What We Talk About When We Talk About Organizational Culture

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It’s no secret that organizational culture matters. Most of us have experienced how the anxiety and frustration that come from a toxic workplace seep into everyday life: and the data back this up. According to Indeed & Glassdoor’s 2023 Hiring and Workplace Trends Report, 90% of people believe that how they feel at work is important to them and 86% say that how they feel at work impacts how they feel at home. The same report found that—after pay considerations—stress, lack of satisfaction, and happiness are the leading reasons people look for new opportunities. Yet, despite all its importance, I’ve found organizations struggle to describe their own workplace culture to candidates, and candidates often ask ineffective questions of potential employers.

From my time as a nonprofit leader to my studies in business school, and now as a talent consultant, I consistently see organizations describe their culture in two different, but similarly ineffective ways.

The first is the banal platitude: A series of buzzwords that may feel descriptive but aren’t substantive. Things like “we’re so collaborative” or “we’re all really passionate about the mission.” What organization wouldn’t describe themselves as collaborative or passionate about their mission? I have no doubt both those things are true—but just because a statement is true doesn’t mean that it is informative. Organizational culture can feel hard to describe because it’s pervasive by its very nature. It includes everything from modes of communication about work deliverables to how feedback is shared. It’s the culmination of all the little interactions between employees and their work that happen every day without a second thought. Because it can be hard to describe something so automatic, organizations fall back on clichés despite these platitudes being less than useful to candidates.

The second is a list of policies or HR initiatives. Organizations will tout their paid time off or flexible work policies. They might talk about performance management processes and incentives for exceptional work. Workplace policies are important. They are strong signals of what an organization values—but they aren’t organizational culture. Culture is how employees engage with each other and their work: a collection of norms driven by behavior. Policies can and do impact these norms, but they can’t be substituted for them.

Here’s another way to think about it: almost every company has some sort of dress code. In an organization I worked for earlier in my career, the dress code included fabric swatches to make it abundantly clear which wash of jeans was appropriate for the office. However, the dress code was inconsistently enforced. People wore whatever wash of jeans they wanted until senior leadership passive-aggressively mentioned something to a supervisor. What describes the organizational culture better: the dress code itself or the fact that people didn’t pay attention to it?

Organizations tend to fall into a trap of myopia when describing their culture, a nearsightedness where they excitedly list all the features of their culture but explain none of the benefits. The result is a list of policies and a handful of buzzwords, neither of which answers the question candidates are truly asking. Instead of asking “what’s the culture like?”, candidates should consider changing their approach. Get specific and ask about a scenario where culture becomes important. Requests such as “how does the team react when things go wrong?” or “tell me about a time when you felt truly integral to the organization” give interviewers an opportunity to share a detailed example of their culture in action.

Pay attention to how interviewers talk about their interactions with colleagues, bosses, and even company policies. When discussing HR policies like paid time off, ask not only how much PTO you’ll receive, but also how much PTO employees tend to take. What good is paid time off if employees are discouraged from using it? You’ll receive far richer information and feel confident you’re joining an organization where you will thrive.

Meanwhile, hiring managers and interviewers shouldn’t wait for candidates to ask the right questions. Instead, consider answering even the most generic culture questions in the same way that the best candidates answer interview questions: with a specific example. If a large part of your culture is collaboration, talk about a time you recently collaborated with a colleague to complete a task successfully. If passion for the mission is critical to your organization, share a time when you went above and beyond in support of that mission. Be detailed and genuine. The positive culture of an organization can be a huge advantage in recruiting top end talent, but only if it’s shared effectively with candidates.

A critical part of retaining new talent is ensuring a match between an organization’s culture and a new hire’s expectations and values. Yes, organizations want to fill the role, but the instability that comes from an unhappy and unproductive new hire can be far more detrimental to an organization than the position remaining open for a few additional weeks. Of course, candidates want to be offered the job, but transitioning to a new organization only to find a cultural misalignment can be much more demoralizing than staying on the job hunt. Talking clearly, and with substance, about culture puts both organizations and candidates on the path to greater success.

Sterling Nelson, Talent Consultant

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