HR Management & Compliance

What Company Culture Really Means

If I had a dollar for every article, blog, or book I have read about “company culture” over the course of my career, I would be well on my way to a comfortable retirement. There are so many opinions about what “company culture” means and how it develops. Some believe culture is driven by those you hire. Others say culture exists around the mission and vision of a company. And some define company culture as the behaviors of those in an organization and the meaning attached to those behaviors.


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Just for fun, I even looked it up in Urban Dictionary, and this is what I found:

“Some BS that corporations like to throw around to pretend not to be either evil or incompetent. Either that or they are just blindly copying other corporations lead in newspeak.”

This definition is funny and alarming—but not wrong from the point of view of folks who still carry with them the PTSD of a toxic work environment that shoved fake culture down their throats, with nothing to back it up. When you dive into defining your company culture, you have to be authentic in your mission.

You see, it starts with the beginning. It starts with a vision and comes from the heart of the person or persons who started the organization’s journey. Although the visionary may not be exactly sure what the company will become, he or she is responsible for providing the right environment for the culture to grow and thrive in a healthy way. It should be nurtured with care and attention so it could grow into a culture that aligns with the deepest values and beliefs of the visionary.

The people you bring into your organization do not create the culture; they enhance the culture. People can also destroy a culture—and this can happen very fast. A word of advice: Don’t invite people into your organization who don’t have a passion for the things that make your culture stronger. Just don’t. Even if they have every single skill you are seeking to fill your job, don’t risk it.

Once you have laid the foundation for the company culture you envisioned, how then do you nurture and grow it so anyone who joins your organization can see it, feel it, and value it right away?

Start with Transparency

Transparency is not a final destination; it is a commitment to consistent sharing of applicable information as an organization. Transparency is not sharing ALL information ALL of the time—it is an intentional approach to empowering your employees with the information they need to be successful. Providing your employees with the right details behind the health and direction of the company helps them to understand how what they do every day helps the company achieve its goals.

Transparency is openness that leads to trust. Trust is number one. Without trust, there are not enough cool office gadgets, games, collaboration stations, free food, flex schedules, standing desks, or beer Fridays that can serve as the finger in the dam of a crumbling culture.

You cannot just tell your people to trust you. Oh, and bad news: You can’t buy it either. You earn it, and that takes effort. Google does it well. By valuing an open and transparent company culture, Google teaches its employees that it believes them to be trustworthy and have good judgment. That, in turn, empowers them.

Personally, I have found that folks I interview are taken aback when I jump right into the 10 reasons they might NOT want to work at our agency. I put all my cards on the table right up front, including the “oh so uncomfortable” compensation conversation. I figure if I can fail fast, we all win. So why not show them what we are about, warts and all?

Next step, allow candidates to spend some “unscripted” time in your office. I don’t create candidate “experiences”—what a load of crap. Orchestrating the experience is equivalent to photoshopping your picture on an online dating site. We have candidates come in and hang out with us regardless of what we have going on. Might be the busiest day of the year—chaos. Might be the most boring day of the year—snore. Who cares? This is us.

Now You Got ’Em. How Do You Keep ’Em?

While recruitment is an important piece of the puzzle, retention is key. Finding top talent is tough, but it can be done. Retaining key talent is work—unless you make it easy. How do you make it easy? You make it obvious.


Here is an example: Build and grow a culture from the fundamental belief of your leader. In our case, that’s our president, Tiffany Sauder. She believes her company is here to grow people; she does not believe in using people to grow the company. If you do the first, the business will grow naturally.

So, how do you “grow” people? Some companies think growing people means training. Nope—boring. Growing people should mean growing the whole person. Development means paying attention to the full spectrum, from the fundamental and very personal development areas all the way to advanced skill development. We believe the very personal development is the foundation. If a person is not fundamentally secure (harken back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs—this is not my own original thought by a long stretch), self-actualization will never happen.

It is not the foosball table that will lock people in. It is what happens around the foosball table that makes people want to come to work every day and do their very best.

If you hire the right people, they will deliver even if you happen to walk by when they are lying face down on a giant teddy bear under the table in the middle of the office while they are doing it. I promise—they are ideating toward the perfect answer. Leave them be.

Learn How to Part With Grace

Sometimes people leave. Even when your company culture meets all of their needs, there may come a time when it is time for them to move on to the next stage of their career at a new company, in a new job. Sometimes it is their idea, and sometimes it is yours. Either way, do it with grace. Having a clear and transparent approach to “right people, right seats” ensures that you are constantly reviewing your team to confirm that they align with your core values AND they are sitting in the right seat. When either side of that equation is out of balance, decisions need to be made, and clear conversations need to happen.

Sometimes, the right seat for an employee does not exist in your company any longer. Sometimes, an employee who is most qualified for a job no longer aligns with your core values. Either way, don’t compromise your culture or your values for anyone. Do the right thing. And when someone decides on his or her own to make a change, you should celebrate the time you had with him or her and the ways he or she made you better. Don’t dwell on the fact that this person is moving on.

How Does All of This Tie Together?

A culture of transparency builds trust, and when employees trust in the company, they will be empowered to support the positive culture and hang around because they are happy. It may not be rocket science, but it is a science.

You cannot fake a good culture. Smart people see right through it, and that is the point where it all falls apart. How happy are your employees?

As the VP of Talent at Element Three, a growing full-service marketing agency in Indianapolis, Karen Seketa has helped grow the five-time Inc. 5000 company from 6 employees to 72 employees, hiring 100+ E3ers as a department of 1. Before joining Element Three, Seketa impacted both small staffing firms and Fortune 500 companies alike, becoming the youngest-ever VP at Dunhill Staffing Systems. She carries decades of experience in business management, talent sourcing, staffing and recruitment, and operations.

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