In 2017, Uber made history for the wrong reasons.
Former Uber employee, Susan Fowler, wrote an essay on her blog about her year at Uber as a site reliability engineer. The disclosure revealed something rampant in the ride-hailing giant’s offices: sexual harassment was somehow permitted. There was unfettered festering at the workplace, which prompted an outcry over Uber’s toxic culture. Subsequently, employees were dropped from the company for their part in such behaviors.
Following that, then-CEO and founder Travis Kalanick was ousted.
For 2 years, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) examined the company. They found reasons to believe that Uber had such toxic cultures.
A federal investigation was launched and the result was clear: Uber is problematic and they need to change its practices. Amidst a cash crunch, Uber had to fork out $4.4 million to establish a fund to pay current and former employees who were sexually harassed at work. A former agency commissioner will also be monitoring the company for three years after.
With the growth-at-all-costs strategy, Uber’s effort to expand and grow their revenue meant that their culture fell apart, drawing parallels to fellow unicorn startup Zenefits.
Like Uber, Zenefits also had a broken, negative culture.S ales came first and culture came last. That led to an infamous company-wide email from Zenefits director, Emily Agin:
“Do not use the stairwells to smoke, drink, eat or have sex.”
While Parker Conrad enjoys a near billionaire net worth even after leaving his startup, he was not as lucky as WeWork founder and then-CEO Adam Neumann.
The similarity between the three is striking: they are unicorns suffering from the curse of mismanaged hypergrowth.
The similarity between the three is striking: they are unicorns suffering from the curse of mismanaged hypergrowth. Workplace culture was not focused on despite it being crucial when the company expands at breakneck speeds.
Which begs the question: how can you build and align workplace culture regardless of company size?
When a company is small, the numbers are few. The overhead cost is low. The ratio of employees to leaders is also smaller. Hence, driving core values and beliefs is much easier in this situation, since there is only a handful of people to manage.
The problem comes when you start to expand to another office within the country, How can you ensure that the workplace culture remains the same there?
This problem exacerbates itself when you establish an office out of the country. Now, you need to be mindful of cultural and individual contexts, posing an entirely new challenge.
The solution is simple to understand, but difficult to execute.
You need to layout your foundations and ensure everything is aligned. From the senior leaders to the employees on the lowest rungs, there needs to be a common understanding of what the company values are and how they can demonstrate it. To build and align culture, you need to put in double the effort.
In the era of employee experience, this is insanely significant.
Think of your culture as a selling point to hire talents and have them stay for as long as possible.
Jobvite’s 2018 Job Seeker Nation Study discovered that almost half of candidates believe culture is extremely important in choosing a company.
A Hays survey in 2017 found that 71% of employees are willing to compromise on salary for the right company culture.
That’s right: salary isn’t everything.
What about employee retention in today’s era, where people widely believe that millennials do not stay long in a company? Contrary to popular belief, more than half of millennials believe that they should stay in the same company for more than 20 years.
To make that happen, your company needs to have a good culture, or else they’re 24% more likely to quit.
Despite culture being an intangible thing, many globally-renowned companies succeeded in building a solid, lasting one.
This is evident by their Glassdoor ratings.
Australian tech giant, Atlassian, boasts more than 5,000 employees and yet enjoys a score of 4.3. Google and McKinsey & Company, both with tens of thousands of employees, score 4.4 and 4.5 respectively. Glassdoor themselves score at 4.0.
How can these companies constantly score this high and have employees leave rave reviews after they exit the company?
Despite their gargantuan size, they can ensure a clear set of values is being demonstrated at every department in every office.
To build and align culture, it comes in three parts:
- Initial planning phase. This is where benchmarks are set. Goals and objectives are also set here. Prior research must be done to understand what sort of culture suits the company best and where they can improve from the previous years.
- Building phase. At this stage, the company establishes the culture with manpower and initiatives.
- Alignment phase. This is constantly visited to ensure that the same values are being demonstrated across all offices. At this stage, the culture is also reviewed to see if there’s room for improvement.
The goal of this stage is to establish the type of culture you want and what kind of value it will exhibit.
Plan Based on Public Perspective
What do you want others to think about when they are asked about their opinion on your company? Essentially, the values that you want your employees to demonstrate should also be represented on any external stage, be it in a sales deal negotiation or handling an internal crisis.
Ultimately, you want others to reconcile the particular value with your company, rather than think that the company is only placing those values in their mission statement like an ornament.
Plan Based on History
Every company has a history unless it is newly built. This part is meant for companies that are already of substantial size, with a history and a sizeable number of employees. Planning based on history is equivalent to adapting based on data: what can you learn from it and how can you make the next one better?
For instance, Uber had a culture that ‘permitted’ sexual harassment to occur, which the company is desperately trying to turn around from.
However, not all companies have such high-profile issues in the company culture.
You need to take stock of the employees’ complaints. What challenges are they facing? Are their managers good?
There is an infinite list of questions that you can ask but the aim is to discover a focal point. For example, you might determine that the year’s focus is on transparency. From there, reverse-engineer and think about how you can make that happen.
Plan Based on Context
What type of company are you in? This is in the context of your industry and it can differ between you and your competitor.
For instance, Quartz calls Netflix’s culture “your worst work nightmare” since it was inherently Darwinian. Different companies demand different cultures and you need to determine whether that makes sense. The workplace culture must consider:
- The employees’ workload. How much workload is there? How much work needs to be done daily? What are the expectations and compared to industry standards, are they beyond or lower? Determine the type of culture suitable for the intensity and weight of your employees’ workload.
- Big, overarching principles. This is fundamental in every workplace culture. Utilize first-principles thinking as your mental model and figure out the steps you need to take to achieve your goal. For instance, you might want to keep your organization fluid. That means you will have to value open communication and employee autonomy. You will also have to be flexible with rules since they will keep your organization rigid.
- Cultural contexts. Your office in Indonesia will be vastly different from your office in New York. Consider cultural differences and consult people who are well-versed in it to understand how that will shape your culture. For instance, an employee born in a more controlled culture will find it difficult to adapt to an autonomy-first workplace.
- Your demonstrators. Understand your leaders first: how effective — in your opinion — can they demonstrate the values you desire? For instance, introvert and extrovert leaders will demonstrate empathy differently, save for individual differences.
- Mistakes and forgiveness. Harsh cultures rarely forgive mistakes. Though not an inherently positive culture, such cultures can groom talents that can survive in pressurizing environments.
- Vibe. Some cultures focus on having a familial feeling. Others focus on work and efficiency. The vibe is what your employees should feel when they think about your company and coming to work.
- Remote teams. If you have remote teams, you need to ensure that they feel like they are part of something, regardless of whether they are working on a beach or in their beds.
- Perspective. If your company is already growing, this is important. To fully understand how company culture will permeate each level of the work hierarchy, you need to get the input of employees from every level. The perspective of the ground will not be the same as the management, and most people neglect this crucial knowledge.
Plan With an Objective (And Measure Them)
If you established the type of culture you want, you need to act on it and execute just like any other project. However, most companies fall into the trap of thinking that conjuring positive-sounding words and calling them part of the “organizational culture” will do the trick.
Everything needs effort.
- Think about what you want to achieve. Every company has a vision of what their culture will create. Once you have that vision down, reverse-engineer: what sort of values do you need people to have to get there?
- Set a timeline. When do you expect to see this culture being demonstrated across the board? Don’t get too ambitious: the bigger your team, the more difficult it is. You should be measuring in terms of months.
- Figure out how you want to measure them. Set KPIs using units of measurement. For instance, you could use employee pulse surveys as a metric. You need to use multiple tools to measure so you can get a less biased view. A combination can include regular one-on-one meetings with company-wide surveys.
- Hold people accountable for it. Who are the people responsible for the execution? This could be your People Officer or your HR. Direct superiors in every team are also key stakeholders here.
Plan Based on People
Company culture must be simple and friendly: it should not take a rocket scientist to figure out what kind of vision you have. The culture should be specific enough for anyone to follow yet also be open to interpretation. Regardless of how people interpret it, the outcome should always be similar.
Building the Culture
Once you established what your company culture is comprised of, it’s time to build on it. Building on it requires consistency: you need to ensure that your actions are always in line with your company culture.
Different Contexts, Different Challenges
Also applies to what will work well for each team, especially when the teams are geographically different. Many factors can affect the effectiveness, efficacy and the effect of the company culture:
- Individual team compositions. To generalize, a team of extroverts may take a value of ‘say yes to everything’ differently from a team of introverts. Values are always subject to one’s interpretation and individual judgment differences can affect the way things work.
- Inherent team function. Some teams are more innovative. Others need to be conservative. The team function will affect the type of value they will focus on and how effective they will be in demonstrating company values.
- Different leaders. Leaders can be the biggest determinators on whether the culture will be built in the team or not. Different management and leadership styles will result in variations in the company culture.
Suppose your company focuses on both empathy and integrity. A company crisis occurred: an employee leaked a video onto social media showing a hidden camera footage of a senior leader verbally abusing an employee.
The video goes viral and the mainstream media caught wind it, driving unwanted negative attention to your company. Your public relations department hastily got to work, trying to defuse the whole situation.
As a Chief People Officer, you’re tasked to address the issue.
You also need to ensure that your actions are in line with the company’s culture.
Ignoring cultural and individual contexts, focusing solely on the values, what would be your take?
- Integrity. Censure the employee for leaking the video when it could have been brought up to the senior leaders and direct superiors instead. The senior leader then needs to make an apology internally and externally.
- Empathy. This is where it gets tricky: you need to understand what the senior leader is thinking about. Why did he verbally abuse the employee? What was his emotion back then? What are his deep-seated concerns? Understand the sparks behind the fire before concluding. For instance, if the senior leader is simply a bad-tempered, toxic employee, the company can choose to let him go or punish through extrinsic means.
Such situations make it difficult for companies to ensure that they are consistent in every situation.
The challenge is to strike a balance: how consistent must they be and how much leeway do they have?
For instance, the employee that leaked the employee can also be punished for doing it. As a leader, you need to make conscious choices and consult different people for their perspectives. You also need to understand your risk appetite.
Aligning the Culture
After establishing culture and ensuring consistency, the next problem comes when there are multiple teams and/or multiple offices.
Set Up A Company Culture Committee
Much like how organizations often have an ethics committee, the culture committee is comprised of employees and leaders to keep the company culture flowing through every team.
During the initial stages of a company, this team can be mainly comprised of the founders and/or senior leaders.
The committee expands proportionately to the company’s employee headcount.
- The committee operates with true equality. Every employee — save the chairman — in the committee must be given equal say and rights when discussing company culture matters. For instance, a junior manager might find it difficult to speak up about a toxic senior leader when there are senior leaders within the committee. This is to build a culture of psychological safety.
- The committee runs regular “culture audits”. The culture audit is meant to identify blockages, ensure that the company values are being demonstrated and review what teams have been doing to keep the company culture going. More of this is detailed in this section later.
- The committee can also have external members. Leadership consultants, partners, and other trusted third-party members can be voted into the committee to provide different perspectives.
- The committee continuously communicates with other team leaders. This committee isn’t meant to be set up like a board: it is a fluid, flexible team that regularly communicates with team leaders. For instance, they can run events at a certain office. The committee can also run company-wide hackathons. Depending on the company, the type of events and team-building activities can differ.
- Appointing a Head of Culture per team. This can be the team leader or someone else directly above or below the manager. The Head of Culture is given goals and objectives for the company culture, ensuring its demonstration and execution, then being held accountable for it.
Run a Company Culture Audit
While it may sound formal, the audit is more of a check. Like any audit, it is done to ensure that everything is compliant. Blind spots and blockages can also be discovered here.
The thing is to make culture a point.
- Running an audit shows commitment. If the company shows that they want the company culture to be demonstrated everywhere, it gives the company culture more tangibility.
- Celebrate achievements and culture advocates. During the audit, exemplary employees can be awarded and appreciated.
- Identify blockages, blind spots, and gaps. At times, it might be a case of sheer incompetence. Other times, it might be a lack of training. Regardless, the audit is meant to ‘catch’ such instances so that a solution can be formed later on.
- Identify challenges in aligning culture per team. For instance, the finance team might be implementing it smoother than the tech team due to their inherent differences in function. It might also be due to team composition. This is where the audit can understand the complexities and nuances, to adjust later on whilst complying with culture requirements.
Identify and Address Blockages
Most of the time, companies fail to establish their culture in other teams and offices. For instance, in the main office, the finance team might be failing to demonstrate company values. Bigger problems also come from having multiple offices when the main office cannot physically ensure that they are also doing things in line with the original goal.
This happens when there are blockages.
Blockages occur when leaders fail to demonstrate company values or carry themselves with the company culture in mind.
You need to identify the stoppages in a company and start addressing the issue with empathy:
- Understand what kind of challenges they face. Are they genuinely facing a challenge with demonstrating the company values? Find out whether their challenges are internal or external, then work accordingly.
- What reasons and reservations do they have? You also need to find out why they are not reinforcing the company culture in their teams. For instance, they might realize that there is a better way to do it in his team rather than apply the company’s narrative like a cookie-cutter solution.
- Reinforce the idea of the company culture. You need to have the leader understand why you need the company culture to be aligned.
If all else fails, you can always opt to take a hard stance against them.
Building and aligning culture are continuous and perpetual in any organization. However, many companies tout a company culture while not demonstrating their willingness to actually execute it. The gap disengages employees, especially those who are already placing an emphasis on company culture.
Yet, strictly adhering to everything about the company culture is akin to forcing narratives down people’s throats. It creates a pseudo-authoritative image of the company that can weigh people down.
Like all guides and standards, there’s room for flexibility.
Companies must always deploy empathy as a guiding principle more than anything. When there’s a struggle, strive to understand first. When there’s an exemplar, strive to appreciate. In the end, the idea is to unite everyone under a single mission statement.
Culture is water, ebbing and flowing, changing with context and time.
Culture is water, ebbing and flowing, changing with context and time. What is working a year ago (or an audit ago) does not mean that it also works today. It is not a law that changes with special circumstances and it does not warrant strict compliance. Though measures must be made against toxic behaviors, leaders must decide how much variability they can take in the company. After all, the idea is to ensure that everyone has the same vision despite having different methods to achieve it.
When you accept that concept, you also accept a very unique feature of humanity: everyone is unique in their own ways and that is perfectly okay.