Research consistently shows that a strong, positive company culture boosts employee engagement, encourages productivity, and helps organizations in virtually all industries thrive. But whose job is it to build and sustain the culture in an organization?
In some sense, culture exists without any effort—culture is simply the beliefs, behaviors, and values the people in your organization hold, that influence how people interact and how work gets done. Changing your company’s culture and ensuring that it stays positive requires purposeful leadership, however.
Certainly, executive management sets the tone and makes decisions that influence organizational culture. However, human resources (HR) can also play an important part in this capacity. The following are a few examples of how HR can contribute to company culture:
Monitoring Company Culture
Culture changes over time for a number of reasons. For this reason, it’s essential for organizations to actively pay attention to their culture—to monitor their culture to determine how it has changed, whether people feel it promotes a positive atmosphere, and if they perceive any toxic or negative aspects.
This is a responsibility HR can handle. While other leaders may not have the time to constantly monitor the state of the organization’s culture, this job fits nicely within HR’s mandate.
For example, one way to learn about company culture is to distribute anonymous surveys to employees featuring questions on the topic. HR can design these surveys, distribute them, collect the results, and share any key findings with other major decision-makers. HR can also convene “culture focus groups” every so often, where a cross-section of employees can talk about culture and volunteer their opinions.
Identifying Areas for Improvement
Surveys and group discussions aren’t the only ways employees can let decision-makers know whether certain aspects of the culture need improvement. The complaints people make to HR can also reveal valuable insights.
For instance, perhaps an HR specialist notices that many of the complaints they receive indicate problems related to a lack of diversity among the workforce. This is a clear sign that the company’s culture hasn’t prioritized diversity sufficiently. Other complaints might focus on a particular person—don’t forget, culture may belong to a group, but one person can have an outsized impact on the culture within an organization, especially if they hold a key position.
By paying attention to what seems to bother employees the most, HR teams can start to identify company culture problems.
Communicating Culture from the Start
Leaders may develop strategies for promoting strong organizational cultures, but the workforce embodies them. It doesn’t matter how much an executive believes their organization’s culture should reflect a certain attitude or value—if employees don’t believe in the value or act on it, it’s just wishful thinking by the executive.
This is one reason why it’s important to communicate the culture to new hires from the start, both during the interview process and onboarding/training. Assessing whether a job candidate is a good culture fit is one of the more important parts of the hiring process. It’s also critical to explicitly communicate the organization’s values, the way team members relate to each other, and other aspects of the culture. This also allows people to set their expectations accordingly. HR is perfectly suited for these responsibilities, since they typically take the lead in hiring and onboarding.
Advocating for Culture
Executive leaders need to do more than just communicate the company’s culture to employees via HR. They also need to make management decisions that reinforce these values.
For instance, you can’t say your company respects employees’ need for a manageable work-life balance when people are expected to take work calls no matter what, work through illness, or complete major projects outside their job description. HR plays a delicate role, as the intermediary between company and employee, but they are also well positioned to notice when the company’s stated values don’t live up to the reality. In this way, HR can act as advocates for culture and for employees by bridging the gap from worker to management.
Ensuring Ex-Employees Share Positive Messages
A positive company culture can reduce turnover at organizations. That said, your employees will leave eventually, due to retirement, relocation, or other opportunities elsewhere. And of course, it’s sometimes necessary to let people go.
You want any ex-employees to speak about the company culture in a positive way after they move on. Word-of-mouth is a big part of your employer brand—the image you present to jobseekers. If several ex-employees have complaints about your culture, it will become difficult to attract the best talent. This is especially true now that websites like Glassdoor make it easy for jobseekers to find reviews of your company by current and former employees.
With that in mind, HR can help by implementing a respectful exit process that makes the experience as pleasant as possible for departing team members. The right exit process can be just as significant from a culture perspective as the onboarding process. Think of it as your last chance to leave a positive impression of the company.