Company Culture

By Eric Christensen

July 21, 2014 5 min read

The notion of a "corporate culture" may have begun in Silicon Valley, but it has been spreading widely ever since. Sadly, many companies try to mimic Palo Alto's colorful campuses and relaxed atmosphere instead of developing a more substantive corporate culture. But those companies that realize corporate culture is more than installing a foosball table in the break room are often rewarded with better hires, lower turnover and increased productivity. And for those looking for a new job, researching the corporate culture where you'd fit in best might be the most effective strategy.

J.T. O'Donnell, founder and CEO of Careerealism Media, says a corporate culture should answer the questions: "Why are we even in business? Why are we so passionate that we decided to have a business around a certain product or service? Why do we do it faster, better, cheaper?" That story of a business's passions and values -- an "inventory of beliefs" -- is the foundation of a unique corporate culture.

Once identified, a company must actively publicize its corporate culture. It cannot simply rely on employees to praise the company online. Both O'Donnell and David Gee, founder and owner of G-Force Communications and contributor to Staffing Talk, agree that skeptical readers will discount the value of employee testimonials. Instead, they advise employers to tell stories that offer specifics, not just marketing pitches. For example, O'Donnell says: "Every company needs salespeople, so tell the story about the six qualities that are necessary to be successful in your company. Those that agree with you will be drawn to your company. Those that don't will look elsewhere."

These stories are the key to attracting and hiring talent that is the best fit for that corporate culture. O'Donnell and Gee say hiring according to fit is more like dating. Gee notes that employers are "not necessarily hiring the most skilled candidates. They are hiring people they have something in common with: someone from the same background, a member of the same organizations or someone they'd have a beer with after work." O'Donnell echoes this, saying, "When we look closely at how companies hire, they hire first on personality, second on aptitude and third on experience, in that order."

Accordingly, hiring officials -- while being careful not to broach anything illegal or discriminatory -- are asking questions commonly heard on first dates to determine if a candidate is a good fit for the corporate culture. Gee says it is increasingly common to hear companies asking questions about, for example, a recent book, movie or website that struck a hire and why. Hiring officials are also asking applicants more open-ended questions to gauge their values, behaviors and how they respond to success and failure.

Hiring according to fit will not only make a business a happier place to work but also more profitable, as it will lead to less turnover and higher productivity. Gee recalls recent studies that concluded a new hire's success or failure was far more likely determined by "a lack of motivation, an unwillingness to be coached, temperament problems, emotional intelligence and not fitting in with a corporate culture" than some deficiency in technical skill. Similarly, Gee says other studies have shown that employee disengagement and poor job satisfaction cost the American economy billions of dollars every year.

But job interviews aren't just an opportunity for an employer to get to know a potential employee. An observant interviewee will use that experience to gather additional evidence of a corporate culture. Gee says, "Discern the vibe of the place. Is the workforce older or younger than me? How are they dressed? How new is the office furniture? Are employees helpful, friendly and talkative?" Gee and O'Donnell also recommend reaching out to employees in your network or even a company's customers to learn more about that business outside of the artificial interview environment.

Corporate culture isn't a marketing gimmick built on workplace perks; it's the collection of factors that separate a business from its competitors. By focusing on substance instead of style, a business can attract, hire and retain top talent -- or even steal it away from competitors. Like the best of Silicon Valley's inventions, there's a reason the idea of "corporate culture" is spreading so rapidly.

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