Staying Who You Are: A Guide to Sustaining Corporate Culture Through Growth & Change

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In business, growth is good. But often, growth comes hand in hand with change, and company culture can become vulnerable. In times of transition, it’s easy for new goals, practices and teams to erode the workplace behaviors that made business growth possible. But by centralizing culture maintenance in HR, companies can leverage a full spectrum of employee engagement processes to safeguard who they are—as they grow.

Muriel Watkins, founder and president of MRW Consulting Group International LLC, joined by Senior Human Resources Executive Linda Tepedino, visited TemPositions’ HR Roundtable Series on Thursday, October 30, 2014. Together, they discussed strategies for sustaining a company’s winning culture over the long term.

Having worked side by side in the past (at both The New York Times and Reader’s Digest) and as independent HR consultants, the speakers promised a session grounded in “concepts with practical application.” They encouraged an interactive, workshop-like atmosphere, urging attendees to share their real-world experiences. This approach, they explained, would help keep discussion of this sometimes-lofty topic in useful, hands-on territory.

“Businesses evolve over time,” Watkins stated plainly. “The question is, how do we intentionally hold onto the aspects of a company’s culture that define who they are? What can HR do?”
The question is a hot one. Watkins shared just a few culture-focused headlines from trusted business news sources Harvard Business Review, Entrepreneur, Inc. and 15Five. Each of these publications has acknowledged the value of culture—and today, is actively helping its readership maintain the attributes that make their companies positive, unique places to work.

HR can play a central role in this effort, Watkins and Tepedino stressed. The impact can be especially strong in recruiting, a function that nearly every HR department leads and manages. But every contact point and communication with employees can help reinforce a company’s values and preferred ways of work.

Change: the Only Constant

Whether it’s hiring or downsizing, weathering changes in funding models or branching out into new services, most companies find themselves in flux at one point or another. Watkins asked how many HR Roundtable attendees currently felt their businesses were “experiencing some kind of change.” The response was a near-unanimous show of hands.

Watkins welcomed attendees to describe the changes within their organizations. One attendee explained that her legacy-based company was fighting to stay relevant and monetize more of its services. Another was facing a merger with another organization—one with a substantially different workflow model. Another was in the middle of founding her employer’s first-ever formal HR department!

Serendipitously, one story detailed a plan to initiate new hiring practices directly related to culture. This attendee, with full support of her leadership, was preparing to redesign her department’s recruiting, interviewing and onboarding practices. She wanted to attract candidates who not only had the right skill sets, but specific social and interpersonal strengths. “Fitting in” had been identified as key to employee success within the business’s distinct culture.

Sustaining any culture through changes, from the daunting to the purely positive, can be accomplished, Watkins affirmed. But the process must be “intentional.” Culture is always there, whether or not HR is applying its influence.

Defining a Culture

To shape or preserve any culture, it’s helpful to consider the very meaning of the word. Tepedino and Watkins shared some of their favorite definitions as penned by corporate culture experts, helping attendees begin to analyze how their own employees experience culture on the job:

Authors Kim S. Cameron and Robert E. Quinn (in their book Diagnosing and Changing Organizational Culture) define culture as “the collective assumptions, expectations, values, artifacts, and activities that reflect the explicit and implicit rules determining how people behave…often unconscious and unrecognized until contradicted.” Edgar Schein, in his book Organizational Culture, defines it as “the learned, shared, tacit assumptions of daily behavior.”

The repeated citing of “assumptions” is notable, Watkins stressed. An average employee, or even a company leader, may not be actively engaged in assessing their own expectations. But HR can serve as a valuable facilitator, helping the company observe itself and pinpoint the positive behaviors to which everyone has become accustomed.

Edward T. Hall and Mildred Reed Hall (in their book Understanding Cultural Differences) speak to the power of these expectations to guide behavior. They write, “Culture can be likened to a giant, extraordinarily complex, computer. Its programs guide the actions and responses of human beings in every walk of life.”

With a strong understanding of what culture is and how it is expressed, HR can identify cultural strengths as well as challenges within the organization. The department can transition from thinking of culture in the abstract to recognizing how it affects workers’ day-to-day experiences.

Diagnosing a Culture

Diagnosis always comes before cure. So Tepedino urged attendees to begin by focusing on “the shared experiences of groups.” The goal of this observation? To discover the “everyday assumptions about how things are going to be, and how things are going to work” at the company. Only after this assessment can HR design interventions that affect worker behaviors, whether to change them or reinforce them.

It can be helpful to review the company’s history with fresh eyes, she recommended. Why was the company founded? What type of need did it meet? Non-profits revisit these questions regularly as they update their missions. But even for-profit companies were founded to serve some purpose that can be useful to revisit.

Since its founding, the company became successful enough to spur growth and change. So ask: why? What was it about the organization and the way its people worked together that drove its advancement? Specifically, what are the stories that employees tell, over and over again? Those stories almost always reveal what Tepedino called “the cultural seed of the organization”—the attributes, behaviors and assumptions that made them who they are.

This exercise can be especially enlightening for businesses with established, documented cultures, Tepedino went on, because close observation often reveals dissonance. It can be subtle or it can be extreme, but the “desired and stated” culture at a company often differs from reality. This inconsistency is particularly jarring to new hires, who—after learning about a culture from the website or hiring materials—may suffer broken expectations within days of their start.

Consider the example of a global non-profit organization with a stated mission to spread democracy. If company messaging describes a highly-collaborative culture, but in reality, decision-making takes place within a strict hierarchical structure, the company establishes an expectation it cannot meet. A new employee who reasonably expects a voice (i.e., a vote) in major decisions could quickly become disgruntled.

Of course, there are many companies that communicate their true cultures effectively, including Watkins’ and Tepedino’s past employer, The New York Times. This brand represents itself authentically even from a distance, they noted. It begins setting expectations from the sidewalk.

The speakers shared images of both the old New York Times Building, a venerable, weighty, landmarked structure with a classical façade, and the new one, a contemporary grid-ironed structure with glass walls that reach dramatically for the sky. Per Watkins, the newspaper’s new real estate marks a “very intentional departure.”

The New York Times is focused on the future of news-gathering and delivery, with technology at the center of its operations. The building’s very architecture alludes to the transparency of digital delivery via “the cloud” above our heads, as well as the open honesty of good journalism. Inside the building, glass-walled conference rooms reveal every interaction as it happens.

The New York Times’ cultural consistency extends online. Breaking-news images and headlines dominate even the recruiting page of the company’s website. Candidates evaluating The New York Times as a potential employer see where the business’s priorities lie. As Watkins put it, “It’s clearly about the journalism, not the individuals.”

To offer contrast, Watkins described Heartshare, a New York-focused non-profit providing human services. Compassion is at the core of everything Heartshare does, and the organization encourages employees to think of themselves as part a close community. Their recruitment page, appropriately enough, pictures employees standing around a barbeque grill, enjoying leisure time together. Heartshare knows it succeeds when it hires people who want to join a family.

“These examples can get you thinking,” Watkins explained. “How are you portraying who you are, and what’s the reality? And within your sphere of influence [as HR], are there things you can do to improve alignment between your stated, desired culture and the one you really have?”

Steps to Building and Sustaining Culture

Tepedino stepped forward to lead the next section of the presentation—offering a thoughtful, incremental approach to concrete culture-building. After all, it’s one thing to embrace shaping and preserving company culture, and another to design and implement a viable action plan. Mapping the process also yields a second benefit: the confidence of leadership. The C-suite is far more likely to throw their support behind cultural initiatives when steps and goals are clear.

Step one must be identifying the company’s culture as it now stands and comparing it to its desired and/or stated culture, Tepedino explained. A change in course can’t be charted until HR understands both their starting point and their destination. In documenting both “where you are” and “where you’re going,” HR clarifies the scope of the challenge.

Tepedino distributed a worksheet entitled, “Culture: Staying on Course,” a hands-on tool for creating these “cultural profiles.” The worksheet challenges HR to clearly articulate the mission, values, and strategic priorities of the organization—and how they underpin both the current culture and the one HR hopes to develop or support.

Expect to discover dissonance, Tepedino reasoned, and seek to accomplish as many “small wins” as possible. If an organization claims to have a collaborative culture yet provides no conference rooms, the lack of alignment is clear. But the company can begin to close the gap by quickly establishing a small, casual meeting area. That gesture, coupled with a stated commitment to follow through with more extensive reconfigurations over time, can instill faith among employees—who always like to see their companies living by the values they promote.

The more deeply HR immerses in the topic of culture, the more fundamentally they can help the business live up to cultural promises. Are the company’s leaders aligned, and do they model the behaviors they want to see? And is culture considered—and strengthened—throughout employment policies? Statements in the employee handbook and plaques on the wall can have impact, but only if the company’s culture is reflected in how it does business.

“Think about policies and what they emphasize,” Tepedino stressed, “because every policy has an effect.” For example, a company may claim a culture of personal investment, hoping to retain workers long-term. But if it does not provide career development opportunities, it will end up with a transient workforce.

HR can help leadership evaluate such policies and their effects. And they can develop and implement strategies for expanding, eliminating, or transforming policies and practices. The department can help leadership understand how to make alignment a reality, recommending interventions that lead to cultural enhancements and shifts.

Eventually, the company can train its employees to serve as brand ambassadors. Workers can share what Tepedino called the “flavor of the organization” as they attend conferences, panels and lectures, or as they take part in press interviews. They can express the company’s values in the content they generate for blogs and other online platforms.

That said, it’s OK to start slow. Building a cultural program piece by piece has its own benefits.

“You don’t have to tackle the world in a day, and you can make these initiatives as simple or as complicated as you like,” Tepedino explained. Incremental changes keep workflow disruptions to a minimum, and it’s reasonable to expect benefits to accumulate over time, not overnight.

But along the way, expect to communicate regularly with employees. They should know that leadership is engaged with culture, and that HR has a plan. They should also know when the company makes changes—large and small—that bring them closer to the business they want to be. Every “small win” is worth celebrating. The result is a mounting cascade of good news.

Spotlight on Recruiting
Hiring can be a smart place to start making cultural shifts, Tepedino continued, because HR traditionally controls so much of the process. Some companies hire constantly, while others may go months to years without bringing a new team member on board. But every new employee that comes into the organization represents an opportunity to improve or uphold the company’s culture. Each brings new energy—and will make an impact.

“Do your hiring practices emphasize the values, competencies and work styles necessary to build and maintain your desired workplace culture?” Tepedino challenged. They should.

The candidate’s journey leads potential new hires to draw important conclusions about day-to-day life within the organization. HR can proactively ensure that what candidates see, hear and feel during this process aligns with the company’s current or aspirational (future) culture. Rather than recruit exclusively for skill sets, businesses can recruit to support their cultural health.

Sometimes a culture-rich recruiting process results in candidates pre-screening themselves. After all, those who see themselves reflected in the company will feel even more inspired to put their best foot forward and win the position. Those whose work habits and personalities would not be a good fit may intuitively choose not to apply.

For most candidates, the first point of brand contact will be the company website. They come to explore the business’s work—and find the Careers page. But along the way, they also learn about how the company operates. They look for clues about the employee experience, and they will trust what content they find, whether it’s there by accident or intention.

Give thought to the candidate journey, Tepedino urged. Is the Careers page easy to find? If not, you may send the message that the company is insular and disinterested in new faces. What kind of imagery is displayed? Sleek, modern stock photos can look great online, but they create a false expectation if your workplace is, in fact, much more casual.

Of course, the company’s website isn’t the only place candidates will go to find information online. Many will visit social media sites like LinkedIn and Facebook, and the company profiles they find there should also be up-to-date and culturally-accurate. (And while the business can’t necessarily control everything that’s posted, it’s not a bad idea to keep an eye on Glassdoor, a site that workers use to describe the work experience at their companies.)

Web technology itself can send a powerful message. A business may pride itself on a culture of innovation, but candidates won’t buy it if they find the online application process time-consuming or cumbersome. Tepedino recommended that HR occasionally role-play as a candidate, testing the online application process for both ease and cultural alignment. It can also be useful to check drop-off rates with the webmaster(s) and work to streamline the process.

Eventually, the candidate will review the job posting—and this must-read content represents another opportunity to communicate culture. In the past, job postings were always pretty dry, Tepedino conceded. But today, the job posting can include company goals and values. Cultural factors like “team spirit” or “a great attitude” can be listed among requirements for a position. The tone can be inviting, even fun.

Next up for applicants: the interview, and their first visit to the workplace. Again, give thought to this experience, Tepedino stressed. What does the candidate see when they first arrive? Who greets them, and how? What materials and media are available in the waiting area? Is the look and feel of the waiting area itself in alignment with who you are?

Like job postings, candidate interviews can be culture-infused. Many HR departments already coach managers to ask the right questions and avoid the wrong ones (to keep conversations within lawful bounds). With just one additional layer of training, HR can help these managers assess applicants through a cultural lens. It can be enlightening, for example, to discuss how a candidate might solve a particular problem, and consider whether their behavioral habits are a fit.

Soon the company will be ready to make an offer. This step can include delicate salary negotiations, so it’s no time to set positive culture aside. Take a look at the tone of offer letters— do they sound legalistic and remote, or approachable? To soften awkward moments, should HR follow up on written communications with calls? Consider what it will take to sustain a genuine connection through this process.

“Remember, the offer is a big moment, as candidates are looking for reassurance they’re making the right decision,” Tepedino noted. Too often, negotiations are stymied by simple lack of communication. If the company does not negotiate and always leads with its best offer, share that fact plainly. If the company is happy to negotiate and looks forward to continued conversations, that’s equally important for a candidate reviewing an offer to know.

The final step, of course, is onboarding—bringing the new hire into the organization and helping them get off on the right foot. Onboarding can range in complexity, but it should always be on-culture. Companies that prize self-reliance may opt for a sink-or-swim approach, leaving new hires to find their way independently. But those that believe in developing talent through mentorship are more likely to arrange a buddy system or ongoing meetings/lunch dates.

Per Tepedino, there’s no silver bullet when it comes to onboarding. How new team members learn about the company and its history, meet their peers and leadership for the first time, and first encounter the company’s culture will differ from business to business. What’s important, she stressed, is that the new hire enjoy a “managed experience.”

“These types of engagements, however simple or elaborate they may be, communicate ‘the way things are around here,’ how the company operates,” she explained. “So think about what you share with new hires right off the bat, and how you share it.”

Communicating for Cultural Change

Having assessed where the company stands and where it needs to go, and having established new recruiting practices to strengthen its internal identity with every new hire, HR is well on its way to preserving a company’s unique culture. But it’s critical to remember one all-important linchpin: communication. Leadership and employees alike need to feel informed, included, and inspired to get involved.

“As HR, you want every change you announce to be implemented and become a consistent practice,” Tepedino stressed. “You want change that sticks, and that’s more than a memo.”
Tepedino and Watkins distributed another process tool for attendees: a sample communications plan. This framework, designed for a client who needed help managing change within their own organization, created guidance for engaging employees at all levels with targeted messages.

The sample plan charted how messages might flow between various stakeholders: from HR to leadership, from leadership to managers, and from managers to workers. Of course, messaging will also travel between peers, and up the corporate ladder from the bottom. With a little forethought, HR can anticipate and shape how every employee at the company talks—and thinks—about company culture.

“Start with defining your objective for any message,” Tepedino advised. “And then consider who is communicating. What would be the best message for them to share, and what would be the best way to share it?”

Relevance is essential for employee engagement to succeed, so consider inviting the company’s most enthusiastic culture-builders to get involved. A committee of employees who believe in the process can help HR not only announce culture changes or programs, but help fellow employees understand how participating will positively affect them on a daily basis.

Create a calendar, Tepedino urged, and design a timeline for “reinforcing, cascading messages.” Then, leverage HR’s full communications toolbox. New messages may first flow from leadership to all employees, by company-wide email. But those messages can be reinforced via the Intranet. Posters can appear in break rooms. HR can deepen employee engagement by hosting interactive town hall-style meetings, or leading training sessions. Cultural progress reports can become part of monthly/quarterly meetings that bring all employees together.

Throughout, HR should work to formalize company culture as much as possible. Values and cultural pillars should be featured in the company handbook and on the website, throughout the recruiting process (as discussed), and can eventually be incorporated into everything from training and performance management to company-wide PR.

Culture as Commitment

Watkins took the floor to close the session, and did so by reminding attendees that reinforcing any change takes focus and consistency over time. Sustaining a company’s internal identity, especially if the effort requires closing gaps, will demand HR’s focus over the long term.

The bright side, of course, is that by lending attention to company messaging, hiring, onboarding, and employment communication, HR can help transform any smart idea—like sustaining a great company’s culture through change—into habitual practices. Employees can believe in where they work, and contribute toward making the business an even better place to spend time. The benefits are more than worth the effort—and starting small is just fine.

“There are small changes that you can make from the start that will make a huge difference,” she stated. “Culture represents a big responsibility for HR, but also a big opportunity.”

Anne DeAcetis is a freelance writer based in New York. Reach her at anne.deacetis@gmail.com.

The HR Roundtable is a breakfast forum for human resources professionals in New York City sponsored by The TemPositions Group of Companies. TemPositions, one of the largest staffing companies in the New York tri-state area with operations in California, has been helping businesses with their short- and long-term staffing needs since 1962. Visit them online at www.tempositions.com or email them at info@tempositions.com.

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