By: Kristen Ardito | Jan 25, 2023 | Company Culture | People | Benefits | Office Space
What do companies mean these days when they talk about culture? Is there really such a thing as a “good culture” or is this just the latest buzzword to attract talent in the door without giving anything tangible in return other than the potential to work somewhere with “good vibes”?
I’ve given this a lot of thought because it seems like no matter where I go, I keep hearing this word. I see it on job descriptions, I hear it in interviews, I get asked about it by candidates and frankly, I often feel like I stumble through the question without really answering it.
This prompted me to look at the term culture more closely.
What do people REALLY mean when they ask about the company culture, talk about culture, proclaim their company has the best culture ever, etc?
Hopefully, this article will help you ask the right questions the next time you find yourself interviewing for a job, or answering the question for candidates if you are doing the interview.
I’ve broken the hidden meaning of corporate culture down into three simple categories (this is specific to corporate culture and not to general society culture):
3. Workplace Setup
Who will I be working with (ages, gender, any other clues about the type of people)?
Is there diversity?
Is there room for individuality or is conformity expected?
Are people expected to act or dress a certain way?
This is very simple: do people take their vacation time?
Are they allowed to be sick?
Take care of their families?
3. Workplace Setup
If I need to work from an office, what is the condition of the office?
What can I imply from the “vibe” of the office? Is it hostile, fun, or collaborative?
Before I break down the points above, I will share a true story about a company I worked at - where I DIDN’T ask about culture and ended up paying a steep price. I recently accepted a new position at a well-known, global brand. I was coming from an even bigger corporation with an immaculate headquarters.
The previous job was indeed one of those fun workplaces that had a gym, movie theater, foosball machines, Starbucks in the lobby, multiple options for food which was subsidized, espresso machines on every floor, soda machines, and even a popcorn machine and an overall upbeat and current vibe. I loved going into the office. It was very easy to feel a part of the “culture” there as it was imbibed into the very walls of the building on every floor. There were even conference rooms with no tables and chairs but only colorful bouncy balls! I mean, how could I not love this? Make no mistake, we got a lot done, but we also had fun doing it.
I was under no impression that anything else could live up to that job. However, I made the mistake of not checking out the building of my new employer before I started working there. It simply didn’t occur to me.
When I arrived I was, well I'm not sure…(shocked? horrified? stunned?) to find out that the main conference room was lacking ventilation, missing blinds and there was toilet paper taped up to the top of the window frame to block out the sun during meetings. As I was trying to pay attention to the financial data and learn about my new company in an early meeting, I kept getting distracted by the toilet paper flapping in the breeze. I wondered what I had gotten myself into.
There was also a hand-written paper sign taped up over the “women's room” sign that said “men's”. Apparently, someone felt that women didn’t need to use the bathroom and could just go to another floor. When we did have to go and we were in the middle of a long meeting, we often had to wait in a long queue on the bottom floor. Yes, this is a true story and no this was not 1950. It was very recently.
What may this have told me about the culture?
In the next section, I’ll break down the three core components of culture a little bit more. I’ll give just enough insight to help you assess whether the next gig you go to, or the next person you hire is aligned with the culture, and to help you answer the question the next time someone asks you about the “culture” of your employer.
The three elements of culture mentioned above (people, benefits, workplace setup) are tightly coupled. Simply put, people who do not like the benefits or physical environment will leave. People who do value the benefits and physical environment will stay. Over time, you will have a set of people who are aligned with similar thoughts about the environment and benefits. Does that make sense?
It’s taboo to ask specific questions about race, gender, age, sexual orientation, or other classification systems that have largely been used to discriminate.
How do you go about learning more about a potential employer, who is in charge, who has authority, and who your peers are if you do not ask these questions?
I’ve found myself navigating this tricky tightrope walk as well! I have always valued working with a diverse set of colleagues. It’s how I learn new things, and it’s a strong preference for me. Maybe stronger than any other preference in my working life. Yet, since I can’t ask questions directly about this, I often ask if the company has any DEI groups (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion). The answer to this, or non-answer to this can indirectly answer my question.
Secondly, age is a factor. Let’s face it, it’s tricky to navigate a workplace with people of different ages. There’s so much to unpack about the age that it could fill a novel. I’m not going to go into every nuance about age, but here’s what I’ll say: it’s ok to wonder what the age of your colleagues is, what age your boss is, and what age the CEO is. I once worked at a company where I was about 10-15 years older than most of my peers doing similar roles. The CEO was much younger and there was little to relate to personally since we were in different parts of our lives. I wish I would have known that. It was also hard to get noticed and promoted in this company once you reached a certain age. I and the few other colleagues who were in my age bracket used to share countless stories of age discrimination (never intentional, which is kind of the point). The younger folks just didn’t realize it.
I’ve also worked in a company where I was one of the youngest in a particular department and role by about 15-20 years. Not only did I sometimes suffer from imposter syndrome in this company, but I have many examples of flat-out bias that was shown towards me. There were comments made like “you haven’t paid your dues yet” and “you’ll have to do the work of 3 of us to show us you’re ready for the next step”. Never mind that I had made it to this position through my own hard work. Some people were just resentful of my position due to my age.
Finally, does your company require you to dress or act a certain way? Are you expressly forbidden to wear jeans or other clothing that gives you a sense of style? What other cultural norms do other workers follow? Do most people dress the same or is there individuality?
One of the companies I mentioned above had a dress code. I worked in IT so this was a foreign concept to me. There was a little booklet outlining what we were allowed to wear and not wear, down to the length of our pants as women vs men. This dress code was enforced whether we had a public-facing job or not. The code was to me, someone who had worked in fashion for many years, very outdated. It was at least 30 years old with acceptable shoes being things like hush puppies. While I did abide by the dress code, it always annoyed me. Sometimes I would “forget” and wear ripped jeans to important meetings just to make a point.
Yet at another company, the fashion company I mentioned earlier, we were expected to look chic and at the top of the fashion game at company galas. We would receive invitations to events with nothing more than directions on the type of couture we were to wear that evening. This was also difficult to navigate as there were gender expectations put on us about what was appropriate and we were expected to flaunt our brands' very revealing clothing to international distributors. Again, I’m not judging what others feel comfortable doing, but just highlighting that this was an expectation at this job even though I was in IT.
In both cases, I had to ask myself which culture fit me more.
If you are interviewing a candidate, and your workplace forbids green hair, and the person has green hair, you may want to share some of these values with them.
Similarly, if you are interviewing for a new role and you have strong preferences for how you can show up, who you will be working with, or anything else I’ve mentioned, take a moment to think about ways to get answers to these questions while not being offensive.