The Hierarchy of “Company Culture”

The word “culture” is tossed around way too much in the corporate world. Especially because it is always used out of context. When you hear someone in HR or Management talk about their company’s “culture” and why it is so important, they are undoubtedly referring to something like “innovation” or “hiring only the best” or “teamwork” or “helping others” or “work hard, play hard”, or “we provide the best customer support” etc. You get the idea.

Using “culture” is how companies create an environment of Fraternity. It is a great tool to bring people together to fight for a common cause and create the sense that you are all on the same team. It differentiates you from the other companies and competitors. It also creates loyalty. Loyalty to the other employees. Loyalty to the company. Loyalty to the “culture”. In that respect it is quite useful for the company and can be very helpful. It’s why we talk about the importance of the culture.

But the reality is that unless your company ends in “.org”, all of that “culture” is in reality a far-distant priority to the real priorities of any for-profit Capitalist venture: Profit and Growth. Those are the two things Investors, and therefore Managers, must care about the most. So really culture is split into “employee culture” and “company culture”. Employee culture may be defined as being a team player and helping others, etc. But company culture is about staying a company and having the cash to pay the bills. That’s why after a couple bad quarters all that “employee culture” stuff takes a backseat when people are shown the door.

I define it as the Culture Hierarchy. And it looks like this:

Company Culture Hierarchy

I have this conversation whenever people try to convince me that XYZ company is the best and they love it because of “the culture”. I say “that’s awesome” and that employee culture is very important to me too. After all, I want to work with great people too with shared goals and vision. But researching a company’s culture must go deeper than the superficial. Don’t fall in love when that love often only goes one way. It is a business, after all, and a business is not a charity. It is not a family. Anyone who’s been laid off from that cool “culture” will tell you that.

So while employee culture is quite important and can make the difference between whether you are happy or miserable at work, always remember there is another culture behind the scenes. Especially when considering working for a new company. Don’t fall for the lust of the superficial culture alone. Don’t fall for the myth of corporate altruism. It’s an oxymoron. The only reason companies have a superficial culture to begin with is to attract the best people. And keep them happy. In the hope that will equal growth and profit. And as long as it does, all is well. But the second it doesn’t, its culture-shmulture. Good culture + good company, that’s what you want. And always look out for numero uno.

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