Workplace Culture

The Last Word Cultural Awareness

By Ronald Alsop

Jul. 14, 2011

Every week, two or three studies about lagging employee engagement cross my desk. But in analyzing this pervasive problem, rarely do the reports mention the significance of corporate culture in attracting and retaining the very best kind of talent: employees who truly fit the organization and will reinforce its values. Many people yearn to belong to an organization whose principles they share and can embrace in their daily work. And if corporate stewards tend the culture well, they can count on an engaged and committed workforce for many years to come. In fact, a survey of job seekers by the careers website found that about three-quarters rated culture just as important as salary.

Yet, many employers haven’t clearly articulated their cultural values. That’s what the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley realized a couple of years ago. To define what makes it distinctive, the school conducted focus groups and interviews with students, alumni, faculty, staff, recruiters and board members. After much discussion, administrators settled on four guiding cultural principles: Show “confidence without attitude”; be “students always” with a thirst for lifelong learning; “question the status quo”; and think “beyond yourself” by putting larger interests above your own.

The Haas School isn’t simply posting the principles on its website and classroom walls. The school is trying to weed out prospective students who aren’t a good match through application questions, recommendation letters and interviews. It also is encouraging employees to embody its principles in their work. Managers evaluate staff members on how well their behavior reflects the spirit of the Haas culture, and the school honors four employees each year whose performance best exemplifies one of the principles.

When employers try to define—or redefine—their cultures, it’s important to include workers from the top to the bottom of the organization. Even better, employers should mix it up, as the Cleveland Clinic did to create a stronger “patients first” culture of quality service along with quality medical treatment. In three-hour meetings, neurosurgeons debated the culture with cooks and parking attendants, reinforcing the point that they are all “caregivers who are in this together,” said James Merlino, the Cleveland Clinic’s chief experience office, in his presentation at a recent Conference Board event in New York. Staff members were astonished that physicians had to participate in the meetings, too; they were used to a hierarchical culture in which doctors were in a class above it all.

Once the culture is defined, razor-sharp communication becomes critical. Every employee must understand his or her role in delivering on the promise. What if some workers don’t embrace the culture? Merlino recommended a “zero tolerance” policy and cited a physician who was terminated for not providing the desired patient experience. “You have to focus on the disengaged employees who will bring down the mildly disengaged,” he said. “They’re toxic.”

Merlino realizes that the big challenge ahead will be sustaining the culture of patient service. Even employers with rock-solid cultures face that challenge. When Starbucks Corp.’s business slid and it had to lay off workers a few years ago, the company saw that employee engagement had suffered and that it needed to reinforce its people-oriented culture. It’s “renewal” program included storytelling by employees about positive customer interactions and surveys that revealed a need for more face-to-face feedback from supervisors.

These days, more employers are promoting a culture of ethics and social responsibility, which resonates with many people disillusioned by the corporate chicanery of the past decade. But they had better be able to walk the talk—otherwise, they risk suffering long-lasting reputation damage. Just consider BP. It portrayed itself as an environmental hero, an image that was seriously undermined by the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The lesson: Define your culture, communicate it well and, above all, be sure you can live it in good times and bad. A robust culture can be the best protection against employee disengagement.

Workforce Management, July 2011, p. 42Subscribe Now!

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