Why Companies That Focus on Perks Can Still Have a Toxic Culture

Many companies consider perks to be a term synonymous with company culture. They measure how strong their culture is based on how many foosball tables they have in the break room, or how many free meals they give their employees a week. However, research suggests that employees want more from their workplace.  For example, in 2015, a study by IBM highlighted that the top thing Millennials wanted from their work was to make a positive impact on the company.


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At Digital-Tutors, we transformed our culture to achieve that goal using a customized version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (see image below). In order from bottom to the top of the pyramid hierarchy, the five different layers of the hierarchy are: Physical Needs, Safety & Security, Belonging, Affirmation, and Meaning.

Ultimately, that hierarchy of five different layers can be broken into two pieces.  At the bottom of the hierarchy you have Physical Needs (food, water, etc.) followed by Safety & Security (insurance, home, etc.). Both are things your company provides through a paycheck, health insurance and other benefits that allow your employees to put food on the table at home and have a home to go to when they leave work.

Once you’ve provided for these bottom two layers of the hierarchy, there’s the three layers on top: Belonging, Affirmation, and Meaning—what I refer to as BAM. Only after establishing the bottom two layers can your company start to achieve a real culture. How deep your culture runs throughout your employees can help determine if it’s real or fake.

Perks Only Scratch the Surface

The issue with perks is that they’re only scratching the surface with tangible things targeting the bottom two layers of the hierarchy. They’re expendable. A real culture goes further up the hierarchy, beyond the surface-level and into BAM.

Everyone loves a free meal at work, but those aren’t the meals your employees need to survive. They still must put food on the table at home.

Having a foosball table in the break room might look cool for tours, but your company break room isn’t where your employees go to recoup from the challenges of today’s projects before tackling a new set of challenges tomorrow. After work, they still need to go to a home that’s safe and secure.

Four Questions to Gauge Your Culture

One of the greatest challenges leaders have is to identify what’s really happening—how do people really act when no one else is watching? If your culture is failing, you’ll often get the answer your employees think you want to hear. That might sound good, but it doesn’t help you identify issues in the culture.

There is no magic pill that’ll tell you if you have a good culture, but there are some things you can do to start putting your finger on what’s really happening. Here’s a few questions you can ask your employees to get a peek into what your culture is really like.

  1. How clean is the restroom near you? It doesn’t matter if you have a custodial team dedicated to cleaning the restrooms: You can get a good idea of how much people care about others by finding out how they leave the restroom. For example, if they mention finding empty toilet paper rolls then it’s clear whomever was there before them didn’t really care about the next person.
  2. When was the last time you felt BAM at work? If your employees can’t identify a time when they felt belonging, affirmation, and meaning in their work, that’s not a good sign.
  3. How often do you eat lunch at your desk? This question can give insight into workload. When your employees are eating lunch at their desks on a constant basis, that can mean they don’t feel they have time to take a full lunch break—which is a red flag indicating they’re overworked.
  4. When was your last uncomfortable conversation with a coworker? When passion and the daily challenges of work collide, uncomfortable conversations are unavoidable. Instead of trying to avoid them, a real culture embraces them to grow stronger—together.

Focusing only on perks is focusing too much on “stuff” and not enough on your people. It can be a great way to help recruit talented people by showing them all the cool stuff you provide, but people can get stuff with their paycheck. If you’re not helping your people achieve what they really want—belonging, affirmation, and meaning—that paycheck might not have your company’s name on it for long.

Piyush Patel
, author of the forthcoming Lead Your Tribe, Love Your Work, is an entrepreneur and an innovator in corporate culture with more than 20 years of experience. As the founder of Digital-Tutors, a world-leading online training company, he has helped educate more than one million students in digital animation, with clients including Pixar, Apple and NASA.A former Northern Oklahoma College professor, Patel grew frustrated with outdated training materials, and launched a multi-million-dollar company from his living room.Patel has since given a TedX, won numerous awards acknowledging his trend-setting entrepreneurship, and continues to advise and speak around the world.