Creating a Great Culture Isn’t HR’s Job

In a world where rapid technological advances, globalization, and talent mobility are becoming the norm, corporate culture can be a strategic differentiator for many companies. Today we’re going to look at corporate culture and HR’s role in the culture development process.

Top-down culture pros and cons

A few years ago we picked up about 40 employees on a new contract. It was a difficult time for us, because as a relatively new company we were still getting our cultural norms and values cemented with our current workforce. Then we brought on an additional 40 people overnight, many of whom were a poor fit for our current operational culture.

So we attempted to use those lemons to make lemonade.

For a year and a half we (a combined effort of HR and senior leadership) poured our hearts into making the workplace great for those 40 employees. But nothing seemed to work. We still had people making mountains out of molehills. We had staff bickering and fighting. There was no employee loyalty. It was a mess, and we couldn’t figure out what we were doing wrong.

dangerous bottlenecks

Ben Eubanks explains why dangerous communications bottlenecks need to be eliminated. Flickr/vickip2

Then our site manager retired, and everything changed.

We learned the hard way that expecting culture to flow from the top down to the staff doesn’t always work if there is a managerial bottleneck with sufficient clout to prevent the positive reinforcement from reaching the staff.

I’ll take the responsibility there–bad on us for not seeing that and acting sooner, but the change once the communication started flowing was almost miraculous to see.

Culture is everyone’s job

I believe that if we had changed our tactics to encourage people and explain that they “own” the culture instead of expecting the top-down method to work for remote staff, we’d have seen results earlier, even with the management blockade in place.

I posit that culture is not just a buzzword for HR or management, but a living, breathing representation of the entirety of the employee base. It’s a combination of their values, dreams, and passions. It’s the DNA that makes your organization similar to other organizations, and in some cases, very different.

One of my favorite tips for managers when hiring someone is this:

When you add a person to a team, you’re not just making it a larger team. You’re creating an entirely new team with new dynamics, roles, and responsibilities. Don’t look at it as adding a Lego to the top of the stack; look at it as if you’re taking the existing structure and redefining it with the new piece added in.

That’s a close approximation to culture. Each person makes up a piece of it, and every new addition (for better or worse) has an effect on the overall corporate culture.

So what is HR’s role?

I’m glad you asked. I firmly believe that HR’s role in this process is to help keep the lines of communication open between the staff and the leadership team. We help to define it (it’s a key recruiting tool). We help to share it (it can be a key retention tool). We plug it into every HR process we have, from hiring for culture fit to performance management to termination.

I’ll say it again:

HR doesn’t create the culture.
HR doesn’t own the culture.
HR facilitates culture via solid communication.

I admit that this is merely the beginning of the discussion on culture and how it plays a part in the business world, but HR needs to step up the plate and see it for the opportunity that it truly is. When my CEO comes to me asking about “that culture thing,” I already know how I’ll respond. Do you?

(By the way, if you want to dig deeper, check out this free guide on how to cultivate an amazing organization.)

Ben Eubanks is an author, speaker, and HR professional from Huntsville, Alabama. During the day he works as the HR Manager for Pinnacle Solutions, an award-winning company with a truly amazing culture. During the evenings he writes at upstartHR-an HR blog focusing on leadership, culture, and passion.


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