Signs that a company culture may not be all it is cracked up to be

team holding hands, mental healthAs a teenager I worked for a while in a factory making refrigerators. My workmates snuck away for as many breaks as possible and prayed for the clock to move more quickly towards the end of the shift.

There was not much sense of engagement or meaning present, just a sullen resignation that work was something awful to get over and done with as quickly as possible. That experience left me convinced that work was simply meant to be a miserable “sweat of your brow”, kind of experience and it took me years to figure out that it could be something much better.

Fast forward to today and social media is positively top heavy with whooping, high-fiving project teams, casually dressed selfie-joining CEOs and Barista directed office coffee stations. The average twenty – year old potential employee could be forgiven for thinking that their working life will be a hug – a – day love – in, with amazing colleagues and cuddly bosses. Despite work being a four – letter word for as long as humans have had to go there, organizations appear to be intent on at least giving the impression that their company has successfully reduced it to three – FUN.  Surveys, however, show that employee engagement is at historic lows, but to be fair, what organisation could possibly live up to the hype that permeates the employer branding and recruitment industries in the age of social media? Personally, I am surprised that the engagement scores manage to stay above zero at all, given the sky – high expectations that are set out before young people today.

The Visible and the Invisible

Early social media was designed to be a fun means of connecting with friends and family starting with SixDegrees.com in 1997. Since then it has exploded into a myriad both business and networking applications. It has proved to be the perfect platform to persuade people to buy your product, rate your service or indeed work at your company – (we know of its power to influence political elections so pulling post-teen job seekers into some corporate fantasy world should not be too much of a stretch).

Once the glossy social media pages and the marketing gods have worked their magic, the newly – hired employee will quickly encounter the true culture of the company they now find themselves in. Company cultures can be regarded as having two dimensions. The visible and the invisible. The visible consists of the working environment – the buildings, the offices, the furniture, the food in the canteen, working technology and so on. The invisible parts consist mainly of the prevailing leadership style, the quality of communications and primarily the feelings of the employees regarding their experience of working there.

The visible parts have seen great improvements over the years. Interlocking meeting pods, razor-thin laptops, amazing coffee, vast open-plan office spaces dotted with brightly coloured sofas, custom designed buildings with cool foyers, and so on. Investment in these visible and tangible elements is of course easier to secure from management than those which are not so salient. Unsurprisingly, the invisible part has been much harder to represent. I remember when the options were limited to small plastic cards with the company values or leadership principles emblazoned on them and which were distributed to one and all. Then along came social media with its combination of blazing colour, music, graphics, videos, breathless employee interviews and so on, combining to paint an irresistible picture of an organizational Shang-Ri-La. How could anyone resist?

The Five Top Statements that show you may not have landed in Shang-Ri-La

  1. “Our people are our greatest asset”.

This comes up a lot.  It is a pretty meaningless statement. If you come across it just ask your boss or HR partner. “Help me understand what this means?”.

  1. “Everyone here is so passionate…”

This may be good news, or it may be a sign that you may have to express your passion by sitting in the office until midnight, eating cold pizza, working on a presentation that will never see the light of day. Find out.

  1. “Sorry I’m late, our meetings tend to overrun here…”

This is an operational give away. The inability to manage peoples’ time is a sign of poor organizational planning. Try and figure if it is the norm or an exception.

  1. “We have amazing values…”

Following the financial crisis of 2008 one bank published a list of thirteen values they expected to live up. Having an outstanding memory was not one of them. Beware of quantity outstripping quality in this area.

  1. “We are really very socially responsible in this company and have a strong purpose”.

Try the following question. ‘How much time do you dedicate to these activities and    what’s the payoff?’. See what comes back.

What you Feel is what you Get

Switch your modes of assessment when you are trying to figure out the culture of an organization. Make a below-nose assessment, i.e. what does our gut tell you?

Jim Collins, the American leadership researcher found that the most effective leaders were humble and modest as opposed to being charismatic and flamboyant.  Like great leaders, great organizations also tend to be reserved, softly spoken and responsible. They understand how to imbue the invisible aspects of their culture with life and purpose and can communicate that in a meaningful way. They create a feeling of belonging and a sense of meaning and respect for every employee irrespective of title or rank. If that is your company then unlike my factory work buddies back in the day you will not have to take sneaky breaks or watch the clock as you will be getting the best out a healthy and engaging workplace.

Alph KeoghAbout the author

Alph Keogh is a learning and change consultant, managing director of YourOnBoard.com and the author of OnBoard Everything you need to know about starting out in work today. (Panoma Press, April 2020). With offices in Munich and Dublin he delivers Purpose driven Leadership, Team and Coaching, Change and Onboarding solutions for clients worldwide.


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