If there’s someone more qualified to talk about messing up a good company culture, I don’t know her. Laurie Ruettimann is a former HR professional turned writer, speaker, and entrepreneur. She recently sat down for an interview in our San Francisco office to talk about what makes a good company culture, and, more important, what breaks it.
Hi, Laurie. Can you tell us what defines a company culture?
It’s an extraordinary feeling when employees operate on the same wavelength and rally around the mission and vision of an organization. However, people often overstate the characteristics of a healthy culture. If your employees respect one another and work toward a common set of goals, you’re on the right path.
What are the typical elements of a healthy culture?
A healthy culture is built on a foundation of solid HR practices. For example, don’t take forever to fill an open requisition. Pay people fairly. Recognize and reward exceptional employees. Have honest conversations with workers who struggle to meet their goals. Provide opportunities for people to learn and grow. It sounds easy, but foundational work is often the most significant challenge for a small business owner or a solo HR professional.
How do companies get culture wrong?
They hire consultants who overthink it.
Are you kidding?
No, I’m not kidding. I’m a pragmatic woman. The first way you can mess up your company’s culture is by hiring a consultant who surveys your workforce and makes all kinds of recommendations that have no bearing on reality. You know what I’m talking about. Tips and ideas that belong on the TV show Silicon Valley and aren’t practical or useful in your modest business environment.
The second way is to think about culture as something that’s special and separate from your everyday employee experience. Instead of working on small and meaningful ways to make your employees’ lives better, business owners are driven by ego instead of empathy and look for transformative or spiritual ways to impact the workforce.
Listen, it’s okay to read Harvard Business Review articles and strive to implement best practices from Fortune 500 companies. But if you have the budget to spend on a consultant who promises to audit and improve your culture, you should divert those funds and beef up your HR technology.
But what if I’m not an expert in culture or HR? Or I don’t have a ton of money for HR technology? Where do I start?
Breaking news—nobody is an expert in culture. Employees want an easy way to request time-off or add a new baby to their health insurance. They want feedback and direction without negative, unhelpful criticism. Before you buy a ping-pong table, start with the basics.
The good news is that there are vendors and customer success managers who have deep expertise on how to optimize affordable technology to improve the employee experience. Have a conversation with your payroll or benefits provider. See if they can offer additional wisdom, advice, and practical coaching.
How else do companies get culture wrong?
Companies are too obsessed with Millennials. I’m all about elevating the level of discourse and helping employees achieve their real potential, especially younger workers. But we have four generations of Americans in the workforce: Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, Millennials, and Gen Z. Don’t they all deserve to be inspired? Be bold and address pay inequality. Commit to removing bias from your hiring process, or start an initiative to improve work-life fit. Employees want leadership on tough issues. Inspire all of them by being in their corner.
What are some free or low-cost resources for small business owners or entrepreneurs who want to improve their culture?
Take advantage of the expertise that comes with your payroll and benefits technology. There are customer forums, blogs, traveling road shows, and even advisors who will consult with clients on topics from employee relations to building a better culture. I also love the SBA’s Business Guides and Score’s library for tools and resources.
Have any final thoughts for our readers?
Free food and beer are nice, but nobody stays at a company for snacks. Employees stay because they love the work, feel connected to their colleagues, and are compensated fairly for their efforts. Invest in the foundation of a people platform, and you’ll be way ahead of your competition.