Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Take care of your people and protect your business

What happens in a company or between employees when others aren’t looking? What feelings or emotions do people get when a company’s name is mentioned? What happens behind closed doors at a company? Many similar questions can be asked that may seem mysterious and secretive when it comes to the inner workings of a company. However, if a company has a great workplace culture, these types of questions should not only be easily answerable, they should be on full display and totally recognizable.

What Is Workplace Culture?

From Britannica.com, workplace culture can be referred to as a company’s “psychological assets.” If a company were an actual person, the workplace culture could be looked at as its personality.

An article published in the Harvard Business Review puts it like this: “In short, culture guides discretionary behavior and it picks up where the employee handbook leaves off.” In other words, there can’t be a written guide for everything your employees do. On-the-fly or subconscious decisions have to be made all the time, and culture is what influences those decisions.

For avid television watchers, workplace culture has been brought into the spotlight by shows such as “Undercover Boss,” where executives go undercover to see what it’s really like to be a front-line employee in their company. While such dramatic actions certainly aren’t the purpose of this article, bringing more awareness to workplace culture is. HR professionals can quite often be considered the stewards of a company’s workplace culture and should therefore be keenly aware and responsive to what really makes the company tick.

Employees want to feel comfortable, safe, valued, and productive at the company where they work. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a big, midsize, or small business—those needs are the same, and the culture at your company has a lot to do with whether those needs are met. 

Culture defines your workplace and can have a big influence on recruiting, productivity, and turnover. Your company’s culture will develop naturally, but your organization will benefit from investing in shaping that culture in a way that benefits your employees and your customers.

How Workplace Culture Has Changed Over the Years

As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus stated, “the only thing constant is change.” Workplace culture has continued to evolve and adapt as new generations have entered the workforce. Employees’ shifting expectations have also led to some of these changes. Gone are the days of “working 9 to 5” (we still love you Dolly Parton!) that has been the norm over the past few decades. As telework, corporate campuses and fringe benefits have continued to expand throughout time, workplace culture has had to become even more flexible to stay caught up with the pace.

Whether it be the war for talent or the 2021 Great Resignation, finding and keeping quality employees has become increasingly difficult. In the past, many companies had culture fit embedded into aspects of their interview process. But now, employees are the ones putting workplace culture under the microscope as a major deciding factor for whether they should stay or leave their employer. Glassdoor’s 2019 Mission and Culture Survey discovered that 77% of adults consider a company’s culture before applying to a job. With these changes happening in the way employees approach work, it’s more important than ever to ensure that your company is deliberately creating a culture that will attract and retain top talent.

The Importance of Being Intentional About Culture in the Workplace

In chess there are endless strategies that can lead you to a win, but you have to pick one early on and stick to it. If you sit down at the chessboard and just let the game happen, you’ll lose every time. The same thing applies to company culture. If you define a strong company culture early on, it can guide the way you do HR. By just letting culture go where it will, you lose the power and direction that comes with a strategic and intentional culture.

 If a company is not intentional about culture in the workplace, they are missing the mark in so many key aspects of their business. Avoid this mistake by sitting down with your executives and writing out what you want your culture to look like and how to get it there. Do you want more camaraderie? Put together an activities committee. Do you value quality over quantity? Build an incentive program. The key here is knowing what you want. With an intentional culture, you’ll see improvements in your…

  • Talent attraction. Workplace culture can often be a magnetic and organic marketing tool. If companies are successful at creating a palpable workplace culture, they will likely start to have their pick at talent, rather than having to go search for it. People will be naturally drawn into a company as they hear feedback from existing employees and can view themselves as wanting to work there.
  • Talent retention. Workplace culture can be a powerful retention tool. Pay and benefits continue to decline as the primary reason why employees choose to leave a company. Aspects of the workplace culture (such as manager relationships, work-life balance, etc.) are beginning to take the top spots for attrition.
  • Employee satisfaction. How employees interact with customers can often be a direct reflection of how employees feel like they are being treated themselves. If the workplace culture is suffering at a company, they may see corresponding results in their customer service scores. When employees are unhappy at work, the productivity and quality of your business will suffer. But when they feel supported and satisfied, they will collaborate and work hard. The work they produce will improve your business and give it strength to grow.
  • Employee engagement. Engagement comes from employees at every level of the company owning the goals of the company. When company goals become their own, employees become much more motivated to do a great job. As your employees come to believe in the organization’s goals, their productivity and customer service will increase, and your business will become more profitable.

Factors Affecting Culture in the Workplace

A novel (or several) could likely be written on all the various aspects of workplace culture. While the factors below are just a few that can contribute to workplace culture, they can vary widely from company to company. Culture is also something that can’t really be copied. Companies can’t take a “copy and paste” approach when evaluating, maintaining or improving their culture. Just as individuals are vastly different, so are their contributions to workplace culture.

Communication

Communication is an umbrella aspect of workplace culture that will likely include several contributing factors, but communication is ultimately expressed by the employees’ voice as part of their personality. If employees don’t feel like they are being heard, they could shut down, stop contributing or (at the worst) actually become toxic to workplace culture. Interpersonal relationships (teamwork) and lack of or nonexistent feedback are just a few examples of where deficiencies or difficulties in communication can ruin even the best cultural experiences in a company. If employees feel like they have to put more work into being noticed and heard than they do their actual job responsibilities, there is definitely going to be some problems.

Leadership

A common phrase in HR and the overall business field is that “people leave managers, not companies.” Even within the greater company culture, there can be subcultures created based on a variety of management styles and preferences. Leaders act as agents of the company and its culture, as most front-line employees may never have the opportunity to meet a top-level executive. Many employees look to leaders to exemplify what the company stands for. If employees experience a disconnect between leaders’ behavior and company values, that could bring the company’s overall culture into question, even when the company may have the best intentions.

Environment

Considering a 40-hour work week. Employees will spend 2,080 hours at work every year. At least a third of an employee’s waking hours are spent on the job! They will seek out a place they enjoy, feel like they belong, feel welcome and feel included. If they do not experience these things in their workplace, their personality may be more like that of a rebellious teenager lashing out at mistreatment, which can have damaging effects on the workplace culture.

Employees

Depending on how you hire, new employees can either strengthen your company culture or tear it down. After all, culture doesn’t exist without people! While it’s critical that leaders model a positive company culture, it’s also important that each employee embodies the culture you’re aiming for.

Keep in mind that skills can be trained, but culture can’t be. If you have to choose between a candidate that excels at all the right skills but does not share company values and a candidate that is a perfect culture fit but lacks a few skills, choose the latter. 

Tips for Building a Winning Culture

The ideas below can be considered some of the foundational pieces a company can look to if they feel like their workplace culture needs improvement.

Tip 1: Find and Follow Good Examples

Company culture is more than just ping pong tables and go-home-early Fridays. It is an expression of what your company values. For example, Google values creativity and innovation, and so encourages employees to spend a small portion of their time on passion projects unrelated to their job description. As you’re considering culture, do some research and find some company culture examples in businesses you admire and consider adapting some of their practices.

Tip 2: Be True to Your Mission, Vision and Values

What does the company stand for? What does the company aspire to? What characteristics does the company hold near and dear to their heart? Having a set of mission, vision and/or values can give employees something to connect to and feel like they are a part of something bigger than themselves. These guiding principles should be more than just catchy motivational quotes or words on a page. They need to be reflected in everything the company does, from performance management and development opportunities to social responsibility.

For example, if a company espouses integrity but has questionable accounting methodology, the values misalignment can create some very confused and conflicted employees. Employees have their own set of personal values, whether they realize them or not, and they will often seek out companies that align with those values. The more apparent those values are in a company, the easier it will be for candidates and employees to recognize, connect with and share those same values.

Tip 3: Recognize the Impact of Recognition

Employees want to know that their company values them and notices their work. Creating a culture of recognition throughout a company can have a profound impact, if done correctly. Companies will need to be cognizant that they are not just rewarding top performers or those who make the biggest contributions, as favoritism is often the enemy of fairness.

Recognition is not a one-time effort; it must be done on a continual basis to be the most effective. Recognition must also be genuine, as opposed to forced or generic. An Achiever’s Engagement and Retention Report found that a whopping 76% of employees don’t feel like they are recognized by their leader. If only a quarter of the workforce feels recognized, there is a vast opportunity to explore in the realm of rewarding and recognizing.

Tip 4: Focus on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

While Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted to prohibit employers from discriminating against employees based on several specified characteristics, many businesses still miss the mark on celebrating and fostering a culture of diversity, equity and inclusion. If employees feel like they have to hide or can’t embrace who they truly are at work, the whole purpose of culture is being stifled. Workplace culture should always take into account employee differences, as those unique differences can actually be the catalyst for creativity, connection and confidence in the workplace.

Tip 5: Build Camaraderie

Invest in helping employees build relationships with each other. At your company, this may mean setting aside the budget for regular team-building activities, experiences, and lunches. Consider your work environment—whether remote or in-person—and see how you can foster spontaneous conversations and interactions between employees. Don’t get upset about off-topic employee discussions—join right in.

Tip 6: Be Flexible

The past few years have brought a number of new workplace trends, including a focus on remote work and flexibility. Stay in tune with the times and bake flexibility into your workplace culture. Be willing to work with individuals to accommodate scheduling changes, and focus on results rather than time spent in the office. Encourage (and even provide funding for) vacations.

Tip 7: Be Transparent

Transparency in business practices is becoming a new calling card in workplace culture. Whether it be in hiring, pay, promotions, etc., companies are feeling the pressure from employees to draw back the curtains on some of these widespread issues. The more transparent a company can be, from top to bottom, the more trust can be built and the more learning can happen from mistakes that are made. While there may be plenty of things that should not necessarily be publicized, workplace culture can be fostered more fully where secrets are not kept.

Tip 8: Provide Development Opportunities

Hopefully your employees are focused on meeting company goals, but they have their own goals as well. Find out what these goals are and help your people achieve them. By helping them meet their goals, you will help your employees grow. They’ll be happier and more able to deliver great work.

Give your employees opportunities to continue learning. There are a million ways to do this, but make sure it happens. Here are a couple of ideas:

  • Give employees education time during the work week.
  • Get a corporate Audible account and fill it with books that will inspire, teach, and motivate.
  • Pay for online classes to help employees learn skills that they’re interested in.

Making Sure Your Workplace Culture is Free From Fear

One of the most important parts of workplace culture is safety. Not safety from danger—though that’s important too—but safety to fail without facing overly-harsh repercussions. This principle applies to every workplace culture, so we’ll take a closer look.

For example, say you’re a marketer for a high-intensity, performance-driven software company. You have a crazy idea for an out-of-the-box campaign that you want to try. It’s a bit risky, but it could be groundbreaking. Then, your friend on the development team gets a temporary pay cut because a feature he built into the product flopped. Are you going to even pitch your idea? Not likely. The fear of failure keeps us from making bold bets.

But if there’s one thing that is consistent among the most successful people and organizations, it’s that they are the most free to fail. Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, wrote in the 2013 shareholder letter that “failure comes part and parcel with invention. It’s not optional. We understand that and believe in failing early and iterating until we get it right.” 

Bezos encourages his employees to make bold bets, and those employees know that if their bets go south it will be seen as an investment, not a waste of resources. There’s no fear of a consequence, only motivation to get it right next time.

There are a few factors in an organization that can allow people to feel safe with potential failure: trust, cooperation, and leadership

Trust and Cooperation

Creating a workplace culture that allows for failure makes room for forward progress. But for this culture to flourish, every employee will need to trust one another and work together

In Jocko Willink and Leif Babin’s book, “Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALS Lead and Win,” they describe a principle of combat called “cover and move.” 

In a gunfight, moving from one safe place to another is inherently dangerous and can be fatal. That’s why SEALs always take turns covering and moving; they have to mitigate that risk. They understand that forward progress can’t be made without help. 

Cover and move is the perfect example of trust and cooperation. If you’re the mover, you have to trust that the guy behind you is doing their job or you’ll never move. If you’re the coverer, you have to be willing to wait and help the mover advance or the team won’t go anywhere.

This principle applies to everything from pieces on a chessboard to SEALS on the battlefield, and it definitely applies to business. In civilian terms, this is the principle of having each other’s back.

If your organization allows employees to take risks with mitigated fear of failure, they can move forward confidently, and when they have success, the whole organization benefits from it.

Leadership

Leadership is an essential part of creating a safe workplace culture. The more selfless the leader, the more comfortable employees will be with sharing ideas and thinking outside the box.

In 1970, Robert K. Greenleaf published an essay called “The Servant as Leader.” This essay was the beginning of the modern theory of servant leadership. Greenleaf argues that the primary goal of a leader should be the betterment of every individual in the group. 

In a business setting, a servant leader helps increase the value of their employees, gains trust, and motivates engagement. Employees are much more willing to follow a leader whose first goal is the well-being of those they lead. 

Here’s an example. Simon Sinek’s book, “Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t,” has an interesting title that comes from a cool US Marines practice. Sinek once asked a general what makes the Marine Corps so amazing. The general responded quickly, “Officers eat last.” 

This concept completely flips conventional leadership thinking on its head. A good leader isn’t as concerned for their own well-being as they are for the well-being of the members of their team whom they serve.

Good leaders don’t pay themselves first. They make sure that every person in their organization is fairly compensated before they take a penny. They don’t sacrifice people to meet goals. The people’s well-being becomes the goal and is worth sacrificing for.

When you have this type of leader, the team will be extremely loyal to the leader and their cause. This trusting environment creates a culture of safety and lifts the whole community.

Questions You’ve Asked Us About Workplace Culture

Ask! Companies will only know what kind of culture they have if they ask those that are part of it. If companies make assumptions regarding their workplace culture without doing the proper research, they almost always miss gaps between the values their company espouses and their current workplace culture.

Empower employees as culture champions. Companies often have a multitude of committees for a variety of reasons, but many don’t consider workplace culture a priority. If employees can support the cause, they will become the change agents that the company needs.

With a personalized license plate that literally reads “HRGUY”, I’m pretty passionate about the field of work that I’ve chose to indulge in! I have found Human Resources to be a very enjoyable career! With HR, I have had exposure to various disciplines, such as: Recruiting, Worker’s Compensation, Learning and Development, Benefits, Associate Relations, etc. Being a well-rounded Generalist has given me the ability to widen and deepen my knowledge and expertise in the HR field. I’ve also had the opportunity to work in various industries, including: Restaurant and Entertainment, Call Center, Retail, Non-Profit, Transportation, Printing Services, and Defense/Aerospace. Continual progress and development keeps me going! Inside and outside of work, I love and appreciate opportunities to learn and serve. Whether it be my children’s school, Toastmasters International, Sigma Phi Epsilon, or other community groups, I find different ways to stretch and grow personally and professionally. I currently lead a small HR team that serves upwards of 700-800 associates. We continue to look for ways to add value for our Operations partners, while still being great advocates for the associates, and keeping an engaged and dedicated workforce.

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