HR Thrives in Culture Commitment: Steward, Gatekeeper, Catalyst?

By Nancy Painter

Once the domain of anthropologists and sociologists, the understanding of culture has become an area of significant interest in the corporate world.

Culture Enables Organizational Success
“Leaders now see organizational culture as an enabler of organizational success,” according to Ilka Bene, AVP of HR for Island Savings, a division of First West Credit Union, as well as CPHR BC & Yukon’s 2017 HR Professional of the Year.

Ilka Bene, CPHR

“I’ve worked with some wonderful leaders who were early adopters,” Bene continues, “Enlightened, smart leaders who asked themselves: what do we do well, what do we excel at? What are behavioural choices we routinely make and how can we use that as a competitive advantage?”

For example, if an organization’s culture is built on collaboration, it should build its strategy on that capability, she says, while an extremely competitive culture would have a different style of strategy built on its strengths.

Engagement Anchors Perpetual Motion
Bene points to the Service Profit Model introduced at Harvard University in the 80s. It begins with engaged employees who are emotionally invested in and committed to their work. As a result, they do good work. That leads to the delivery of good value to their customers. The engaged customers then bring more business, both their own and through referrals. In turn, the organization becomes stronger—more profitable and sustainable—and will thrive, which encourages engaged employees.

“The circle can become perpetual motion if everything is in the right place,” Bene says. “But the brightest and most enlightened leaders know that it only works in one direction, and you have to start with engaged employees.”

Minding the Culture Gap
While culture definitely impacts engagement levels, it envelops much more. It’s hard to define an organization’s culture, Bene says, but whether you look at a business or an individual, common questions—and unique answers—emerge: “How is the personality manifested? By what they do, by the choices they make.”

“The choices we make individually and collectively are based on our history, values, knowledge, but it comes down to behaviours. When you are describing your own personality, it’s even tougher than describing your best friend’s. There might be a gap between the stories we tell ourselves and the perceptions in the outside world,” explains Bene. “Lots of organizations have values, rules written down, a purpose or guiding principles. But if how we behave is not consistent with those, our culture reflects it. It’s like the person who says, ‘I’m generous,’ but doesn’t act in a generous way.”

Of Ownership and Efforts

Peter Tonkin

Peter Tonkin, HR manager at BigSteelBox in Kelowna, defines organizational culture as “the values and behaviour that contribute to the unique environment of an organization. It’s based on shared attitudes, beliefs, customs, and the written and unwritten rules that develop over time.”

“You could say it’s the way an organization conducts its business, how it treats its employees and its customers,” Tonkin relates.

The employee impact on the workplace is of similar importance.

“Culture is defined in the efforts employees make,” says Carolyn Stern, founder and emotional intelligence expert at EI Experience. “Are they just going through the motions or are they full of passion for what they do?”

“It’s a way of thinking and behaving and working in an organization, the shared values, attitudes, beliefs and standards for all employees,” she adds. “I think a lot of people get confused about what culture is and how you get it.”

Culture in a Nutshell

Carolyn Stern

Stern sums up culture as such:

  • Culture starts with vision and mission statements.
  • Organizational values are at the core of culture.
  • Culture must be protected in practice; if you say people are your best asset, you should be investing in them.
  • Culture survives through stringent hiring policies, only bringing in employees who either share the existing values or are willing to embrace them.
  • Culture is encouraged by “the ability to unearth that organizational story and craft it into a narrative.”
  • Culture can also be shaped by place, such as architecture or workspace. “For example, when did we decide people learn best in rows? When I teach, I put everyone in a circle so that every student can see everyone else.”

Culture Can be Magic or Tragic
Paul Taylor, VP of people and culture at Purdys Chocolatier, offers a slightly different perspective.

“For me, culture is really about what employees consistently see, feel, hear and do at work on a day-in, day-out basis—how they feel overall about their experiences there throughout their career,” Taylor says. “An engagement survey can tell you something about a culture, but it’s a snapshot of a specific time. Culture is more about how you feel and what you believe about a company the whole time that you’re there, how you feel about going to work.”

Paul Taylor, CPHR

He recalls a job he had where the culture was “awful” and where he felt dread, almost fear, about going to work, wondering what was going to happen that day. In his current position, he anticipates exciting challenges instead of that gut feeling of dread.

Keeping a Measure of Culture
While most descriptions of culture are intangible, there are indicators that can reveal the health of an organization’s culture, Taylor explains.

An engagement survey offers a picture of the pulse of the culture and can help identify strong or weak spots in the organization. However, he adds that we can also listen to the conversations people are having, the concerns they have and whether or not they feel comfortable raising them.

Comments from both current and former employees on can provide another good read on how a culture is doing, Taylor adds. Purdys has found that its glassdoor analytics generally align with its engagement scores.

BigSteelBox’s Tonkin points to a variety of indicators that can reflect the state of a culture: engagement surveys, exit interviews, turnover, customer satisfaction surveys, productivity and performance, health and safety records, absenteeism, focus group results, employee involvement in corporate programs and community involvement.

Emphasizing community involvement, he points out that their store managers are empowered to offer discounts or even free service to fill local charitable needs, whether it’s a container to ship shoes to Nicaragua or needed goods to a disaster area, or a collection box for a local need.

Guided by Leadership Choices
As for who builds a culture, HR has its hands full, but the vision is enabled from above.

“I believe culture is sent from the top down,” Taylor says. “The most senior positions in a company usually set the tone and culture, not just by what they say, but in their actions—what they do and their operational practices. Are they congruent, do they align?”

At Purdys, he adds, executive decisions are always subjected to: “Does this decision fit with our values?”
Once senior leaders model the behaviour, key influencers will become champions throughout the organization, he adds. “Our shop managers are key influencers. They’re true professionals at modelling culture and keeping it alive.”

He’s heard from shop and district managers who’ve worked elsewhere that visits from senior executives in those companies often created some fear. Leaders wouldn’t speak much, but would send plenty of feedback after their visits.

In contrast, when Purdys executives show up at a store, they talk to everyone. They might jump in to serve a customer or help unpack an order. They’re all ready to chip in and help wherever they’re needed, he says, from staffing the front counter to taking out the garbage.

A True Trickle-Down Effect
If leadership models culture and key influencers adopt and promote it, it can permeate an organization to the extent that it is modelled in every employee

Bene recalls a time when people would call Island Savings and ask what jobs were available. “At that time, the area of growth for us was insurance, but people didn’t see it as a possibility unless they knew someone in it. I’d tell them, ‘’You’ve got a car, you live somewhere, so you have insurance needs. Go to one of our insurance offices and sit down with any agent. While you’re doing your renewal, ask them about their jobs, what it’s like working here.’”

“I never worried about what they’d hear,” Bene says. “There has to be a lot of trust in the strength of your culture to do that.”

She tells a more recent story. “I recently talked to a candidate who had read our reviews on glassdoor and who offered her opinion on a few things. Wow! Her perception of our culture was created possibly before she even looked at our website, before she spoke to anyone here, got an email from us or stepped foot in one of our locations,” shares Bene. “The rules have changed. We no longer have the impression that we’re in control of people’s perceptions of our culture.”

“Culture can be the defining part of an organization’s narrative,” Bene concludes. “It becomes what we’re known for—our customers don’t see our strategy or our profit and loss statements. I choose where to spend my money based on where I perceive employees are engaged in a strong and positive culture. People don’t want to spend time where everybody else doesn’t want to be there.”

Core Culture Stewardship
If it’s true, as Bene believes, that “a good culture is when there is conscious alignment of what an organization says it believes with its programs, structure, and actions taken, (then) HR is extensively involved in the middle piece of that.”

Through its work on leadership development, compensation, goal setting, change management and even recruitment, HR shores up and elevates the organization’s stated culture.

“If they say, ‘we’re collaborative and have a team-oriented atmosphere,’ then we need to reward that, and people will make choices based on that,” Bene explains. She points to the example of a Canadian airline that does recruitment interviews in groups, because the jobs they’re filling are all about achieving results as part of a team.

“Or there are some occupations that need more alone-time, that are more analytical. The other side of the coin is making sure our processes are still inclusive enough to attract all types,” Bene adds. “If an organization is full of extroverts, you need to attract some people with other qualities, too. HR has a huge role in that.”

Tonkin calls HR the steward of organizational culture, while Stern describes it as the gatekeeper. “We are the neutrality between business needs and employee needs. If employees believe they can trust HR and management, culture flourishes,” Stern says.

Commitment Over Compliance
One of the reasons organizational culture is so much more important than it once was is that companies are always and seriously looking for talent, Stern says. “The carrot and stick philosophy is no longer valid. People want to feel valued, connected, doing things they want to do, with a work/life balance. They’re looking for commitment, not compliance.”

“You can’t buy top talent; money is not the most important factor. Culture is what attracts and keeps top talent,” Stern explains. “When we recruit, we want to know the entire person. Their outside life doesn’t just go away when they walk in the door to work.”

Tonkin notes that he’s developed interview tools for Big Steel Box store managers, which encourage them to ask potential employees about culture, and for examples of their own volunteering or things they’ve done to benefit their community.

Valuing Individuals in Culture
Once employees are hired, Stern adds, it’s important that people and processes are in place to check in with them on a regular basis to ask if what they’re experiencing is what they signed up for. “When people feel they are part of something bigger than themselves, they are much more motivated. That increased creativity and teamwork ultimately affects profitability. It’s all about creating that system where people can learn and grow.”

Tonkin tells how BigSteelBox brings together every single employee from locations across the country, along with their spouses, for three days every two years at company expense. They stay in a good hotel and each is given a $300 credit to use at a company auction that offers household items, yard and garden equipment, toys, strollers and baby gear, luxury items—almost anything a person could need.

“The spouses were saying, ‘Whoa, I can’t believe what you’re doing!’ The activity does a lot for culture and we will perpetuate it,” Tonkin says. He adds that an extra $300 bonus at the end of the year would soon disappear, but the memorable experience and the chance to “buy” needed items are remembered for a long time.

Another part of BigSteelBox’s culture is its commitment to education via 400-plus online training courses, for both job-specific and personal skills, which employees, as well as their spouses and children can also access free of charge. Employees are allowed a certain number of hours per year for online training, but can use the resources as much as they want on their own time.

“It’s about asking, what tools can we give them to help them be successful?” Tonkin says. “If you’ve got a great culture, employees really care. They’ll go the extra mile, improve themselves, and are willing to go the extra mile with their colleagues and customers, too.”

Turning Culture Around
The consensus is clear: a strong, healthy culture has multiple benefits for an organization and ultimately helps the bottom line. The opposite holds equally true.

“A bad culture leads to stagnation, presenteeism where people do only what they have to do, the absolute minimum,” Tonkin says. “It doesn’t allow you to differentiate your performance or customer service.”

Changing a culture for the better can be a slow, difficult process. “It takes persistence. Employees respond to what they see on a regular basis,” explains Stern. “You have to start with the basics. What do you value and how do you show it in day-to-day operations?

“For example, we had a client who sold products that their crews then installed. They prided themselves on their customer service, but they evaluated the crews on the number of units they installed per day. We changed that; obviously their performance management system was out of whack. It should have been measuring how great the customer experience was during installations. You have to decide what matters most, and reward people for that,” says Stern.

“HR is the hub of making sure that what we say matters, actually does matter,” Stern adds. “You gain good culture through consistency, doing the right thing even if no one is watching.”

Culture (Still) Eats Strategy for Breakfast
Most HR practitioners are familiar with the famous quote often attributed to the late business management guru Peter Drucker. It’s probably even more true today than when it was first spoken more than a decade ago.

“I was at a conference in Washington, D.C., in October and the theme of the entire conference was organizational culture,” Taylor says. “One keynote speaker said the main HR topic coming up on board-of-directors calls was, ‘Do we have the right culture? Will it get us the results we need?’”

“Senior executives and boards of directors see culture as being crucial to getting any king of strategic initiative accomplished,” Taylor says. “They know they need a strong culture to execute whatever strategy they need to get done.”

As Bene says, “We can put our best intentions forward, but if we haven’t looked at whether or not we have the culture in place to achieve those goals, we’ve only done half the job.”

Or as former Ford Motor Company CEO Mark Fields once said, “You can have the best plan in the world, and if the culture isn’t going to let it happen, it’s going to die on the vine.”

Nancy Painter is an award-winning communication consultant and writer based in Surrey. An internationally Accredited Business Communicator, she is a member of both the International Association of Business Communicators and the Professional Writers Association of Canada.

(PeopleTalk Winter 2017)

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