bad company culture

Help! My Company Culture Sucks

You’ve taken the first step. You’ve come to the realization that your company culture is less than stellar and you feel some responsibility to fix it. The poster on the wall that blares: “Integrity… Responsibility… Accountability…” just isn’t saving the day. Perhaps you’ve recently been turned down by some hot candidates, lost some star players or received poor feedback on an employee survey. Or maybe you’ve been observing downward trends in your Glassdoor reviews. Or possibly you’re growing quickly and the culture you loved seems like it’s slipping away with every new hire. Developing and maintaining a healthy corporate culture is hard work, but there are steps you can take to improve your company culture.

Step 1: Involve Your Employees

Instead of creating a new poster with a bunch of clever, inspiring words and hanging copies in the hallways, find out what employees think and want. What do they think of your current culture? Take a look at the pros and cons that stand out in your Glassdoor reputation word clouds. What cultural traits jump off the page for each? Of those, which are serving you well? Which are holding you back? You can also take a quick, two-question anonymous survey of your employees, asking them to give you the one pro and the one con that stand out in describing the current culture and the most important positive quality that’s missing.

[Related: Employers, learn the five ingredients that go into a great work environment and culture]

Just like any other leadership situation, employees must buy-in to be most effective. After surveying them, be transparent about the results so they know their opinions matter. Have your leaders meet with their teams and get more depth about what’s working and what’s not, then incorporate that into the new cultural goals that you set for your company. When you have a draft of the new cultural guidelines, make sure you get their opinions one more time and incorporate their feedback before you roll them out.

Step 2: Get Your Leadership Team on the Same Page

This can be one of the most challenging steps, but it’s critical that the entire leadership team agrees what they want their culture to be. Compromise is essential, and there must be a commitment to reaching an agreement. Start by taking a simple survey similar to the one given to employees. Discuss those items in depth, in multiple sessions if need be, and arrive at a reasonable consensus about the direction of the culture, whom the culture needs to serve and how it will be rolled out. Buy-in by your leaders is just as important as employees’ buy-in – they will help establish and implement those chosen values within your organization.

Step 3: Develop Stories as Your Guide Rails

What does your story communicate about your culture? Stories are the most powerful way to create a clear cultural roadmap. They are much easier to understand and digest than words and can be used to guide people in situations where they might be approaching the boundaries of acceptable behavior. A good place to start is to unearth stories of the unusual or special ways the company started, or the ways leaders have been observed living the most important ones at work. To add clarity, develop stories that illustrate the culture you want (and don’t want). For example, if one of your values is “We do the Impossible,” find a story that illustrates a time you overcame a major obstacle and succeeded. Conversely, if you want to create an egalitarian workplace, tell stories that illustrate how all voices are heard.

There are many ways to get started gathering and creating these stories. Take employee surveys, run a contest for the best story, interview key people at the company, or ask employees to send you examples from day-to-day company life that illustrate particular values. Once you have them, compile them into compelling visual stories using photos and videos and communicate them to all of your audiences.

Step 4: Infuse Cultural Values into Recruiting, Hiring and Onboarding

Your values should be a key part of candidate attraction, the interview process and how you train your new staff.  Get them on board with your culture from their very first interaction with you! When someone is considering applying for a job, no matter the source, they should get a good sense of your culture and your stories. Once they apply, their experience should match those expectations, from the first contact to every interview, to the follow-up communication. When new employees are onboarded, they should get more details of the culture, stories and the expectations for behavior that will lead to a positive cultural experience.  Cultural values are often ignored in training, but they should be a key area of your onboarding plan to help make new employees successful from day one.

Step 5: Drive and Reinforce Through Leadership

Your leaders are the drivers of your culture. They need to set the example. Once you’ve developed your cultural values and stories, don’t stop at the poster on the wall when communicating them to employees. Leaders that are not exhibiting those words on the wall can poison the well and negate any progress in making your culture great. Keeping a company on track with values requires consistency, similar to educating or parenting. Make contracts with your employees, use guide rail stories to keep them on track, and find a way to make it fun by rewarding those that display cultural values and by reminding those who go slightly off track with stories. Have your leaders re-group for regular check-ins, and put a plan in place to solicit and act on employee feedback regularly—company culture is not a “one and done” deal, rather it’s s a constantly evolving process that needs nurturing and feeding. It requires a tremendous amount of effort, but the rewards are worth it.