"We have started a culture!"
May 17, 2008 8:01 AM   Subscribe

Does your workplace have a clearly-stated 'organizational culture' or defined theme or an All-Encompassing Guiding Principle for employees? I've been told to create one for our company. From scratch. HELP!

I'm in HR at a manufacturing company with 200+ employees; ninety percent work in the plant, general factory labor.

High turn-over, low morale, conflicts, harassment, drinking, drugs, unfit supervisors... the bigger we get, the worse these problems become.

Not for lack of trying. We recognize these problems and work hard to turn things around. (Training programs, policy revisions, stepped-up enforcement, employee apprciation events, etc. ) With little result, unfortunately.

The execs decided that our efforts fail because they are unfocused and scatter-shot. 'We put out individual fires with no comprehensive firefighting plan.'

They have tasked me with fixing this. They want a theme. A guiding principle for our 'workplace culture'.

Something that all our efforts would trace back to... something to change and set the tone in the plant.

Trouble is, no one here (incl. me) has any experience with this type of thing. It's a family company with a very casual approach. No mission statements, few meetings, no tolerance for Dilbert-ization or business cliches. Until now, I guess.

Where do I start? The execs are no help. When I asked for guidance, a hint of what they had in mind, I was told "You want us to do your job for you. You tell us."

I replied that I just wanted a feel for what they were looking for in a theme, they told me to "go read a book or something."

I will do some reading / research, but I also want to hear your first-hand experiences. Would something like "ABC Company: A Culture of Respect" be too general? It keeps coming to mind, I must have heard it somewhere.

Any suggestions or descriptions of what works (or doesn't) in YOUR workplace would be greatly appreciated. THANKS!!
posted by GuffProof to Work & Money (19 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
The SVN Blog at 37Signals addressed this issue recently in brief.
posted by friezer at 8:14 AM on May 17, 2008

From a previous job: The acronym "TEAM" was used a lot, and the meaning was "Together Everyone Achieves More". There was a TEAM Team, whose job was to organize fun events for employees, like barbecues outside or cubicle-decorating contests. The idea was to improve morale, which I assume was to lead to greater work outputs, cooperation between departments, and yadda-yadda. Sometimes it worked (events that got people from different departments to meet each other really did foster a more cooperative attitude) but some were pretty lame (dress-up contests and the like tended to distract from getting real work done).

The company was part of a very informal industry (travel), so the TEAM team's ideas were supposed to be a little on the outrageous and undignified side, to go with the industry culture of fun and leisure.

Is that the kind of thing you're looking for?
posted by SuperSquirrel at 8:35 AM on May 17, 2008

I replied that I just wanted a feel for what they were looking for in a theme, they told me to "go read a book or something."


"ABC Company: A Culture of Respect"

seem to be in opposition. Do you work for Dunder-Mifflin?

I would start by make a list of all those individual fires and seeing if I could find a common thread in them. But in my experience, a corporate culture emerges organically from the top down; a slogan will likely change nothing.
posted by dzot at 8:46 AM on May 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Friezer: thanks... you know, that was my initial reaction. How do they expect me to create a new culture? But at this point, we'll try anything. It can't hurt. Worst-case scenario, the employees unite and find common ground in mocking our attempt to slogan them! Also, and this is self-serving, I've been given this assignment... I've got to bring something back to the execs.

SuperSquirrel- yes, thanks, that sort of concept is (I think) what they're looking for, or at least one solid component. The TEAM team... this is going to be an acronym-heavy topic, isn't it? sigh / smile.
posted by GuffProof at 8:50 AM on May 17, 2008

I worked at a business school, so I've sat through countless lectures from CEOs describing their corporate cultures and sharing their personal success stories.

I think corporate culture boils down to two questions:

1 - What are the characteristics of people who are happy and successful at your company?

2 - What are the characteristics of people who do not succeed at your company?

The first list constitutes the company's values. The second list constitutes what is not valued or tolerated.

The next step is to think about the "why" behind the what. Why is it important that people be [insert value here: honest, precise, laid-back, whatever] - how does it help the company succeed? And how do those detrimental attributes [lazy, stoned, rigid, whatever] hurt the company?

Fundamentally, though, you're probably not the right person to come up with this list - nothing against you personally, of course. But if the owners can't articulate their own vision for their own company, how on earth do they expect people without a vested interest to embrace it?
posted by Sweetie Darling at 9:02 AM on May 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

We had this very issue recently. We are a small company (30 employees) but wanted to bring ourselves out of the casual, unprofessional approach we had and make a high level professionalism and service to our clients and each other an inherent part of the culture.

We started with talking to people at all levels...asking what their opinion of the problems were, asking for ideas about solving them. This put the word out at every level that we wanted things to change...that we weren't happy with the negativity.

We (the Leadership Team -5 of us) determined the behavior we wanted to see, the responses we wanted everyone to have and then we started modeling that behavior. We didn't say anything to the other employees about it..just began behaving better ourselves. That included more professional dress, engaging in conversations with people we worked with that were genuine caring conversations about their lives, families, etc., letting those employees see how we behaved with our clients and the respect and care given to each of them.

In a very short time (2 months or so) people noticed how we were changing. Then when any on the leadership team saw others behaving badly we just said "we don't treat others like that here" and let it go. Soon it began to spread through the organization. If people had not complied and continued the negative behavior, they would have been fired and replaced with people happy to be a part of our company. Every company has a few people who spread division and negativity...and sometimes they have to go before anything can work.

The secret is, it has to start from the top down and be consistent. If I were going to come up with a slogan for what we did I'd have made it something simple about change ("We're Changing" "Change is afoot")...otherwise it becomes a lecture.

I know this is not exactly what you were looking for, but perhaps there is something useful for you in our experience.
posted by Jandasmo at 9:16 AM on May 17, 2008 [5 favorites]

To add to Sweetie Darling's thoughts:

Don't assume that the people who are happy and successful at your company are good employees who should be emulated. It could be that they are happy because they are big slackers, and successful because they're manipulative and able to get other people to do their work or to cover for them.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 9:21 AM on May 17, 2008

Practically speaking, you may have to sketch out a couple of "cultures" with some notes on what would be done to implement them, and have the bosses choose the one that resonates with them.

Generally speaking, imagine that there are two widget companies in town: yours (Acme) and the other one (ABC). You both make the same widget, no better than the other. Why would a customer choose to do business with Acme over ABC? Why would an employee prefer to work at Acme over ABC? Is it your dedication to customer service? Your reputation for innovation? Your efficiency? Your regard for your employees? Your environmental footprint? Your commitment to giving back to the local community? You may already have these values in place in the background and they just need to be emphasized with training, accountability, rewards, new projects, etc. By naming the values, they become more relatable and specific. Joe's drug use isn't what makes him a bad worker, it's how his drug use affects efficiency. Barbara's surly attitude isn't a problem because it's annoying, it's because the customer service she gives with that attitude is compromised.
posted by xo at 9:44 AM on May 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

"Don't Be Evil" seems to work pretty well.
posted by nicwolff at 10:05 AM on May 17, 2008

Google - most companies with a value or mission statements will have these on their homepage - that should give you an idea of what is out there. Don't just copy the values/culture of your competitors though - culture can be an important factor in differentiating you from the competition...

Which brings me to the much more complicated bit - the apparent lack of vision or strategy within the leadership team in your company. They should know where they want to be in five years time and what they need to do to get there. Your values or vision needs to be one that encourages behaviours that will help to achieve these goals and discourage those that will stop you from getting there. In working out what these behaviours are don't just rely on reports from line management - carefully observe what is going on at various levels within the company and talk to people at all levels.

Once you have determined your values the management team has to live these values on a consistent basis and foster them in others - given the nature and size of your company implementing this change cannot be limited to senior management making a decision and living the values as suggested by somebody else.

You will need to communicate this change to lower level management/supervisors and get their buy in - they have to implement the change and reinforce the message day to day.

And you have to communicate these changes to all staff. This needs to be embedded in the abovementioned vision - "We want to grow X%/be no X in our local market (or whatever it may be) and to do this we need to do XYZ. Your role in helping us achieve this is..."

Once you have done that the messages have to be reinforced consistently - reward positive behaviours (employee of the month?) and make it clear to those that exhibit bad behaviours that these are no longer acceptable.
posted by koahiatamadl at 10:12 AM on May 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Google pulls evil crap all the time.

Steven Covey has made bazillions writing about this. I can see his mansion from my house.

Here is his flash based mission statement builder: http://www.franklincovey.com/fc/library_and_resources/mission_statement_builder

If I don't get "best answer" I'm going to be very upset.
posted by mecran01 at 10:16 AM on May 17, 2008


Also, here is a picture of the mansion. So unless you don't want a huge mansion, I suggest you use the flash builder. But seriously, maybe it will help you brainstorm.

Covey's compound.
posted by mecran01 at 10:25 AM on May 17, 2008

Edgar Schein is kind of the go-to resource for organizational culture stuff and he's a great place to start for how to think about this sort of thing. His basic points echo what Sweetie Darling said.
posted by milkrate at 10:29 AM on May 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'd suggest starting out by scheduling interviews with folks from all levels and areas in your organization. Lots of them. Build a set of questions to probe their personal values in the workplace and identifying what behaviors they want to see more of/ less of for their direct reports, their superiors, their co-workers and themselves. Try to dig through vague value statements to get to the specific behaviors that demonstrate those values. After you've completed all the interviews, start bucketing and sorting through the answers, you should be seeing some common themes. Finally, condense and distill those themes into clear, focused value statements, preferably based around observable behavior.

By involving a good cross-section of employees you should be able to capture a pretty accurate picture of the kind of culture people want for the company, and it will also help you begin building the buy-in that you'll need to actually make implementing the values successful.

Good Luck!
posted by platinum at 10:56 AM on May 17, 2008

Google pulls evil crap all the time.

So what? They're massively creative, productive, and profitable, and people are climbing over each other to work there. As a cultural guiding principle, it serves the business beautifully, however impractical it is as a categorical moral imperative.
posted by nicwolff at 4:41 PM on May 17, 2008

At Intuit, where I work, they apparently hit a wall in the early 90s and decided they needed to fix the culture. I suspect it was growing pains from moving from a struggling startup to a "real company". Anyway, they solved the problem by shutting down the company for a day, going to a conference hall, putting people in small groups, and having them all come up with values that worked for them. Over the course of the day they wrote a bunch of stuff on big pieces of paper and argued and tweaked, and came up with ten. You can read about them here: http://www.intuit.com/careers/culture.jhtml

This day of "creating our values" became part of the corporate story Intuit told and the values are pretty heavily ingrained in all new hires. They're all over the walls and I think basically anyone who works here, from the call center on up, could recite them by heart given a little time...not necessarily in order. But I think the reason they've caught on to the point where they mean anything to anyone (because just reading them, some of them sound pretty dumb) is the perception that these values weren't just handed down from HR - that everyone who worked at Intuit in 1993 had a hand in creating them, and as you get hired on to the company you get tasked with maintaining and understanding them. I mean, I was 8 years old at the time and I still think it's pretty cool. I don't know if what we do is always unanimously in line with our values, but I think we do try to live up to them.

Don't know if you can get permission to do a one-day event like this, and it might be a real bear to facilitate, but I think it's totally worth it.
posted by crinklebat at 6:43 PM on May 17, 2008

My company has shifted towards a service-oriented culture from a sales-oriented culture. All of the internal materials reflect this shift. The focus is on how we help our clients and not how much we can produce. We just got huge new posters of supposed clients (probably stock photos) with taglines like "You help people like me achieve success every day" and "Because of you, I am confident I can reach my goals." (I'm writing these from memory but they're close enough.)
posted by desjardins at 7:13 PM on May 17, 2008

I'll just second the idea that what you're really tasked with here is to create a process here -- you don't need to write the culture from scratch, but you do need to set up a process where someone writes it, a process that works logically and politically. By logically, I just mean that since you're going to be the one who is going to lead the process and defend the method, you'll want it to have a theoretical framework that makes sense to you. By politically, I mean: the idea will need to have some grounding and authenticity, and it will need to be implemented by existing leaders, so you'll need to find a way to clarify ideas that already exist (the best of what people think about the organization).
posted by salvia at 8:36 PM on May 17, 2008

It looks to me like Jandasmo, Platinum are suggesting good starting points. You say your organisation is experiencing "High turn-over, low morale, conflicts, harassment, drinking, drugs, unfit supervisors". I'd say in a situation like yours there's little point in coming up with a fancy definition of your organisation's corporate culture because that won't change anything. Seems to me that the problems you describe have nothing to do with a lack of an organisational culture but all the more with the organisation's working conditions and internal communication (or, most likely, lack thereof).

As some previous posters suggested, seize this opportunity to talk to anyone and everyone in your organisation to get a feel of what's going on, how they perceive the organisation and their part in it. What are their complaints? Is it pay? Working conditions? Are their supervisors bullies and dickheads? What are their suggestions to improve things? Is it process? Maybe not promote someone to supervisor based on seniority but rather based on management skills? Are they being heard by their direct supervisors? Also go to the supervisor. What are their issues, are they being heard by their managers? And up and up the hierarchy you go. You write up your findings, restate your brief to fix the problem identified by your execs (high turn-over etc.) and then provide them with two or more ways to address the issues you encountered which appear to be the causes of the problems identified by them.

Good luck!
posted by l'esprit d'escalier at 4:17 AM on May 19, 2008

« Older How do I photograph, help, and respect the...   |   Has anyone used Careington Dental plan, or... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.