Culture Shock

9 04 2010

Just this morning I was reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and came across a quote that struck me: “It’s the culture you find yourself in that determines [you]” (110).  I stopped and considered it not in the context the quote was intended but one that has been discussed in many of my classes in the past; the proverbial importance of corporate culture.

In PR and really all industries there are coined phrases that are repeated so often they begin to lose their meaning, and I would propose that the term “corporate culture” could be included in such a category. But as I approach graduation, my friends and I talk about company culture in not so many words as we sit down to lunch and discuss our job leads or recent interviews. The inevitable mention of what the people and the office are like or what the company’s social reputation is as a workplace are a direct reference to this idea of the value of a corporate culture to employees and potential employees; and through these discussions it is clear that career decisions are often determined not based on the salary or potential for advancement but the culture of the organization.

And this idea goes both ways. In these same conversations, it becomes equally clear that the employees on the other side of the desk doing the interviewing are just as concerned with figuring out the candidates as people as they are with the answers given in the 2o- or 30- minute question session. “Will this person fit in with me and my co-workers? Is this really someone I want to work with? What about go to happy hour with?”

Just last night I was lucky enough to have dinner with an old friend I’ve known since I was ten years old. We are both graduating this spring and she recently interviewed for a job in the biomedical engineering field in which she met with several members of the small office independently before the team took her out to lunch as part of the interview.  This is a great example of a company’s emphasis on the value of finding a team member who would fit the corporate culture. My friend went on to describe the lunch and how she was convinced that the hour they spent around a table chatting about nothing related to biomedical engineering was when the deal was sealed: they saw her act naturally and realized this was someone they could interact with on a daily basis. She was offered the job later that afternoon.

But it is important to remember (and validating to business) than finding employees that fit a corporate culture goes beyond deciding if you enjoy sharing a meal with them.  A company’s culture is its style, its personality, the way it does things. It is how decisions are made and what the managers, the CEOs, the secretaries think when they think about the company.  And in the end, it determines whether the business succeeds or fails.

Michael Otto’s article explains this idea and tackles the difficult task of how to evaluate corporate culture. You don’t intrinsically know the reasons why your employees come to work everyday. But as Ott states, “it is the real reason why you are in business that determines your company’s corporate culture,” so asking these hard questions is a great place to start. However, often these answers may be unsatisfactory or even discouraging and a change in corporate culture is desired. This presents an even more difficult task than evaluating the present culture, as such things as style and personality do not change overnight. Fast Company blog offers some advice for taking initial steps to improving corporate culture and set your company on the road to success.