Ensure Your Culture Doesn’t Feel Like Old Furniture

  • June 6, 2016

The Old Couch: Buyer’s Remorse

Contributed by a CUE member

Several years ago, after starting a new job, I found myself in need of a new couch.  My grandmother came to town, we went shopping (and shopping and shopping) in search of what seemed to be an elusive match.  I didn’t like anything, — or rather, it’s not that I didn’t like anything, I couldn’t find anything that I envisioned matching my apartment or style.  We went to store after store, and worn out after a long day and beginning to believe that the problem was me, I settled on a couch.  It was puffy.  It was blue.  It had yellow flowers.  I paid the man.  We set a delivery date.  I walked out the door and instantly knew it was not the right couch.

As an employee relations professional, I see this same feeling come over new hires, and I am struck by how difficult it is to have what you’re selling as a recruiter match the environment someone will come into.  I have seen more than one management hire leave within a few short months because the deal they were excited to buy into was not at all what they expected.  That’s a tough position to find yourself in: no one wants to be a job-hopper.  No one wants to go through a search and interview process, negotiating an offer, giving notice to their current job, perhaps even moving their family, only to find out that they made the wrong decision.  Granted, that is going to happen for both sides – management may figure out quickly that the super organized Leader they thought they were getting is not what showed up.  I’ve seen where companies place significant importance on hiring people who have passion both for work and for things outside of work, placing emphasis on work/life balance and positive personality traits — but then expect their hire to only be passionate about working long hours and protecting the status quo, behaving exactly the same as everyone already there.  It’s a bad sale.

To be honest, when a company struggles with culture, they have a really hard time successfully recruiting leaders.  They have a hard time successfully recruiting professionals, managers, and leaders at all levels of the company.  When the culture as described and enthusiastically sold during interviews is not present in the display rules of a particular department or even the whole company, we still want to look at the failed hire as not being a “cultural fit;” but how do we align drawing the right cultural picture in recruiting without scaring off quality candidates?  More importantly, how do we bridge the gap between what we say and what we actually do?

The first step, as always, is admitting you have a problem – that the culture you want, the culture you advertise, and the culture HR gets really gung ho about isn’t really expressed throughout the company.  If the culture is not felt in every conversation with a VP or Director and if it isn’t evident on the shop floor or in the call centers, it is not real.  If supervisors have to be reminded of how they are supposed to behave with employees to be in line with the desired culture, it is not real.  This creates vulnerability in so many ways, including vulnerability to union organizing.  If new hires come in at the front lines, and they quickly turn over because the work environment does not match what they expected, the vulnerability is usually limited to one or two people they spoke with and, more importantly, anyone they speak to who may consider applying for the same company.  When a supervisor, manager, or director quickly turns over, it sends much bigger ripples of vulnerability throughout the organization.  Employees in that area feel a lack of guidance and direction, and if they initially liked the hire, they believe the company is at fault.  Morale suffers.  Every single time.  The best case scenario is that employees have a sense of unease.

When turnover becomes routine in certain positions – an IT manager job that turns over twice a year, a call center supervisor who comes in, shares lots of good ideas, and then leaves when they can’t get traction from management, a director with geographically dispersed technical resources – those front-line employees are much more open to the idea of stability presented by a union.  Imagine the organizer’s glee at being able to say, “You’ve had three different managers in the past 15 months and nothing any of them promised about your pay/hours/broken processes has changed.  How much longer can you stand working like this?”  It’s a no-brainer – you owe it to your employees to ensure they have strong leadership that matches your culture.  If your culture expects employees to be 24/7 automatons with dictatorial maniacs as leaders, that’s what you need to recruit and that is what you need to sell during recruiting.  Yikes!

The second step is to add a little more honesty to your recruiting process.  No one is going to sit in an interview with an eager and nervous new candidate and tell them that the work environment is difficult, that they haven’t spent a holiday being tied to their laptop in three years, that they haven’t slept through the night in 4 months because of “emergencies,” and that their leader has the temper of the three-year old who was just told that there are no more fruit snacks.  That’s not going to happen.  But, if the job involves long hours, even really long hours; a candidate deserves to know.  If the job involves answering emails or doing conference calls on vacation; a candidate deserves to know.  If the job has highly volatile personalities; a candidate needs to know.  They should also be told that the company is struggling to come to a better place, and that they hope the candidate can help with that.  But if it is going to take alligator skin, a very accepting family, and blind execution; you’re not going to get the right candidate if you don’t make it clear what they need to succeed.  No one wants to hire temperamental maniacs who live only for work.  No one.  But until you get to step three, you’re not going to be able to align your display rules with the culture you desire, which will lead to continuous and potentially disastrous turnover.

Step three is the toughest one, and that is to make sure the culture you have matches the culture you (meaning executives, management, and employees) say you want.  And this is the hard work of looking at every project, every position, every hour worked, and every meeting through the lens of the culture you desire.  You put a stake in the ground, and every decision must be viewed as being a reflection of the past display rules or the culture you’re heading towards.  This is work unto itself, and it is painful.  It takes time, — time that the majority of our leaders do not have.  Status quo, — even when the work environment is miserable or toxic, — is so much easier than change.  You have to put in the work if you want to see the change.  It must be an agenda item for each meeting.  It must be in every performance review.  It must be a part of each planned project.  It must be included in each after-action report.  People must be free to speak up when they fall short, and they must feel obligated to speak up when they or others fall short.  Leaders must be transparent with their own short-comings.  It must be manually included and tracked until it becomes the reality.  It is not easy.  The work is worthwhile, and over time, the data begins to track with reduced turnover for new hires (and more engaged employees, increased profits, and all that other lagging data).

Employees who sign on with your company are taking on more risk than the simple act of buying a couch.  Their acceptance of an offer says they want to align their future with yours.  Their first day says they want your success to be their success.  They are embarrassed when it doesn’t work out – either by their decision or by theirs.  They are disappointed and may be angry.  They don’t want to say they made the wrong choice.  But they will, — and the data will back that up.

In the end, as embarrassed as I was, I went back to the furniture store, explained that the couch was not for me, and got a refund.  I wasn’t going to get a couch that didn’t match.  In fact, I didn’t get a new couch for another year or so.