Culture is the wrong tool to attract talent

A very large percentage of candidates I’ve interviewed in my career invariably described how they left their previous organization because they didn’t like the culture or couldn’t relate to it any more. No wonder there’s so much being said and written about organization culture nowadays probably because it has a direct impact on attrition. I read somewhere that culture is the glue that holds the organization together when the chips are down. I agree.

Understandably, organizations seem to care about defining their culture and putting it up on their website for the world to see. I think the idea is to tell the world about the way of work so that cultural misfits stay away. It also sends a message to cultural misfits within the organization that they probably need to re-evaluate their choice. I’ve seen some amazing codifications of culture on websites of various organizations. And some poorly written ones. David Bizer sums it up nicely in this talk:

However, I feel that codifying culture and promoting it internally and eternally has unintended consequences.

Firstly, articulating culture is a difficult task. Some describe culture as “the way we do things around here”. Some talk about their values as their culture which doesn’t make any sense to me.

Devdutt Patnaik, in his TED talk (above), described it as a mix of stories, symbols and rituals within an organization. This is the closest anyone has got to my understanding of culture. Still, it remains an amorphous concept. I’ve worked in 4 organizations and each attempted to codify their culture. None of the versions could do justice to the culture I “felt” in these organizations. Each time I would look for examples of each sentence in the culture statement, I would try and recall incidents and anecdotes that justified them. But I could never accurately pinpoint and assertively say that that’s what it was referring to. Going back to the candidates I interviewed, I would go on to ask them what bit about the culture they didn’t like, very few were able to articulate it. And upon digging deeper, it would turn out to be either (a) a bad boss or (b) politics, none of which are aspects of culture according to me. QED.

Secondly, promoting culture seems to be a very nice way of attracting talent. I can increasingly sense that professionals nowadays are very particular about the culture they are walking into. Its a make or break for most people. Organization culture seems to be the key difference between the “good” and the “great”. Talent Acquisition teams as well as agencies are well aware of this and do not stop short of “selling” the culture to candidates. In fact a good culture statement sells itself. There are specific culture fit interview rounds that follow. While no organization is perfect at filtering cultural fits via interviews, lets assume that majority of people who are offered a role are culture fits. Once the candidates enter the organization, they do try and make sense of the culture that was sold to them. In fact, the first few weeks and months in any organization is also the time to validate whether they made the right choice by joining the organization. They watch everything around them with a keen eye. And this is when things have the highest probability of going southward.

Each of these people work in their own teams and on their own floors. For them, that is “the organization”. The boundary walls of the floor or the area occupied by the team is the realm in which all judgements about the culture of the organization take place. I can say this confidently because when i’ve spoken to people who’ve put in their papers due to “cultural” reasons, the incidents and anecdotes have always been limited to their own team and surroundings. I also know, as would most of you, that subcultures exist with an organization. A classic case of this would be, say, the cultural difference that exists between a head office and a branch office. And parts of this subculture don’t always overlap with the overall culture of the organization. Think of the organization as a country like India or US where every state and county has a subculture while from the outside, citizens are known to speak about an Indian or an American culture as a whole.

Since culture is difficult to codify and hence construe, almost all the time, actions of bad bosses are also interpreted as part of culture. When it happens repetitively, cognitive bias sets in and the employee’s mind starts rationalising this as bad culture. In fact, repetitive incidents of politics by one person within a small team can also shoo away an employee. It’ll end with the same rationalisation — bad culture. Even organizations who have the best of cultures overall, can’t help having pockets of these sub-cultures. The larger the organization, the more the number of sub-cultures, the more the number of interpretations and cognitive bias. The results is an astounding number of misinterpretations of culture — something that the management team had never imagined in their wildest dreams while codifying culture. Hiring is never perfect and it is difficult to prevent bad bosses and politicking people from entering the organisation — the seeds of attrition are sown right there. And all this because there was “cultural dissonance” in the employee.

In fact, let me go back to the stage where the Talent Acquisition team and agencies were describing or selling culture to candidates. Were they interpreting and conveying culture exactly as the management team had envisaged?

Promoting culture isn’t bad in itself but codifying and promoting it gives rise to innumerable (mis)interpretations that sow the seeds of dissonance in some corner of an organisation. I personally wouldn’t rely on it as a tool for attracting talent because it is nigh impossible to explain to someone what the culture of the organisation is.

On that note, I feel that the foremost reason people should join an organization is love for the product or service and its broader purpose. In case the organization owns a large product portfolio, then it should be love for the problem the organization is trying to solve. In my experience, this is the only glue that remains for a really long time. Also, evolution of a product is easier for everyone to gauge and interpret as compared to evolution of culture. Chances of dissonance are less unless the organization decides to pivot.

Expecting rave reactions from the HR community on this. Time to go hide somewhere.