HR Executives Ponder the All-Important Buzzword: Culture

Salt Lake City—The Culture Wars are on. As Utah’s economy grows, companies are in constant need of a greater number of skilled employees, and they’ll do whatever it takes to lure them. In today’s competitive workforce marketplace, what’s seen as one of the most powerful weapons in a company’s arsenal is having a great workplace culture. But what does that really mean, when you get right down to it?

A group of 14 human resources professionals gathered Thursday morning at Holland and Hart’s downtown offices at Utah Business’ annual HR Roundtable. They considered many topics surrounding the HR industry today, ranging from healthcare concerns to workforce development. But culture—what it is, what it means and why it’s so important—is a basic and pervasive issue in the field. In many companies, the issue of a company’s culture is seen as HR’s domain—when, in truth, it isn’t at all, says Aaron Call, VP of Sales and Operations at G&A Partners.

“I think the fallacy is that it’s HR’s problem to fix,” he said. “I heard a speaker once say that your culture is what your employees believe when leadership isn’t around. Senior leadership is really good at standing up and saying ‘this is what our culture is and this is our mission statement, or values, our vision.’ They try to create culture on paper. … A great leadership team will realize that culture is really developed at that middle manager level.”

If that all-important company culture doesn’t seep into that middle-manager level (or even further down, to the entry-level supervisor level, says Dan Walker, VP of HR at Clyde Companies), you can toss out your company’s cultural mission statement, because it won’t be getting to most of your employees outside the c-suite.

“In construction, we’ve got project teams out in the field—culture is defined by the entry-level supervisor managing our employees. If the culture doesn’t filter down through that supervisor, it doesn’t get to a … good 60 percent of our workforce. That makes up our entire team,” says Walker.

Instead, HR professionals should challenge the concept of culture and shift the ownership of the concept onto the team as a whole. For Jeanine Wilson, she uses the imagery of a school of fish when explaining culture to new employees.

“I say our culture is us. It’s all of us together,” says Wilson. “As you come into that school of fish, it changes slightly. We morph slightly, but we continue to work as a team toward that same goal … Together, that is our culture. You are part of your culture. I try to instill in them that they own it. They create change on their own.”

Finally, know what you’re dealing with. Is your company culture about what department has the most foosball tables or the most snacks? Or is your company culture something a little more basic, but far deeper?

“I challenge the word culture. What does it even mean? What does it mean to our workforce?” mused Johanna Barraco. “… What I’ve been able to boil it down to when talking with employees is the way they’re being treated. Mutual respect. They want to be heard. A supervisor in the front line, if they change a schedule and don’t even consult with that employee, that’s a lack of respect, a lack of communication, and there’s a breakdown in the culture. Employees then tend to say: ‘That isn’t something I want to be a part of.’ … It’s about core values and how we treat people.”

The discussion was moderated by Monica Whalen, formerly of the Utah Employers Council. Read the entire conversation in the October issue of Utah Business.