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Company Culture is About Organizational Genes, Not Blue Jeans

When companies are searching for new talent, the words “company culture” are regularly used in the body of a job description. For some organization leaders, the definition is very clear. For others, there is some confusion about what culture actually means to their particular business. It is important to understand where your business fits when it comes down to culture.

Culture is defined as shared beliefs, values and practices. Examining beliefs through the lens of your organization is not as easy as it sounds. Culture is fluid — it represents the key elements that bring people together as well as what drives them apart. An organization’s culture is represented by the values by which it truly lives, not just the banner on the company website or over its entry area.

The best way to define your company’s culture is by determining your core values and holding each employee, including all leadership, accountable to those values every day.

Organizations often confuse company culture with something that they provide to their employees, such as a quick fix to a systemic problem. Take low morale, for example, which, if fueled, may spread through a company like wildfire. How often have you seen an advertisement for a potential candidate that says: “Must be a culture fit”? Without further explanation of what that culture is, it is nearly impossible to understand if any candidate is or is not a “fit.”

Be clear about what you do not consider culture

  • Holiday parties

  • Foosball tables in the lounge

  • Stand-up workstations

  • Family fun cookout with executives

  • Hot Wing Wednesday (yes, we have a client that does this – employees love it)

  • Christmas bonus (employees love this too – but it is not company culture)

  • Casual Fridays

While enjoyable to some members of the staff, those activities do not fit the definition of company culture and should instead be included under the type of workplace environment by which you operate.

As a direct answer to the original job posting, “Must Be a Culture Fit,” some questions are not useful or effective during the interview process. For example:

  • If you were an animal in the forest, which one would it be?

  • Describe for us where you will be in 5, 10 or 20 years.

  • What is the last book that you read?

  • What was your favorite summer vacation and why?

  • If you could pick one person to play in a movie, who would it be?

Company culture is the backbone of an organization

Without shared values, an employee will struggle to find meaning in his or her work, which will impact happiness, and ultimately, productivity. Building a strong culture takes time and commitment; however, it is the most important aspect of your workplace. Once you have established what the culture will be, it will need to be shared with your employees and customers. You will know if you have been successful by the talent you are able to attract and retain as well as the change in your bottom line.

Have patience. Culture cannot be forced. Culture does not change overnight. Culture is not a company perk. It is something your employees understand through your mission and vision statements, but most importantly by the way people act and relate to one another – especially when no one else is watching. It is an example set by all. It takes years of planning, sacrifice and most of all, clear vision. It requires you, as a leader, to have the passion, energy and resolve to move your organization forward – motivating and inspiring others with more than simple words or holiday parties.


Kelley Small is an Advisor at Standish Executive Search, a New England-based firm that advises business owners, executives and boards who are positioning their companies for accelerated growth, change or succession.


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