What Is Culture?

In identifying cultural fit, align employees’ strengths with business goals.

By Robert J. Grossman Feb 2, 2009
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February 2009 Cover grossman_0209_art.jpgAlthough extensive academic literature addresses organizational culture, no generally accepted, shared terminology accurately defines it. The result is a crazy quilt of instruments and language that makes comparisons among companies and their cultures an exercise in inexactitude and squishiness. Consider these definitions:

“True culture is about behavior—what you see, hear or feel in the workplace.”—Charity Hughes, SPHR, organizational change manager, SCA Tissue North America, Philadelphia.

“It’s like electricity: You can’t see it but you know it’s there, and it has an effect on everything.”—John Mooney, SPHR, organizational effectiveness manager, Abbott Laboratories, Irving, Texas.
“It’s the glue that holds everyone together, the formal and informal way people work together to get things done.”—Scott Erker, senior vice president of selection solutions, Development Dimensions International, Pittsburgh.

“It’s about that eight-hour car ride with someone. Would you look forward to it or dread it?”—Dan Krick, PHR, vice president of people resources, Lincoln Industries, Lincoln, Neb.

A Matter of Perspective

You get the idea—glue, electricity, values. When you drill down and ask people to describe their cultures, it gets even murkier. Brace yourself for a proverbial journey down the rabbit hole into Wonderland. Unlike the mission or values appearing prominently on company walls and web sites, in most cases culture remains unwritten, carried forward in oral tradition. People use different terms, expressions or colloquialisms to explain it. “Culture is in the eye of the beholder; people see it from different perspectives,” says Mooney, a member of the Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM) Organizational Development Special Expertise Panel.

In examining a culture from the outside, should you believe your own eyes or what insiders tell you?

Different perspectives, yes; but are they seeing clearly or gazing through rose-colored glasses? In examining a culture from the outside, should you believe your own eyes or what insiders tell you?

Corporate leaders often pride themselves on the unusual natures of their company cultures, seeing their domains as special places to work. But organizations like Disney and Nordstrom, which James Collins and Jerry Porras call “cult-like” in their business classic Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies (Harper Business, 2004), are rare. Most company cultures are not that special. “They think they’re very different, but they’re not,” says Jeff Cooper, senior business consultant for Authoria’s Talent Management Practice in Waltham, Mass.

Even companies in disparate industries such as manufacturing and health care tend to share a common core of cultural values, says Ken Lahti, director of product strategy and innovation for PreVisor, a provider of screening and assessment services with headquarters in Roswell, Ga. “For example, most companies want to get bigger and to grow their revenues. Most strive to be team-oriented and demonstrate concern for others. Most are driven rather than relaxed because they are competing for dollars and market share.”

Picture a scatter diagram or a bell curve that differentiates among cultures. The similarities would be striking. Cult-like companies are the exception. “They’re two standard deviations outside the norm,” explains Rocky Parker, SPHR, associate vice president of talent acquisition for Nationwide Insurance in Columbus, Ohio.
Some cultural characteristics that distinguish most organizations include:

  • The degree to which they aggressively pursue their missions.
  • How they value work/life issues.
  • The way they choose to organize themselves.

“The challenge for employers is to understand enough about their own culture to be able to sing their own tune,” says Paul Connolly, president of Performance Programs in Old Saybrook, Conn., a provider of employee assessments and surveys.

Reinforcing ‘Fit’
Employers looking for cultural fit look for candidates motivated by the “goodies” that drive those working in the company, Connolly explains: “Company A might be a star-oriented culture where recognition is key. I get ‘salesman of the month.’ That’s good for me if I’m competitive and want to be recognized. Company B, in contrast, is more team-oriented; the spotlight is on team performance. I’m probably not going to be as happy in this environment. The trick is to match the goodies I want with the organization that wants to provide them.”

The cultural fit question tends to come up in discussions about why employees fail or succeed. Theoretically, if you’re working in a culture that fits, you’ll like going to work, enjoy co-workers and identify with the company’s mission.

But when there’s a mismatch, watch out: If the fit is wrong, either the person or the company will become disenchanted—and sooner rather than later. “If you have a collaborative culture where people talk across functions routinely and you hire a person who is not built that way, there will be a derailment,” predicts Steve Abisso, an organizational development consultant at A.R. Joseph in Andover, Mass.

Brokering a good fit has become a priority for many recruiters. Here’s why:

Improved retention. The link between increased retention and fit is easy to document. “It tends to be the leading outcome of interest among employers,” says Erker. In health care, “We have to recruit people who are wired right for us, with behaviors and values that fit our culture,” says John Gering, central group director of HCA, a Nashville, Tenn.-based operator of about 260 hospitals and outpatient centers in 19 states and England.

“They need to thrive on teamwork, tolerate stress, and handle difficult situations and conflict.” HCA has been including culture fit in its hiring decisions systemwide for more than eight years. During that time, Gering estimates, attrition has fallen by 50 percent in key job categories.

HCA interviewers measure cultural fit by asking behavioral questions during structured interviews and generating quantitative assessments. The interviewers grade the questions on a scale. The questions number among many others that focus on competencies. The overall quantitative-assessment data are available to the managers who make the hiring decisions. Gering did not disclose the actual weight that culture has in determining whether or not to hire someone.

Enhanced performance. Employees who share values and aspirations tend to outperform those in environments that lack cohesiveness and common purposes. “If you’re in the right environment, it’s like you’re hooked up to a generator with positive power continuously surging into you. If you’re not culturally aligned, it’s like you’re draining power from a NiCad battery that eventually will run dry,” explains Connolly.

Maintaining alignment. In aligned organizations, the same core characteristics or beliefs motivate and unite everyone, cascading down from the C-suite to the mailroom. Leadership falters most often when people are producing on the business side but are squeaky elements because of cultural dissonance, says Dianna Sheppard, president of Advantec in Tampa, Fla. “You may have an A-level sales performer [who’s] knocking it out of the park in sales but who’s creating terror in the organization. In the long run, if you don’t take action, the financial costs can be very high.”

Driving strategic vision. You have to watch the external environment and adjust your culture when necessary, Sheppard says. For example, a culture that favors entrepreneurism and risk-taking might thrive in certain fiscal circumstances and prove to be a liability in others. “The question is how to build and develop culture so you’re not victimized by it because you just threw all kinds of people together,” Erker says. “How can you shape and align it to your advantage?”

Avoiding Cultural Pitfalls
Searching for and attracting employees who will fit in seamlessly can have drawbacks. For example:

Bait and switch. The biggest mistake a company can make: promoting the organization differently than it really is, says Hughes. Beware over-selling or painting an inaccurate picture. If new hires discover they’ve been sold a bill of goods, they won’t be happy, they probably won’t stick around and while they’re around morale will decline, warns Hughes, a member of SHRM’s Organizational Development Special Expertise Panel.

Like-me” cloning. People are more reluctant to take negative actions against people like them. As a result, mediocre people are more likely to survive if they share the cultural values, says Ira S. Wolfe, president of Success Performance Solutions in Lancaster, Pa. Similarly, though an organization’s comfort level is palpable when the culture is aligned, advocates say, too much comfort can beget groupthink and complacency. At SCA Tissue North America, too much sameness threatens to become a liability. “We have such a high level of respect in our culture that it can become a de-motivator,” Hughes says. “We need to find new people who understand the value of challenging others’ ideas.”

Legal exposure. Employment lawyers are spending increasing amounts of time on litigation and compliance issues stemming from recruitment and selection. Employers that emphasize cultural fit can be vulnerable if they’re not careful. Mickey Silberman, managing partner at Jackson Lewis LLP in Denver, says the majority of employers are not fully prepared to deal with compliance audits and discrimination litigation. Under the Obama administration, employers should expect even more government heat. Applicant-to-hire systemic discrimination promises to be among the most active employment law issues in the near future.

The author of this special report is a contributing editor of HR Magazine, a lawyer and a professor of management studies at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

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