The seven sins of company culture

Having the right balance where company culture is concerned is vital to a successful and growing organisation. Pf’s Iain Bate focuses on where companies often get it wrong.

 Company culture is very much like gravity. You may not be able to see it, touch it, smell it or hear it, but, good or bad, it’s everywhere you turn in every organisation. But just what is it? And, more importantly, what makes the difference between a productive company culture and a damaging one?
In 1966, Marvin Bower from global management consulting firm, McKinsey & Company, described company culture as “how we do things around here”. Sure, it can seem to be as simple as that. But company culture is far more than preferences or working habits. It’s in the metaphorical bloodstream of a company. Or at least it should be. During induction days at a new job, company culture is very rarely mentioned. In fact, you may go throughout your whole working life in a job and it never be discussed. You may be given tips on sales techniques or how to walk in a single line to exit offices during a fire drill, but training on company culture is seldom given or heard of.

Gabrielle O’Donovan, a company culture expert who penned The Corporate Culture Handbook, said in an interview in 2007 that the role of company culture is to preserve the past via tradition while stimulating via innovation. However, if organisations are neglecting company culture and failing to express the principles from which they were founded upon, then how can they possibly move forward?

There are many facets of company culture. In fact, no two companies’ methodologies will be the same. These may include having a strong mission clarity, having committed and empowered employees, forging strong relationships between staff and highly effective leaders and a commitment to learning and development. Whilst there are many more to mention, if one element of these is badly wrong within an organisation it can affect ideologies towards company culture – especially from an employee’s point of view.

Each year, Pf’s Company Perception, Motivation and Satisfaction Survey gives those working within the medical sales industry the chance to vent their frustrations or express their gratification on the issues which matter the most to them. Participants are asked to outline what it is like working for their current employer and what they consider to be the most significant things that characterise their past twelve months in their job. Behind a shield of anonymity, respondents rarely pull any punches. And this year’s survey was no different. Pf took a look at some of the latest responses, and examine what they say about the key components of company culture. The following are real examples of feedback from the Pf Survey 2010/11. They outline some of the ‘deadly sins’ of company culture that, where they exist, can be very damaging.

1.  Job security
“It’s at an all-time low. My new manager is one of the most unprofessional, unethical and dishonest people I have ever come across with no integrity, drive or desire to assist in any way. I have been bullied and harassed; I’m demoralised with low self esteem.”

At a time of widespread industry job losses, one thing that employees value more than anything in the current market is security. Immediate managers and their seniors have an important role to play in ensuring a sense of security in the workplace. Dr Jill Miller and Rebecca Clarke, research advisers, CIPD, note that although job security may not seem an obvious or important factor in company culture, acknowledging and delivering this to employees not only eases any office-based worries but also creates loyalty and promotes retention – something which is important in an era when employees are less likely to have company affinity or search for a ‘job for life’. 

2. Leadership
“The Managing Director has been parachuted in and knows very little about the industry. He behaves like Napoleon and morale is at rock bottom. After 2009 being the best year ever, a 0% pay rise leaves everyone in the wrong frame of mind.”

As in any organisation, those at the top of the career ladder must lead by example. How are employees on the ground expected to promote a healthy and successful company culture if their superiors flaunt expected values? For example, the banking sector has again come in for wide-spread criticism recently for its bonus culture for senior leaders despite huge losses, whilst those working behind counters up and down the country still struggle to pay the bills. The same principles apply in any sector. If company culture is seen as the heartbeat of a company, then the brains – its leadership – must promote these elements and find ways of improving upon these at every opportunity.

3. Management
“The new line manager is not a great people person. He doesn’t answer his mobile and is slow returning calls. He also sends very blunt emails!”

The behaviour of line managers is equally important as those in senior positions. While staff on the ground may never even see or speak to a company chairman or a managing director, they are likely to have daily interaction with their boss. Dr Miller and Jill Clarke explain that managers throughout an organisation have a key role to play in “maintaining the company’s culture, role-modelling expected attitudes and behaviours”. As a result of the absence of training in expected values, many organisations find that articulation and communication of the expected values of the company, and how to maintain these, is a vital step in ensuring staff are aware of what is expected of them. Line managers are in the perfect position to do this on a daily basis.

4. Training
“My company is too self engrossed and not willing to develop talent. Instead it is more keen on supporting those who have worked for the company for longer despite knowing results are not being achieved. There’s no logic or rationale for recognising individuals. It is more likely to put people off trying to progress.”

At a time when pay rises are well below the rate of inflation – if you’re lucky to have one at all – and the fear of the axe looms large, training is seen as an avenue of progression. Sure you may not get paid for a promotion, but it looks good on your CV and new skills and qualifications can be gained in the process. But when training programmes are withdrawn or neglected by organisations there’s an immediate impact on the ground. These schemes offer a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. Without these in place, staying in the same role – or even company – for the next 12 months may seem a dark place to be.

5. Career development
“It’s difficult, as the company move the goal posts with reference to development.”

There’s nothing worse than being stuck in the same routine without a glimpse of career progression. But, as companies have tightened their belts, opportunities to work the way up the career ladder have decreased. The need to work longer has also seen positions which would’ve come available after retirement blocked by established colleagues. Dr Miller and Jill Clarke believe that a new approach is needed by organisations to increase the amount of opportunities open to staff. “Organisations need to think smarter about their approach to training and development, taking a strategic approach to ensure the development offered is closely aligned to the current and, most importantly, future needs of the business.”

6. Salary and bonus
“I love working for my company; there’s a great culture and the management are very approachable. However, there’s a lot of responsibility and the hours I commit cut into evenings and my personal life with a low salary.”

No-one likes to think they’re overworked and underpaid. But human nature suggests that many of us do. In last year’s Pf survey, the median salary of respondents was £46,000 – of which 46% were unsatisfied with. The Office of National Statistics published results in 2011 which revealed that median gross annual earnings for full-time employees was around £26,000 – considerably less than those working within the medical sales industry. However, where money is concerned, there’s never enough. With food, clothing and energy prices continuing to rise – coupled with low interest rates – every penny spent needs to be justified. So if companies are squeezed and cannot budget for pay increases, they need to consider other means of rewarding, recognising and, ultimately, motivating staff.

7.  Work-life balance
“It is competitive with a lack of regard for personal needs. There is a lack of recognition unless you are in the clique! Ideas and individuality are not respected. It’s very administration focused with more and more time being spent on the computer. We are expected to do the same daily job of seeing face to face customers contributing to a very one sided work-life balance.”

Despite being well paid compared to other professionals and the UK average, there’s no point earning thousands of pounds each year and not being able to enjoy it. The balance between time spent at work and with the family has been placed under the microscope recently when staff are expected to work longer hours without any reward. Employers have a responsibility to improve work-life balance. Full time employees in the UK now average 42.7 hours a week at work. It’s arguably more for those travelling up and down the country visiting clients. But a refreshed and happy worker is a productive one. While employers may be happy to drain every last ounce of energy from their staff, in the long run it’s doing them no good. Danish workers, who only work 39.1 hours a week, are unsurprisingly more productive than UK counterparts. It’s no surprise.

Culture change
So how can companies address issues with job security, leadership and management, training, career development, work-life balance and issues with remuneration? In its report, Developing organisation culture, the CIPD advises companies to plan any attempted switch in values. A clear, public plan of action should be devised that communicates the need for new working measures and thinking, and outlines how the new approach complements the overall vision of the organisation.

Next, employees should be engaged for their opinions with managers also encouraged to play an active part in discussions. Senior leaders and managers on the ground need to ‘buy-in’ to any new measures and be seen to be transparent in their approach.

The report says it’s also important to identify and develop the necessary skills and behaviours required from staff to incorporate any new elements set to be introduced. If resources are tight, companies are encouraged to be creative to develop staff capabilities.

Finally, it’s important to measure and assess the impact of the new culture change. Without having staff onside and willing to help introduce change, any attempts will be futile. Staff need to buy into a vision they really see and hear the next time they look around the office.

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