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cultureisracistandsexist

For years, I’ve been saying that your company doesn’t have a culture. You are incorrectly applying the word “culture” to a group of people who behave a certain way because their lives are dominated by a few powerful figures in your office.

That’s it. Your shitty software company or little marketing agency doesn’t have a culture — it has a CEO and a leadership team that has particular points of view about how work should “feel.”

You? You show up and go along with the flow. You cash your check. If you don’t like the vibe in the office, you eventually quit.

I’m on record saying that “culture” is what we talk about when a company’s products and services are unremarkable. We pay employees in culture when we can’t pay them in cash.

I have also written that hiring for “fit” is a lie. Most people don’t know how to hire, so they zero in on likeability and gut-level bullshit that cannot be measured by good folks, like me, who believe that you can measure human capital decisions.

Fit is nonsense, but lots of leaders push back and tell me, “Oh, Laurie. Screening for skill is easy. It’s the gut-level stuff in the trenches — personality, likeability, trustworthiness — that’s the hardest to measure.”

That’s garbage. Fit is a lie we tell ourselves because we don’t know how to weight the one-two-punch of competency and character. What’s worse is that hiring for fit is often a cover for lazy, racist, sexist, bigoted, exclusionary, elitist, ageist and homophobic preferences in the work environment.

So I’m on record all over the goddamn internet with those statements. I have called bullshit on culture and fit before it was cool to hate on Zappos. I won’t walk any of it back, either, but it’s getting harder and harder for me to watch HR professionals play in the intersection of culture and fit without wishing someone would get hit by a car. When you talk about culture and fit, you sound like a tool.

Human resources leaders have an obligation to guard against group-think and homogeneous hiring methodologies. We have an obligation to ensure that the best ideas get heard and that the best employees move forward within an organization. We have an obligation to advocate on behalf of the cranky, grouchy, unlikeable employees who question everything and don’t go along with the flow. When we don’t do our jobs and question everything — including culture and fit — Goldman Sachs happens.

I want my friends and colleagues in human resources to start making evidenced-based decisions. I want them to think before they jump on the business jargon bandwagon. While I think it’s okay to love your CEO, I think the cult of celebrity CEO leadership compels many people to lose their freaking minds.

So remember where you heard it first. Culture and fit are lies we tell ourselves because we are afraid of the hard truths behind the unglamorous, unsexy, boring world of work.

Maybe you should stop lying to yourself and your employees. That’s one pretty easy way to fix the reputation of human resources.

42 Responses to Company Culture is a Myth
  1. Michael Heller

    I’m not copping out with my short post, and I usually agree with most of your posts. I totally disagree with you on this one. Maybe there’s a better term for it (in cars they call it fit and finish) but corp culture is the thing that makes it breaks an individual’s experience at a company. The other tangibles are very important too, as you say above. I don’t care how much a company pays me, if the environment is shitty I’m not sticking around.

    • Megan

      Agreed.

    • ruettimann

      Okay, Michael. Thank you!

  2. John

    YES!

  3. martin snyder

    Oh I think you are way off on this one Laurie.

    First, like every single HR discussion in the universe, it has to be prefaced with a scale factor.

    At small scales, “culture” is VERY real and powerful. Small group bonds are among the most powerful motivators. Small group culture is not always, or even often, dominated by the powerful people who control the group externally, especially when the group is highly skilled and autonomous. If you have ten teams at a manufacturing site, you can bet there will be different cultures among them.

    At larger scales (beyond 20-50 people max) you are absolutely correct that there is no actionable “fit” or “culture” beyond the usual broader social demographics and markers.

    Below that? Ask anyone who has ever coached a football team or run a small volunteer group or worked at a very small company. “Fit” is real and it moves elites as much as they move it….

    Now lets talk about a “fun” work environment if you want to talk about some bullshit…..

    • ruettimann

      Are bonds at work culture? I’m not so sure.

  4. Jerry Albright

    First!

  5. Jeff Waldman

    Laurie, you know I love reading your stuff… I hope you do anyway! I think you’re way off base on this one but I’m sure when you wrote it you wanted a bunch of us to chime in and disagree.

    According to Merriam Webster culture within a business setting is “a way of thinking, behaving, or working that exists in a place or organization (such as a business)”. I have worked with dozens upon dozens of very different organizations of all shapes and sizes. They each have their own unique and distinctive culture, good and bad… doesn’t matter.

    As long as I’m being paid fairly it’s company culture that dictates whether I flourish, stick around or leave. Of course senior leadership need to set the rules, describe how they want their employees to operate… it’s their f$%cking business that they are in charge of running.

    However, I do agree with you about your point about jumping on the jargon bandwagon. HR people spend more time coining new terms than actually delivering on basic shit. Employer branding, employment branding, talent brand, brand this, brand that…. call it whatever you like, just fricking do it.

    As long as organizations are staffed with human beings you will always have a culture. We’re humans, we breathe, we feel… all of this makes up corporate culture.

  6. Michael D. Haberman, SPHR

    You said “Human resources leaders have an obligation to guard against group-think and homogeneous hiring methodologies. We have an obligation to ensure that the best ideas get heard and that the best employees move forward within an organization.”

    I ask why? Why is this the domain of HR? Shouldn’t this be the task of management in general?

    • ruettimann

      How many times have I written that HR does the work that mgmt should do itself? Too many. I have no more friends left in HR. 🙁

      • Michael D. Haberman, SPHR

        So how do we guard against group think? Perhaps teaching management that people are their responsibility? Is this a better solution than being the caretaker or “guardian of the galaxy”?

  7. Erika

    I just want to say this article actually had me screaming “YES!” I’m sure it startled my office mate first thing this morning. I am so tired of being associated with decisions and practices being made that are based off nothing! Why? Why? Why?
    We are completely surrounded by resources that provide us with evidence based information to make smarter decisions but yet guts are valued above all things. I 100% agree with everything you have to say about “fit.” I actually just had an episode when someone who was perfect for a position was turned down because they were not a good fit (aka not young).
    The only thing though is that I think culture is observable-measureable, I think the issue is that what a CEO typically thinks their culture is not really what is going on.
    “I’m on record saying that “culture” is what we talk about when a company’s products and services are unremarkable. We pay employees in culture when we can’t pay them in cash.”
    I don’t know about this statement though because when we think of company culture, I think everyone automatically thinks about Google, and I don’t know that googles products would necessarily be considered unremarkable. I also have no idea how well google compensates.
    I think there are companies that do culture correctly then there is everyone else who use it for an excuse for poor practices. I think that HR professionals who are playing in the intersection of culture are (should) really just promoting the need for a better workplace environment. I definitely think and I think it’s the same thing you are saying is that… but when it comes to hiring decisions all that should take a back seat.
    Anyway love your article!

  8. Garick Chan

    Is personality the same thing as culture? Is it possible to determine the intangible aspects of a person that can’t necessarily be defined on paper and isn’t this what we are hired to do as recruiters?

    Personally, I like to see myself something of a casting director. Yes, there is a fit and a place for everyone but not everyone will fit in every place.

    • ruettimann

      Interesting, Garick. Thanks.

  9. Jeremy Roberts

    I love this post! Recruiters are evaluated and compensated based on how many jobs they fill. Telling them to screen for culture fit is laughable.

    • ruettimann

      SCREEN FOR CULTURE DAMMIT.

  10. Amber

    I have never commented on an article in my life, but I couldn’t let this one slide.

    The very definition of the word culture according to Merriam Webster is “a way of thinking, behaving, or working that exists in a place or organization (such as a business)”.

    I can understand your opinion that when it’s a few people telling employees how to behave, it’s not a culture; however, the practice of regurgitating this concept to employees and hiring for fit will eventually form a culture.

    Once the company’s growth expands past the point that those “few powerful people” have day-to-day interactions with the group, if that culture is sustained, it is not merely a matter of control. It would not be sustainable and transferable if the group did not embrace it and live it.

    Hiring for fit in a culture is effective, even critical. If part of your culture is “we work until 6pm every night” and you hire someone who is a clock watcher who leaves at 5pm on the dot, he is not going to mesh with the rest of the team. There will be animosity and resentment. If you continue to hire those people, your culture will inevitably shift.

    I agree that gut feelings are not an end all-be all solution, but if they are based on behavioral interviews, asking the right questions and reading body language, they can be helpful for making a close decision.

    Culture is very real, and while perhaps there ARE companies out there using the term as a cop out, as you suggest, it can also be the very reason for success at another company.

    Culture changes you. It takes a while for this to happen and you may rebel against it from time to time, but if it is a true culture, the change is inevitable. Once you achieve buy-in status (which could take years), you will find that you no longer want to work for a company that does not have that type of culture.

    Hiring for fit is an integral part of sustaining culture.

    Also, if you truly believe that HR should be an advocate for employees who do nothing but question policies and complain you are simply perpetuating all the negative connotations surrounding HR. What CEO will take you seriously as a business partner if this is your goal?

    I have respected that you are a strong woman who is not afraid to voice controversial opinions as you work to improve the field of HR, but this particular article is a direct contradiction to this objective.

    • ruettimann

      Glad to have your comment, Amber. I address the definition in the first link in my article. Thanks again!

  11. Shannon

    I can’t say whether or not I agree, but here is what I believe to be true:

    “Culture” is a single word definition of “what it’s like to work at this company”.

    “Fit” can be applied to either the company OR the specific position.

    When using “fit” for the company, then I do believe that is related to the culture. When using “fit” for the position, it is what makes me think the person would be happy doing the work required of that role day in and day out. For example, I am a great fit for the culture of my company, but if they tried to put me in an Accounting position, I would stab myself in the eyeballs.

    That being said, I think both can be tied back to the Mission, Vision, and Values that are defined by The Powers That Be. Combined, these should identify what core behavioral competencies every employee needs to possess in order to be successful at the organization, and incorporate assessments, behavioral interviewing, and performance management around those core behavioral competencies.

    I believe that is how you build “culture”.

  12. Kelly O

    I think you’ve really hit on an important point. We try to sell people on “culture” when there is a lack of selling points in other areas.

    If you’re paying me a market-appropriate salary, providing good benefits, decent PTO, and don’t let crazy people manage, I’m going to be happy and stay. Forget the complimentary Keurig, or the Foosball table, or the fully-stocked kitchen. Those things are okay, but they’re not going to keep me.

    Give me an opportunity to grow, understand who I am as a person, and let me run with my job, and I will be happier than you can possibly imagine.

    Although in my current job search, I’ve found that companies who harp on culture are also the ones who require a Bachelor’s degree for their receptionist, and talk about how we “work hard, play hard” which is usually code for “hope you like overtime!”

    Just be honest with people about who you are and what you’re doing. Good employees are smart enough to read through the BS, and the best employees won’t put up with it, which puts you back at square one.

  13. Natasha

    Interesting and bold – do you think you can do a follow-up post about what you would do instead? I get the concrete factor (this is why we have clear skills and competencies mapped to job roles and why we measure people regularly against those). What I am not getting is along the lines of what others have commented on – culture – or perhaps there is another word – the way you feel at work; how stressed you are; the demands put on employees; the colors on the walls; the way your CEO and managers communicate to you – these all form a ‘culture’. And it does matter whether you can or cannot pay employees. Would love more thoughts from you on this. Thanks!

    • ruettimann

      I’ve written about this a bazillion times … with solutions on hiring for competency and being a compassionate employer that pays people a living wage and encourages a holistic approach to life, performance, creativity, etc.

  14. Dawn Burke

    My take away from this: I guess I must sound like a tool.

    If done right, the cultural norms (especially if driven bottom up) do differentiate businesses from their competition. And help move a company.

    Unfortunately, you do need a CEO to advocate. If your CEO “creates the culture” by incorporating continuous feedback from employees (like incessantly) then it can work.

    When CEO’s don’t do that – that is when ego, pride and megalomania take over.

    • ruettimann

      I don’t know if there’s any real proof that culture — as defined by what? — creates a competitive advantage. I think performance creates a competitive advantage.

      And you’re not a tool. xo

      • Dawn Burke

        xoxo back at ya.

        A culture that places tremendous value on performance (execution, feedback) certainly can be a one-two punch.

  15. Ben Gotkin

    I agree with you on one thing, you can’t force a culture on an organization. Culture isn’t something that is defined at the C-Level and sold or forced on employees. When that happens, it is a bunch of BS. But I’ve been fortunate in my career to work at and consult with great companies where very unique cultures grew organically and have been reinforced through the consistent behaviors of their staff and leaders over a period of time. Companies that I worked at like Marriott and MITRE have very unique cultures that defined how the people there worked and how they did their business. I was at Intelsat when it had an amazing diverse, global culture, which was then torn apart after it’s privatization during the recession of the early 2000s.

    Hiring for fit is another story. To your point, most managers do a poor job of hiring for fit because they were never taught how to do so effectively. Interviewing and assessment is a skill that is rarely taught at any level, and to make things worse, most organizations don’t give enough valid thought as to what truly defines their culture, ‘fit’ and ’employment value proposition’, and how that translates at the organizational, functional and team level. I’ve trained thousands of managers and interviewers over the past 14 years on how to interview more effectively and have helped organizations define their behavioral competency model and employment value proposition. When all of that combined is executed well, then it becomes very possible to assess and select talent who do fit the culture and behavioral values of an organization, a function, a team and a particular job. But an organization has to make a significant effort to make that happen.

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  17. Thomas Bridge

    Great blog.

    Two minor points, which I hope you take with good grace given the style of your writing.

    1. Check is spelt cheque
    2. I do remember where I heard it first. But it wasn’t here – it was Guy Hayward, CEO of Goodman Masson, several years ago.

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  20. Pete Radloff

    Laurie,

    I’m usually right there with you. But I’m starting to feel like you’re running out of stuff to say, and are just arbitrarily hating against things. And I love ya, I do. But you’re also talking from a standpoint where you havent been in a real corporate environment since 2007. And that was a monster of a company, where culture (i’d rather call it fit) is less important than “can you do the job and move the needle on the stock price”.

    SO yeah, maybe culture is a sham, but fit isn’t. The other day, I screened a candidate who was firing on all cylinders. Until she got to the point, where she said, “well you know, with my current job, sometimes I need to be here past 5, and THEN I have to take work home”. That’s just not going to work with the team I’m hiring for. It’s not part of the job description, but it is how they roll, and so I have to screen her out.

    So if we define culture as fit for work style – then you bet your tush it matters. If it’s something as ambiguous as just the word culture (and that varies by definition for EACH company), then sure, it might mean less.

    Again, love you and all that you do, but I think you stretched a bit on this one.

    • ruettimann

      Pete, that’s kind of awful: “But I’m starting to feel like you’re running out of stuff to say, and are just arbitrarily hating against things.” Especially since I’ve been saying this for years, am on record saying things like this, and I’m reaffirming my educated and thoughtful opinion on something.

      • martin snyder

        Unless Laurie has a neurodegenerative condition of some type, I’m pretty confident that she remains one of the most interesting persons on these innertubez- and not just in the HR context.

        As to personal experience being required to insightfully understand every situation? Bullshit. A fine imagination transcends time and space….

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