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Company Culture Matters (But It May Not Be What You Think It Is)

A team of colleagues laughing and enjoying each others company

Culture in the workplace is arguably one of the hottest topics in business. Not only has research shown a strong positive relationship between culture and company performance, but 82 percent of people believe that culture is a potential competitive advantage, according to Deloitte’s 2016 Global Human Capital Trends survey.

Interestingly, while the business world knows culture is important, it’s still not well understood. Of those same Deloitte study respondents, only 28 percent said they understand their culture well—while a mere 19 percent believe they have the “right culture.”

During my 15 years in the staffing and recruiting industry, I’ve worked with companies that have great culture, bad culture, and no culture. Here are the five most important observations I’ve made along the way.

Culture is important.

These days, having a good work culture—”the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization,” according to Merriam-Webster—is a must. Not only is it the identity of your business, but along with the name and reputation of the company, salary, and benefits, culture is often a deciding factor in both enticing good candidates to join your company and retaining them.

In fact, a 2012 Columbia University study found that turnover in a company with high culture was only 13.9 percent—which seems like peanuts compared to 48.4 percent at companies with low culture. (This is especially worth thinking about when unemployment is only 3.9 percent across the US and competition for the best candidates is fierce.)

That’s especially true in a city like Austin, where businesses are unique and candidates are looking for dynamic and fulfilling careers. And don’t forget all the Millennials who flock here. According to American Express’ 2017 report, “Redefining the C-Suite: Business the Millennial Way,” 68 percent of Millennials in the U.S. want to make a positive difference in the world, 81 percent said a successful business needs to have a genuine purpose, and 78 percent said the values of their employer should match their own.

Of course, just because a company says its culture includes X, Y, and Z, doesn’t mean that it really does. Candidates can find out a company’s true culture simply by checking out reviews on websites including,, and, where employees dish on what it’s like to work for an organization.

Culture is not ping-pong tables in the lounge.

Ask just about anyone on the street to describe work culture, and he or she will probably mention catered meals and unlimited snacks, a casual dress code, ping-pong tables in the lounge, and unlimited vacation time. But contrary to popular belief, culture in the workplace is actually none of those things.

As Kari Wainwright, VP of Recruiting at supply chain provider Arrive Logistics, points out, “It’s important to differentiate environment vs. culture. Being laid-back, come-as-you-are, and getting free lunches is all environment. Attitude and mission are culture, and that’s what brings people to work every day.”

Culture is what you live every day.

Companies can’t just have a defined culture—every single person within that organization, from the CEO all the way down to the interns, needs to live it, every day.

At Whole Foods Market, for example, “team members know why they are here,” says Jen Davis, Head of Global Recruiting. The company’s core values, which are often painted on store walls, include selling the highest-quality natural and organic foods and “satisfying and delighting customers.”

Davis has the perfect story from before she worked for Whole Foods to illustrate that second value:

“I’d been vegetarian for nine years, but I decided to become a vegan five years ago on Cinco de Mayo,” she says. “I hadn’t done enough research, so I didn’t know what to eat. I was at Whole Foods, feeling lost, and the produce guy said, ‘Are you OK?’ I told him the situation, and it turned out he was vegan, too. He told me all I needed to do was find two to three healthy staples I could eat. ‘Don’t become a junk-food vegan,’ he said. I’ll always remember that.”

Davis, who calls Whole Foods markets “my favorite place on earth,” is just one example of a company scoring a lifelong customer (and future employee) based on a single memorable interaction with a happy employee who went above and beyond. That’s why culture is important.

Culture doesn’t have to be unique, just really good.

Psychologist and management expert Adam Grant of the Wharton Business School recently made headlines after saying that company cultures are more alike than people realize.

“Almost every company I’ve gone into, what I hear is, ‘Our culture is unique!’” Grant said on a recent episode of Recode Decode. “And then I ask, ‘How is it unique?’ and the answers are all the same.

I hear, ‘People really believe in our values and they think that we’re a cause, so we’re so passionate about the mission!’ Great. So is pretty much every other company. I hear, ‘We give employees unusual flexibility,’ ‘We have all sorts of benefits that no other company offers,’ and ‘We live with integrity in ways that no other company does.’ It’s just the same platitudes over and over.”

But Kim Davis, Executive Vice President and Chief HR Officer at insurance broker and consultant firm NFP, disagrees with Grant.

“I do think that every company’s culture is different, even if you have the same culture, because you’re going to have different clients, different customers, different outputs,” she says. “It’s a gross overstatement. People really drive their own company’s culture, from location to industry.”

In my opinion, it really doesn’t matter if your company’s culture is unique or not. All that matters is that the culture is good, that your employees live it, and that everyone looks forward to coming to work and producing each day.

It’s difficult to maintain culture as you grow, which is why you need a great recruiting partner.

One of the hardest things is keeping a company’s culture consistent through growth. More people, more offices, and more locations mean more opportunities for a company’s culture to change, get ignored, or fall by the wayside altogether. This is where hiring for cultural fit comes in.

At Arrive Logistics, which has grown from 10 employees to 500 in just four years, Wainwright says they look for people who embody the company’s internal motto, “Let’s f-ing go.”

“It’s about doing whatever it takes to get your job done and progress your career forward,” she says. “From sales to accounting to human resources, it’s uniformed across every department. We have a laid-back environment with an intense, fast-paced culture.”

If you use an outside staffing and recruiting firm, find one that understands the importance of hiring people who fit your culture—and that the most skilled person isn’t always the right person for the job. A good staffing firm will bring you candidates that not only fit in but can help shape the future direction of your company, too.

Roxie McLerran

About Roxie McLerran

For Roxie McLerran, successfully matching companies and job candidates is like second nature. A 15-year veteran of the staffing and recruiting industry, McLerran is known for her positive attitude, trustworthiness and ability to read people.

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