Cultural Splinters

In the sci-fi book The Mote in G-d’s Eye, the human empire spreading through the galaxy meets an ancient alien race, called the Moties.  In one scene a geneticist states that the strange, asymmetric form of the alien was – based on genetic evidence – sought and selected for deliberately.  (Side note: This is another absolute sci-fi masterwork.  IMHO after you read this, most others pale by comparison.)

Company cultures are similarly sought after and self-selecting.  This thought is supported by the article Cultivating Culture for a Better Company which starts out by saying:

From the very start, each company forges a path that they will follow. This path isn’t always crafted through a conscious effort, in fact, it rarely is. The kind of organization that the company starts off as, sets the tone for the future. If great communication is what pushed the company forward, you can be sure that in several years, great communication will still be coursing through the company lifelines. If the company leaders lacked emotional intelligence from the start, that will end up being a trend for the company’s future.

It may not always be started intentionally, but once a tone is set, once a standard has been raised, people who do not follow that standard tend to fall out.  For example, if a company holds ethics to be the highest standard, people who are unethical don’t last long.

(Side note: A former employer, Cabot Corporation, had a two day “Vision and Values” seminar all new employees were to attend.  I was impressed.  One example of a real scenario highlighted an unethical decision made by a site manager; despite his up-and-coming star status and already high position, he was fired.  Another policy is that Cabot does not pay bribes.  Period.  At one plant this caused a shipment of desperately-needed chemical feedstock to be delayed for days, which could have been “fixed” simply.  Finally the harbor master allowed the ship to be unloaded when it became clear his palm was never going to get greased.   Despite my reasons for leaving, this was a great positive for Cabot.)

Conversely, if a company practices unethical behaviors, that too is self-selecting.  People who don’t compromise their behaviors or ethics – ethics being a fundamental characteristic of a person’s character – don’t last long either.  Little white lies start out being just those, but soon grow to swallow people and the company itself.  As Thomas Fuller once wrote “A willful falsehood told is a cripple, not able to stand by itself without another to support it. – It is easy to tell a lie, but hard to tell only one lie”.

But it is a misnomer to say that companies have a culture.  To be precise, it is the people within the company that create the culture.  It is the people that are ethical, or not.  It is the people that set the tone of family-first, or work über alles.  And it is the people who “fit” the gestalt that has developed and who, both consciously and not, work to push out those who don’t fit like a splinter from under the skin.

It is people that write company handbooks and other policies, for they do not spring wholly-formed from electronic loam but are written and approved at the highest level.  It is the highest level that approves the pattern of dealing with business partners – suppliers and customers… whether squarely or crookedly.  It is the highest level whose example truly shows if a company values families and the famous term “work-life balance”… or if this is only a marketing phrase to lure people in.  And so on.

A fish swims, or rots, from the head – to expand on the old saying.  The cultural direction of a company is set and approved by the company’s leader – a person.

As I tell people repeatedly, if you are at an interview they probably think you can do the job.  You are there, live-and-in-person, to determine two things.  First, can you talk to your accomplishments, or are you just making things up.  And, do you “fit”?  Cultural fit is as important a criterion as knowledge and skills.  In pursuing a company, as written by Nick Corcodilos in his article Pursue Companies, Not Jobs:

When you pursue a job, you’re actually setting yourself up for a potential series of jobs and opportunities in a company. That’s why it’s more important to select the right company and doggedly pursue it, than it is to pick a good job and apply for it. The right company will have lots of good jobs for you for a long time to come, making it unnecessary for you to go job hunting again any time soon.

As hackneyed as it is, you need to interview them back.  Part of selecting the right company is researching the culture.  This is, of course, not easy.  Research sites that aggregate such information – some, among myriad, are:

See what you can learn about the founder of the company, especially if they are still there.  Google their name.  If, like most founders, they have a surfeit of ego there should be plenty… and while these articles are bound to be praiseworthy there will likely be small clues as to the person’s character if you pay attention (in fact, have 2-3 people who are not looking at the company also do this as you’ll avoid your emotional biases).  Are these articles solely about them, or about the company, for example – the former being an indication of their ego (and if they claim to have “hundreds” of patents, that’s an indication of their ethics, as patents are supposed to only include actual originators of the idea; the company head should not be included as a matter of course).

Attend trade groups that deal in that company’s primary business and ask around – you should get plenty of scuttlebutt.  Use LinkedIn to contact former employees, especially ones whose dates show they didn’t last long… you need this kind of negative feedback to counter any starry-eyed infatuation you might have so as to make a more neutral and informed choice.

If you are unemployed, or think it worth the risk if you are employed, post to networking groups’ discussion boards to see if anyone knows anyone.  Former employees, especially disgruntled ones, may have bile-filled comments to make… but that’s also useful to know.

Ultimately, you can only know a culture by being there.  But there are a lot of cues and clues one can find; hopefully this article is useful in that goal.  Being a fit for a culture can make a new job heaven; being a splinter will make it hell.

© 2013, David Hunt, PE

6 thoughts on “Cultural Splinters

  1. After working for 45 years and now retired, I have found this to be true. “The cultural direction of a company is set and approved by the company’s leader – a person.”

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