Workplace Culture

Trevor Nelson
Trevor Nelson, DTM, PHR, SHRM-CP
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.

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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. 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.

How Workplace Culture Has Changed Over the Years

Like 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.

The Importance of Being Intentional About Culture in the Workplace

Whether it be the war for talent or the 2021 Great Resignation, finding and keeping quality employees has become increasingly difficult. Many companies typically had culture fit embedded into aspects of their interview process. However, now employees are the ones putting workplace culture under the microscope as a major deciding factor of 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. If a company is not intentional about culture in the workplace, they are missing the mark in so many key aspects of their business.

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

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.

How To Build a Winning Culture

It feels necessary to repeat that a company’s culture cannot be copied. However, the examples below could be considered some of the foundational pieces a company can look to if they feel like their workplace culture needs improvement.

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.

Recognizing 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 also not a one-time effort and 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.

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.

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.

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Questions You’ve Asked Us About Workplace Culture

How do we know if our culture is working or not?
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.
How can our organization define the culture we want to build?
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.
Trevor Nelson
Trevor Nelson, DTM, PHR, SHRM-CP

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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