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Does Culture Relate to Retention or Not?

By Derek Irvine

businessmen-604311_960_720Recognize This! – One key to understanding why employees stay is culture, as long as we agree on what type of culture.

Employee retention is a complex phenomenon that can be difficult to predict broadly, not to mention down to the level of a single employee. The latter is the topic of a recent blog post I read on HRE Online, which addressed why people leave organizations with great cultures.

Getting past the headline, “Why you shouldn’t link culture with retention,” the argument appears to be that cultures should not be used to retain people, because of the fundamental human tendency towards boredom. As the novelty or effect wears off, employees get bored and leave. Instead, the post argues, culture should be used for driving performance.  While I certainly agree on the second point, I can’t say I’m fully behind the reasoning on the first.

I think there is a point to be made, however, if we conceptualize culture as gimmicky rather than authentic. Employees may take the job with the interesting perks and quirky environment, but those aspects can quickly fade into the background of daily tasks and responsibilities. When an alternative presents itself with a different set of quirks, it makes sense that employees who don’t feel the novelty anymore – and probably even some that do – will move on.

Sadly, this is a very transactional, “arms-race” approach to culture, with employees continually moving to the highest bidder without much connection to the company and colleagues. There is also a greater disconnect between this type of so-called culture and the actual work of the business, limiting even the impact on performance and productivity.

So what about retention and an authentic culture?

There is a very strong argument to be made for linking culture to retention, when we define culture as a fundamental aspect of organizational life that informs how decisions are made, why and how work is performed, and most importantly, how relationships within and across the company are defined. Cultures like this are not at risk of fading into the background because they are reflected in the everyday behaviors of employees, and are capable of evolving over time as the business changes and its employees adjust.

Culture helps to connect individuals to a greater collective, through shared underlying beliefs and values. When employees believe in the culture, precisely because it is shared and enacted every day, retention increases. This gets back to another fundamental human need: social belonging and purpose. I don’t believe that we can reasonably expect retention to ever reach 100%, but we can leverage culture to create an environment where employees are aligned, demonstrate the same values, and less likely to leave on the whole.

How has culture influenced your own decisions to leave or stay with a company?

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