Monday, April 13, 2015

Company Culture

I have worked in a number of different companies, in London (England), Dublin (Ireland), Ontario (Canada) the Bay Area in California and in Austin Texas. In each, the company culture was completely different. Naturally, between countries there are differences, and needless to say, my working life has spanned quite a number of years and during that time so much has changed.

When I started working, no executive would dream of typing up his own documentation, memos, letters - and there was no such thing as email. I started my working life as an invoice clerk, and, as dusk settles on my career I am a Quality Assurance Engineer, testing software - well, I am hopeful dusk will settle as retirement begins to look very enticing - right now my working life has the appearance of a mid summer evening in Ireland when the sun refuses to set. In between I had a myriad of different jobs and a number of years hiatus as a stay at home mom. Some of the companies I worked for were in the following areas: Pharmaceutical, Retail, Travel, Finance, Industrial Development, Banking, Mechanical Engineering, Petrochemical, Recruiting, Education, Electrical Manufacturing, Food Manufacturing, Logistics, Software and Horse Livery - not necessarily in that order.

One thing I am certain of, a company, no matter its size, has a culture which is essentially the personality of the company, and is a direct reflection of the personality of the head honcho. Depending on the size of the company, this personality may or may not be watered down, or bolstered up, by the personalities of the executive team.


A very fitting definition, considering how different companies are, when it comes to their culture and the importance, or lack thereof, that the company executives place on the nurturing of this. Almost exclusively, I have left jobs because of a negative or repressive culture, and stayed in positions because of a supportive and positive culture despite other aspects of the job being less than ideal. Where some cultures have been manifestations of human intellectual achievement, others have been a cultivation of bacterial growth and not the good kind.

Experts estimate it costs more than twice an employee’s salary to find and train a replacement. And churn can damage morale among remaining employees, plus those who leave frequently take the best with them. I have started job searches whenever there has been churning of staff and once they have departed and settled comfortably in their new digs, then the poaching starts.

According to Frances Frei and Anne Morriss at Harvard Business Review:
“Culture guides discretionary behavior and it picks up where the employee handbook leaves off. Culture tells us how to respond to an unprecedented service request. It tells us whether to risk telling our bosses about our new ideas, and whether to surface or hide problems. Employees make hundreds of decisions on their own every day, and culture is our guide. Culture tells us what to do when the CEO isn’t in the room, which is of course most of the time.”
I left one job, after many years, because what had once been a fun, supportive and enjoyable place to work, with reasonable remuneration and good benefits deteriorated over a fairly short period of time, into a very unpleasant, unsupportive workplace. The benefits were slashed to save cost to the company while at the same time money was spent on things that in no way improved the working environment for the majority. The laughter and lightheartedness in the corridors and kitchen was replaced by whispered, disgruntled conversations in the restrooms and cubicle areas. And worst of all, staff who made the effort and misplaced their trust by speaking to executives about the unwelcome changes, deeply regretted their naiveté. What was significant about the culture at this company is that it changed from being a boring lack lustre environment, into an exciting, challenging and very enjoyable one, and then quickly fell into the disgruntled unhappy place I finally left. Each change in the culture, coincided closely to a change in the CEO. Coincidence? I don't think so.

It is no surprise that many of the reviews of the GlassDoor.com Top 50 Best Places to Work are centered around the culture. As an aside, I am proud to note that a Texas company, HEB are placed 7th in the list.

All of this is very obvious so is it greed or stupidity that results in a less than acceptable culture? Or perhaps a bit of both. Definitely it indicates someone at the top who is in it for the short term.