June 30, 2014

How Not to Build a Company Culture

Let’s start with a thought experiment: you arrive at the first day of orientation for your new job. You’re seated in an auditorium with a crowd of new recruits, each of you eager to start this adventure together. This, you feel, is going to be a good job. You’re passionate about the field and your specific role at this company. You’ve been so excited over the past couple of days, as the start date drew nearer, that you found it hard to sleep. Instead, you sat up late into the night, filling a notepad with great ideas that you can’t wait to share with your new colleagues and bosses.

In short: you’re totally on board already.

Then, the lights dim. A cheesy ‘80s rock track blares from the sound system. What the heck is this? you wonder. I’m not here for a Stryper concert. Your new bosses file out of the wings in faux-enthusiasm, trying really hard to amp you up. But I was already amped up? This – this is overkill. 

What follows is a nightmare of childishness and condescension. Your bosses perform skit after agonizing skit, all loosely tied to the company’s core values, routines, and expectations. Just give me a handbook, you think in exasperation. I’m an adult. I know how to read.

After an interminable amount of time, the skits stop. The music dies. The pained pop-culture references end. “Thank god,” you mumble inaudibly. Now we can get to the good stuff.

But, no – instead, what follows is a list of ways to get yourself fired. That’s right: on your first day here, after an excruciating parade of manufactured goofiness – a misguided and wholly inappropriate attempt to build genuine community – your supervisors are now methodically undoing any faint sense of kinship you may have developed against all odds by reminding you just how expendable you are. Even the tiniest, most ridiculous thing can get you fired, it seems. Inappropriate jeweler? You’re fired. Tweeting about your job – even positively? You’re fired. Word gets back to your bosses that you let a swear word slip during an office party? Pack up your stuff. You’re out.

By the end of the day, you’re exhausted, and, unfortunately, you now hate this new job your were so excited about. These are the people I have to work with? you ask yourself in disbelief. These are the rules I have to follow?

Sitting in your car afterward, looking at yourself in the rearview mirror, you ask aloud, “Do I even want to work for these people anymore?”

I did not invent this scenario. Well, not entirely. I drew bits and pieces of it from my own experiences and the experiences of my friends and family. But I bring it to you today because I want to talk about building a strong company culture. More specifically, I want to talk about all the awful, terrible, ridiculous ways that some organizations try to build cultures, and how these attempts are often little more than self-sabotage.

The Wrong Ways to Build a Community

We know how important a strong company culture is. Numerous studies suggest that strong company cultures foster employee engagement, and engaged employees contribute more, perform better, and are more likely to stay with a company.

The problem is, too often, organizations go about building cultures in the wrong ways. They come on too strong. They make fools of themselves and make their employees feel like fools for going along with them. They contradict themselves at every turn. Even with the best intentions, organizations can easily fall into all sorts of culture-building traps.

Here are a few examples of what not to do when trying to build a strong company culture, with some suggested alternatives that will actually make your people feel wanted, needed, and invested in your organization.

Treat Them Like Adults

If you’re trying to decide between letting your employees read the handbook on their own time or sorting them into groups and having each group create a poster about the handbook, choose the former.

Except for very rare exceptions, your employees are adults. They’re mature, functioning human beings — you wouldn’t have hired them if they weren’t. So why do so many organizations put their new hires through a gauntlet of primary-school-style icebreaking activities?

In life, we don’t build and maintain relationships through coerced “fun.” We spend time together. We talk. We learn about each other. If you want employees to get to know each other, try something that adults would do. Give them a long, catered lunch, where they can mill about and talk with one another. Throw a cocktail party.

As for team-building exercises, err on the side of maturity. Building bridges out of newspaper (minus the suggested soundtrack)? Great! Creating “Facebook” profiles on chart paper? Not so much.

Build Up, Don’t Break Down

In the thought experiment that opened this post, I mentioned an organization taking time out of the first day of orientation to remind the new hires how expendable they were. I hope everyone realized immediately how bad this idea was.

When building a company culture, you need to build, not tear down. Telling employees all the permutations of fireable offenses on the first day tears people down, and it makes them wonder if you even care about them. If you don’t care about them, why should they care about you? Why should they give you their best?

Of course, employees need to know what behaviors are expected of them. These can be detailed in the handbook, and conversations about core values, expectations, responsibilities, duties, etc., are a great idea. But frame these conversations positively — talk about what your organization does, not what it doesn’t do.

Let Them Speak – Don’t Speak To Them

You don’t build a strong company culture by telling people that you’re going to build a strong company culture. You don’t do it with long, boring presentations or didactic skits. You do it by letting the members of the workplace community congregate and get to know each other. You can teach them everything they need to know about your organization, but if you fail to let your employees teach you everything you need to know about them, then you’ve built a really one-sided relationship. Cultures thrive on mutuality.

Take It Easy!

On my first day at Recruiter HQ, there were no icebreakers. There were no laborious presentations or childish skits. I talked with our CEO about my duties, read through the handbook, and got to know my coworkers by sitting in our open office and chatting with them. The company bought lunch to celebrate my hiring. Later in the week, we went to happy hour together.

In short, we did the sorts of things people do with their friends. And you know what? Recruiter has the best culture of any organization I’ve ever worked for, hands down. Because here, we’re treated like adults. We’re respected. The open office we sit in together fosters conversation, teamwork, and community.

Does that seem too simple? It should, because chances are your organization has been over-thinking its culture-building efforts.

Read more in Organizational Culture

Matthew Kosinski is the managing editor of Recruiter.com.