s values.

The company, for one, expects employees to interact with each other socially -- which might not be the right situation for every job seeker. Zappos would rather find out off the bat whether the candidate is a good fit rather than discover a bad match after hiring the person.

But if that does happen, Zappos offers new employees $2,000 to quit within the first few weeks if they decide the situation isn’t right for them. Amazon, which bought Zappos, has since adopted this policy itself.

Setting Up Your Office to Promote Culture

While superficial touches can’t take the place real, deeply ingrained culture, it is possible to design a workplace with elements that reinforce and encourage your desired values.

If you prize open, free-flowing communication, you don’t want to stick your workers in cubicles that present a barrier to casual conversation and collaboration. An open floor plan might be preferable. Meanwhile, if you want to stress diligence and focus, more private spaces could be a better fit.

This applies to leadership as well. A workplace that puts its top brass at a remove from the grunt workers -- whether on a higher floor, a different building, or shut off in prohibitive offices -- sends a certain message. That message may or may not be one you want to send.

Institutionalize Your Values

You can’t always expect culture to take shape on its own -- especially if your desired work environment goes against the status quo. Inertia is powerful, and most people don't want to veer from their usual habits. Sometimes, to make manifest certain values, the company has to set up infrastructure to bring them into being.

If a company claims to value diversity, but continually ends up hiring a monolithic workforce, it’s a good sign that its current policies and processes don’t reflect the supposed culture. The business might respond by setting up a task force or commission with the goal of finding ways to bring in a more diverse pool of candidates.

Such structures might not be necessary long-term. The hope is that the values eventually spread throughout the company and become second nature.

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