Stated Versus Lived Culture We Can Do Better

Culture, the personality of an organization. “What’s the culture like at the company?” This is not an uncommon question that candidates ask during the interview process. “We are like a family.” “It is open door.” “Work hard and play hard.” These are not uncommon responses to the question, provided by Hiring Managers and Human Resources Representatives. Unfortunately, it is also not uncommon to have these answers not be quite true.

As a Human Resources Consultant, I find in organizations that the stated culture versus the lived culture often does not match. Employers strive to have these amazing cultures. Aspirational culture goals are to be admired. The risk, though, is when employers assure candidates of one culture and then when they become employees, they experience a different culture. We can do better. Employees need to trust their employers. Imagine how that trust is weakened once an employee realizes they were professionally gaslighted. It is something like a man using a picture of Brad Pitt on his dating app. The fantasy is great but when reality hits upon meeting and well, the date is not quite movie star material, there is immediate disappointment. Unlike in dating where a person can get up to go to the bathroom and not return to the table, it is not quite so easy once a person has accepted and started a job. Most people cannot leave a job without another job waiting for them. Thus, finding a way to remain engaged in a job working in a culture that is less-than-what-they-expected can be absolutely demoralizing.

I challenge that it is the responsibility of the organization to help match the lived culture to the stated culture. We must do better. How can HR help? I recommend this very simply yet impactful facilitated exercise. Bring your management team together and ask them to get in some small groups (3 – 5 people per group). Ask them to address the following scenario…

You are asked by a member of the press or an interviewing candidate, ‘what is the culture’, how would you respond? (Remind them that they are acting as an ambassador of the organization.) Once the groups are brought back into one large group, ask for the responses describing the culture. This is when you will hear all of those platitudes including “A great place to work” “All for one, one for all.”

Then put the people back into their smaller groups and ask them to address this next scenario…

You are sitting in a bar on Friday night. You are at a booth with high-backs and at the booth next to you are a group of employees from the organization with their family members. After a few beers, they begin talking about the culture at the company. How would they describe the culture? Once the groups are brought back into one large group, ask for the responses describing the culture that an employee group might be sharing with their coworkers and family after a few beers. The responses you are likely to hear are things like “Micromanagement” “Overworked” “Favoritism” “No work/life balance”. (Be prepared for the participant resistors who will say “Everything we said in Round One would be repeated in this scenario”. I call that ‘wishful thinking’ or denial. While it is possible that there will be some crossover from the stated culture versus the lived culture, there are always things that do not match up.)

Conducting this activity provides a great chance to open up conversation with management and leadership about what is the culture we are truly striving for versus what is the culture-reality right now. More importantly, beginning to identify what can be done towards creating a stated culture that matches a lived culture.

What are the potential wins with these culture-match efforts?

  •       Employee retention.
  •       Employee engagement.
  •       Strengthened respect for management and leadership.
  •       Strengthened candidate pool.
  •       Increased customer appreciation.

We will do better. Imagine the next time you are at a bar and you overhear employees talking about the culture of the company. The conversation is so positive that you bring over a pitcher of beer and join them. Cheers to the company culture!

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