Culture Is Critical to Prevent Employers Behaving Badly

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By Martin Berman-Gorvine

Corporate debacles like the problems Uber is now facing with harassment allegations and its CEO on an indefinite leave of absence show that organizational culture can’t be ignored, consultants say.

The problem in such cases is one of accountability, Natasha Bowman, president and chief consultant of New York City-based talent management and leadership development consulting firm Performance ReNEW, told Bloomberg BNA in a June 26 email.

“As we have seen with Uber, Fox News, and many more organizations, you will only be able to hide and cover up for so long until your corporate culture comes to light and creates a legal and public nightmare,” Bowman said.

The problem may be even broader than that, according to another consultant. “In fast-growing companies like Uber, nurturing an inclusive, feedback-rich culture is often put on the back burner,” Vip Sandhir, founder and CEO of Chicago-based performance management and employee engagement software company HighGround, told Bloomberg BNA in a June 27 email. “Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean these organizations already have thriving cultures—in most cases, it indicates the opposite.”

Opportunity to Influence Success

Everyone seems to agree on the importance of culture in the abstract, especially for employee recruiting and retention. Job seekers are shopping around for employers that match up with their values and are “authentic,” Autumn Manning, founder and chief executive officer of Austin, Texas-based employee experience company YouEarnedIt, told Bloomberg BNA June 20.

“Culture is not a problem you have to solve, it’s your greatest opportunity to influence your success regardless of how you measure it,” Ben Peterson, CEO of Lindon, Utah-based HR software company BambooHR, told Bloomberg BNA in a June 26 email. “It should receive as much attention as your most important strategic initiative because it is your most important strategic initiative.”

Building company reputation online is “hugely important,” and if you can showcase that culture through positive employee feedback, “you’ll generally see more incoming applications,” J.B. Kellogg, co-founder, co-CEO, and COO at Fort Collins, Colo.-based digital marketing software company Madwire, said. Improvements in culture also contribute directly to profitability through retention of veteran employees who are more productive than new employees, and through better customer feedback, he said.

“Culture is shaped and transformed by the behaviors, values, and norms embraced and exhibited by the leaders,” Jeanetta Darno, CEO of Columbus, Ohio-based Strategic HR Advisors, told Bloomberg BNA in a June 27 email. “More than ever, organizations need to implement a culture strategy and integrate it into their business plan much like they do with a talent strategy.”

Cultural Improvement

What can be done to improve your organizational culture? “It is surprising how many companies don’t measure culture like they measure financial results,” Manning said, adding that organizations can examine why some employees and customers stay, and others leave.

As an entrepreneur, Manning said she has the freedom to say when “the energy on our team feels a little off, and here’s what I’m doing about it.” It’s essential for company leaders to focus on culture, she said, whereas for a long time, culture has been treated as “merely an HR issue.”

“Employers and HR departments can take proactive steps to avoid corporate culture disasters like the ones as of late,” Bowman said. Examples she offered include assessing whether the organization is living up to its own standards; sponsoring employee surveys; investigating and taking action on all allegations of harassment, discrimination, and bullying; and promoting accountability.

Darno made similar points, especially regarding accountability. “Lead from the front—the board, CEO, and leadership team must own and model the behaviors,” she said.

Kellogg said his company promotes its culture “by talking about it a lot,” including in monthly leadership training meetings. It also holds parties to celebrate milestone goals, creates a good work environment and workspace, and offers amenities like ping pong, he said. That last item is important because “people share a lot of ideas” when they are playing, he said.

Another suggestion is to “let employees take control of their performance,” Sandhir said. “By taking this approach, executives can create a culture of autonomy, which ultimately allows for better, accountability-driven performance.” There are also some don’ts in the culture wars. “It’s important to be authentic. Don’t just make up crap,” because people will see through it quickly, Cassie Whitlock, director of HR at BambooHR, said.

“Companies get into trouble when there’s no clear connection between employee behaviors and company values,” Sandhir said. “They get into even more trouble when there’s no recourse for employees who blatantly disregard them.”

Whitlock and Kellogg were speaking June 27 in a webinar sponsored by BambooHR and Glassdoor.

To contact the reporter on this story: Martin Berman-Gorvine in Washington at mbermangorvine@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tony Harris at tharris@bna.com

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