funny-office-quotesEvery company these days seems pretty preoccupied with the concept of corporate culture; you can’t simply get away with providing a steady job or living wage for workers, it seems. No, that’s not enough – employers today have to make work the equivalent of a professional playground, replete with ping pong or foosball tables, bean bags and the other accoutrements designed to express the unique vibe and energy at each employer.

While most workers would probably trade stuff like free snacks or on-site dry cleaning for the ability to go home at the decent hour, to get that pension plan back, instead employers are pouring resources and attention to this amorphous anthropological construct that’s more anthropology than organizational psychology.

Culture, as practiced, is an expedient facade, but more often than not, fails to address the fundamental problems facing companies and the employees who work for them. Of course, these forced efforts at cultural imperialism at the workplace, the top-down initiatives designed at “creating” culture, completely ignore the fact that culture, by definition, can’t be created; instead, it’s intrinsically learned and organically transmitted, at least if you pay attention to the anthropological approach to the concept of culture.

Companies, though, have co-opted culture, creating “company culture,” which posits that an office, much like a society, is governed by informal and formal rules, collective values and shared beliefs in the core business, executive management (the shamans of this new manifestation of culture) and organizational ethos.

While culture has existed since the beginning of time, company culture, by comparison, is a relatively new concept, gaining mainstream acceptance sometime in the Sixties, according to Inc. Magazine. Of course, this does not say much, considering other things that were gaining mainstream acceptance at the time included black lights, bouffants and bad British boy bands, so that’s not saying much.

But in the age of Vietnam, when the Cold War was more or less a showdown over the superiority of two disparate cultures and their relative ways of life, this societal construct seemed like a convenient thing for companies taking their first tentative steps into globalization, and inevitably, clashing with societal norms in the nascent years of multinational markets and international expansion into foreign markets.

Ford, at around this time, found out this lesson the hard way, when it found out only after an expensive Brazilian debut that their Pinto model shared its name with the Portuguese slang for men with small genitals. Similarly, Purdue Chicken began its first campaign in Mexico by using its American tagline, “It Takes A Tough Man to Make A Tender Chicken” which, in Spanish, in fact, translates into “It Takes An Aroused Man To Make A Chicken Affectionate.”

True though this might be, in fact, this was hardly the way to attract suspicious foreign customers and even more suspect potential employees. But by creating enough flexibility to give credence to local customs and practices, like not including idioms related to male genitalia in taglines or brand names, the concept of “company culture” found its place in the world of work.

The Strange Customs of Company Culture

imagesCulture, by definition, is driven intrinsically and enforced externally; company culture, similarly, seeks to govern external employee behavior behavior while creating enough intrinsic job satisfaction for individual employees.

Culture, of course, extends past the organization, both as a PR play and public face when interacting with customers and clients.

Take Quik Trip, for example, a convenience store chain whose practice of mandating front line employees to greet every customer who walks through the door regardless of what they’re doing (and those stores can get pretty busy), and are paying well above market for people willing to put on a happy face even when the Slurpee machine is acting up.

This formula has been successful, judging from the fact that their retention rates and employee satisfaction scores (and, consequently, individual worker productivity) far exceed the competitors in the crowded competition for convenience store supremacy. It’s also led to a rate of referral hiring well over 60% (running into the 80% range for management), an unheard of number in a high turnover, low loyalty category. For this chain, culture works – and allows them to focus hiring around the concepts of customer service and extraversion, leading to better fits and higher quality of hires.

Why doesn’t, say, 711 steal a page from this playbook? Simply, because it’s the business owner’s responsibility to not only define a company’s mission, vision and values, but also transmit them by what’s commonly called “leading by example,” and 711 has no unified company culture, since it uses a franchised model, whereas QTs are centrally owned and managed, allowing for a level of cultural uniformity that simply wouldn’t be possible in a decentralized structure.

Three Keys to Defining A Company Culture That Doesn’t Suck.

That’s why defining objectives is key to defining culture; these must be informed by workers, reflect the consensus of upper management and clearly communicated throughout the organization to ensure success. Reinforcing values through behaviors is how culture is created, so knowing these values should let the rest of the culture equation sort itself out.

1. Treat Customers and Employees Equally

tumblr_mludkjK6X91r2y60yo1_500We’ve heard the phrase “the customer is always right,” but notice that conventional wisdom also ignores the employee likely dealing with some kind of dumb ass. The customer, in fact, isn’t always right, so putting their interest ahead of that of your employees, in fact, can cripple your culture.

That’s why, just like organizations need both employees and customers to survive and thrive, they also need to be cognizant to deal with both constituencies on more or less egalitarian terms.

Take Chick-fil-A. Sure, you might dislike what the company culture stands for, but it’s consistent – say what you will about their homophobic hiring policies, that same cultural approach does extend to closing down on Sundays to allow employees to spend time with their families. Both company choices are unpopular with large segments of customers, but it’s part of the chain’s attempt to create a uniform culture that informs both hiring practices and bigger business issues.

This extends to the front line; consider the fact that while most employees instinctively respond with “you’re welcome,” to a customer who thanks them, Chick-fil-A employees all respond with “my pleasure,” which seems slight until you consider its consistent use across the company points to a strong culture that puts the employee (“me”) before the customer (“you”) even in the most superficial of exchanges. This was done by former CEO Dan Cathey by design, and has scaled to over 1,850 locations – and why although they’re often controversial with customers, employees appreciate the organization’s values and are aware of them before applying there, which is kind of the whole point of employer branding.

The “customer is always right,” in fact, is almost always wrong. The story of former CEO Gordon Bethune’s transformation of Continental Airlines, for example, is a case study in company culture – and its relative impact on business performance. When Bethune took the helm of this airline, the company was on the verge of bankruptcy, but after only 18 months, he had turned it around to both respectability and profitability with a single, simple formula: value employees.

Bethune told the New York Times that he had quickly figured out that poor performance was often due to things like obsolete equipment, draconian labor policies and the fact that employees were judged so heavily on how they treated customers they had little to no interest in helping the core business (or their colleagues), pushing it to the edge of insolvency. Bethune quickly sent employees a message conceding that he was on their side in the regular disputes arising between them and a completely reasonable customer, a vote of confidence that sent satisfaction scores and share price soaring.

The lesson? Make sure employees receive a concrete set of guidelines for dealing with unruly customers, and also a concrete sense that no matter what happens, they know you have their back and, if the protocol is followed, their jobs are safe. Despite all the tech and tools now on the market, 61% of customers in a recent survey reported they’d still rather get customer service over the phone instead of through e-mail or online chat.

This might be counterintuitive, but it means employers should think about using cloud technology to create contact center solutions that can create scalable, flexible and more effective communications with clients or customers while increasing engagement and satisfaction on both sides.

2. Managing Company Culture By Example

55e8c2fc161933b97b22fd29ce9af35bThere are two leadership styles that are most prevalent in business, at least if you trust the self-help gurus and management motivators who so popularly reduce complex concepts to simple, easy to digest and ultimately accessible little aphorisms.

These styles are The Authoritarian and The Motivator. The first imposes control through policies, procedures and formal dictums or directives; the latter seeks personalized approaches to create success by maximizing the collective impact of individual abilities. It’s the workplace version of good cop/bad cop – and no culture can be created by management order or inspired by fear. Instead, it has to be developed – and informed – by the individuals continually living and evolving that culture.

John Schafer, author of “The Vocational Shrink” (good title), wrote that micromanaging is one of the most prominent employee pain points and productivity killers, due to the fact that it’s got about the same impact on overall morale and job satisfaction as impending layoffs or a headline-stealing consumer recall or other brand PR crisis, statistically speaking.

Employees who feel respected want to do well; good managers must reinforce the company culture by reinforcing employee value, and their performance is tied directly to the level of respect employees perceive their employer pays them. So you want more revenues, following Bob Sutton’s “No Assholes” rule of management is probably a good place to start.

That’s not to say having an authoritarian approach is wrong for all situations, particularly in environments that depend on operational precision or low skill, high turnover positions where the labor is more or less interchangeable and most management is done strictly by metrics.

But respect leads to loyalty, and as we all know, a revolving door can be a big cost for any business.

3. Company Culture: Finding the Right Fit

Hilarious_Memes_on-fitting-in_13826The recruits and prospects currently in your pipeline are ultimately going to represent your next employees, becoming the ultimate arbiters of your culture and its relative sustainability. Culture must be transmitted, passed on between generations, which is why losing workers also leads to a loss of institutional knowledge that’s going to have some sort of impact on company culture.

Instilling that culture in new hires is critical, as is assessing cultural fits as part of the standard screening and selection process. This is also where the importance of diversity really comes in, as having a wide representation of racial, socioeconomic or gender-specific perspectives consequently strengthens the scalability and sustainability of company culture initiatives.

This puts a particular onus on recruiters and hiring managers to maintain alignment not just with messaging, but fully in-tune and in-touch with the real corporate culture that candidates can really expect to face after an accepted offer. Hiring for cultural fit means creating strategies to find candidates with similar visions, values and goals as the company, while also having enough diversity to add or augment the current culture.

Every employee contributes to the evolution of a company’s culture, which means recruiting candidates who can articulate these value-specific concepts passionately and take pride in their professional identities. After all, they’re going to be creating yours. A winning company culture can capitalize on these human capital assets by increasing employee engagement, customer satisfaction and overall revenues and profitability.

Which, as outcomes go, are pretty important in every kind of culture, company or otherwise. Just ask an anthropologist.

By Matt Charney

Matt serves as Chief Content Officer and Global Thought Leadership Head for Allegis Global Solutions and is a partner for RecruitingDaily the industry leading online publication for Recruiting and HR Tech. With a unique background that includes HR, blogging and social media, Matt Charney is a key influencer in recruiting and a self-described “kick-butt marketing and communications professional.”