Inside the ironSource offices in Sarona Tower. Photo by Gideon Levine

The Culture Evolution: How to Create Defining Principles for Your Company Culture in 2019

Sarah Reilly Engel
Jan 11 · 4 min read

Building an inspiring and productive startup culture is something many founders aspire to do. From the get-go, it is a task that pays off in spades if you set the right tone. The alternative is bleak, when culture becomes the downfall of your organization, leading to attrition and a poor customer experience.

With startups having a reputation of the work-hard/play-hard stereotype, it has become the norm to woo new hires by offering unlimited vacation, remote-working policies, and perks such as Ping-Pong tables, free lunch and frequent happy hours. While one might immediately adopt these mainstream strategies as ‘must-haves’, many have also encountered challenges, down the road with perks in play.

Since 2000, I have worked at a handful of startups and have created a roadmap for defining principles intended to set the right course for culture.


Firstly, you have to strike the right balance between sustainable incentives that help you remain competitive and values with a higher purpose that have meaning and yield success.

Your Defining Principles:

Your defining principles will act “as the foundation for a system of belief or behavior or for a chain of reasoning.” Here are 5 categories:

1. The values: What is your manifesto that guides all actions?

  • How will your company support one another as individuals and employees?
  • How will your company treat customers?
  • How will your company carry out its unique mission?

2. The people: Who will these cultural guidelines apply to?

  • Consider ALL Employee Profiles: From personalities to best and worse case interpretations of each value and perk.
  • Does the value guide working principles?
  • Does the perk improve their lives or make their lives easier?

3. The communication: Setting expectations on paper.

  • Write it down, distribute it: Make sure to address your vision, values, guidelines, perks and most of all expectations in a company handbook.
  • Hold a meeting, offering your employees the opportunity to ask questions in a more open setting.
  • Do you have HR? Do people in your organization trust HR? Make sure this is the case — HR should act as a buffer, soundboard and vessel for communicating the do’s and don’ts.

4. The tone: Or undertone: What is the perceived leadership buy-in of perks and guidelines?

  • Are these principles on paper, but not actually carried out? Is the perk just for show?
  • Create parameters that are not only communicated in your handbook, but create an open dialogue where people share their positive experiences. This should come from Leadership down, and reflect what the true expectations of the organization are — ultimately, if this does not match the handbook — then you have an alignment issue.

5. The utilization: What are the possible outcomes, and how will these be carried out?

  • Again, with structure and communication laid out + communication and tone aligned, you should not have issues, however, every employee is different.
  • Set boundaries and give examples to employees on EXACTLY how expect in how your guidelines and perks apply in the real world.
  • Communicate the actions that taken if guidelines and perks are not followed or abused.

Let’s take ‘Unlimited Vacation’ as an example. I’ve seen a handful of companies carry this out with many missteps. More often than not, an open-ended rule can be misused or miss-perceived.

How it can fail:

  • Employee A will abuse the policy, exceeding a reasonable amount of days.
  • Employee B will be too afraid to go beyond the standard of 10 days.

The result:

You have two-ends of the spectrum: Someone who is burned out and needs to be told to take more time off, and someone to scold for setting the bar too high for days out of the office. The result: A trickle down effect that permeates across all employees wondering; what is the right amount?

The problem:

  • Confusion amongst employees that leads to chatter.
  • HR inherits the burden of fielding incoming questions that are repetitive.
  • Your management team carries the responsibility of assessing the policy as it relates to each employee; re-defining the ‘rules’ based who can handle the freedom and who needs more structure.
  • Conflict with other time-off policies. It becomes difficult to set parameters for specific cases such as bereavement and maternity policies.

How it can work:

Personally, I would not offer unlimited vacation. But if it’s something you believe in, then it will require direction and parameters to work within:

  • Document the perk, your expectations and the parameters.
  • By tenure, give examples of timeframes that are acceptable for out-of-office.
  • Require 10 days vacation to be utilized to set the tone that you believe in time-off and work/life balance.
  • Create parameters for performance-based employees such as sales people; stating that performance is required in order to utilize vacation days.
  • Set limitations to limit abuse of the policy.
  • Celebrate your employee’s adventures, perhaps in a forum where people share their pictures and experiences.
Sarah Reilly Engel

Written by

Boy Mama. Founder & CEO @campsixco Growth @builtbyeverest Creator @smallbusinessstudio POV on Startups, CX, Strategy, Digital, Personal Development @reillyengel

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