This is “What Is Corporate Culture?”, section 9.1 from the book Business Ethics (v. 1.0).
This book is licensed under a Creative Commons by-nc-sa 3.0 license. See the license for more details, but that basically means you can share this book as long as you credit the author (but see below), don't make money from it, and do make it available to everyone else under the same terms.
This content was accessible as of December 29, 2012, and it was downloaded then by Andy Schmitz in an effort to preserve the availability of this book.
Normally, the author and publisher would be credited here. However, the publisher has asked for the customary Creative Commons attribution to the original publisher, authors, title, and book URI to be removed. Additionally, per the publisher's request, their name has been removed in some passages. More information is available on this project's attribution page.
For more information on the source of this book, or why it is available for free, please see the project's home page. You can browse or download additional books there. You may also download a PDF copy of this book (20 MB) or just this chapter (412 KB), suitable for printing or most e-readers, or a .zip file containing this book's HTML files (for use in a web browser offline).
“I’m a Mac, and I’m a PC” is the first line from a set of advertisements produced for Apple.“‘Get a Mac’ Collection,” YouTube video, 9:39, posted by “Aploosh,” February 26, 2007, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=siSHJfPWxs8. Two guys stand in front of a white screen, a step or two apart. The one pretending to be an Apple Macintosh computer looks a lot like you’d expect the typical Apple computer user to look: casual, young, and cool; he’s not stressed but certainly alert and thoughtful. He hasn’t had a haircut in a while, but the situation isn’t out of control. He speaks up for himself without being aggressive. His t-shirt is clean, his jeans reliable, and his tennis shoes stylish. The PC, on the other hand, can’t relax in a polyester suit that’s a half size too small, especially for his inflated waistline. Bulky glasses slide down his greasy nose. Short, parted hair glues to his head. He’s clean, shaven, and very earnest. In one of the commercials, the PC man talks about the things he does well: calculation, spreadsheets, pie charts. The Mac responds that he feels more comfortable helping users make their own movies and organize their music collections.
Underneath these ads there are two very different corporate cultures, two very different kinds of companies making two very different products even though both sell their machines in the store’s computer section. Now, because this is advertising and it’s paid for by Apple, we should take the claims being made with a grain of salt. And, obviously, Apple didn’t air these spots because they wanted to exhibit their corporate culture. They wanted to sell computers (and hammer the competition in the process). None of that, however, changes the fact that the commercials do a good job of displaying what a difference between corporate cultures looks like. It looks like these two guys. They’re both capable and dedicated, but everything about each of them makes the other one squirm; it’s hard to imagine they could work well together because their habits and comportments—everything from how they dress to the way the talk—is so completely different.
The same can be said about workplaces. It’s easy to imagine a kind of office where PC fits nicely. People there would wear ties and skirts. They’d be punctual. Their days and working styles would be regimented and predictable. Employees would have their own cubicle offices, and anyone proposing an “informal Friday” break from the dress code would be looked on with suspicion. By contrast, Mac would function well in an open, warehouse-like space with a bike rack out front. Flextime would be common—that is, people arriving earlier or later in the morning depending on their preference and on the circumstances of their lives (whether they have children, when they can avoid rush-hour traffic). Regardless of when they show up, they take responsibility for making sure they log a full workday. The attire would be casual and diverse. Maybe the boss wears jeans. Some people would probably be annoying others with their loud music, but everyone would force smiles and be tolerant.
One of the reasons the Apple ad works well is that it resists the temptation to simply say Apple is superior. Yes, PC is dorky and Apple is cool, but Apple does admit that PC really is better at analytic-type activities like producing clean spreadsheets. The same mixed findings apply to corporate culture. At the PC office, the clothes aren’t nearly as comfortable as the ones you find at the Mac place, but at least there aren’t any guys wearing jeans that fall a little too low over their back end. And the flextime scheduling at Apple may make for a happier workforce, but only until it happens that a project suddenly arises and needs to be executed immediately, and one of the key participants has flex-timed and already left for the day. The other team members are left, that means, to do his share of the work. What about the bike racks outside? Everyone agrees that it’s great that the Mac people are peddling to work, but only until a morning thunderstorm pops up and no one can make it to the office. The point is there are advantages and drawbacks to every corporate culture. It’s hard to say that one is better than another (just like Macs work for some people while others prefer PCs), but it’s certainly true that there are different value systems beneath the distinct cultures.
Anyone who has a management role in any organization will be expected to have a grip on what values guide the enterprise and how they reflect in the day-to-day life of people on the job. Further, some managers—and all entrepreneurs—will not only need to apply guiding values; they’ll have to select and create them.
Corporate cultureThe constellation of beliefs, customs, habits, and values determining how a business or organization acts in the world. is easier to get intuitively than put into words. Because you can’t touch it, measure it, or take its picture (even though you can show two people in an advertisement who obviously belong to different corporate cultures), it’s not surprising that there’s no consensus definition attached to the term. Here are three attempts to put the idea in words. A corporate culture is
There are common threads to these cited definitions and some points that may be added:
This list isn’t exhaustive. It does, however, show how thoroughly corporate culture penetrates the workday.
Managers’ job responsibilities include protecting and promoting their organization’s culture. Fulfilling the responsibility requires determining exactly what culture lives in the workplace. There’s no secret decoding mechanism, but there are a number of indicating questions that may be asked. One of the most natural is to brainstorm associated words. For example, imagine visiting two offices, one filled with people who look like the Apple Mac from the commercial, and the other with those who’d fit naturally into the office where PCs are bought and used. Just looking at the commercial and jotting words as they flow might lead to lists beginning this way:
These are short, rapidly composed lists, but they’re developed enough to observe two profiles of work-life peeking out. You can see that that the Apple office is going to fit closely with values including comfort, innovation, and independence, while the PC office will be more compatible with values including reliability and responsibility. You can count on the PC office to get things done, but if you’re looking for something outside the box, you may be better off going the Apple route.
Other questions getting at the heart of an organization’s culture and basic values include these dealing with the workplace timeAs an aspect of organizational culture, the way time is understood and valued in the workplace.: How many hours are expected at work each week? Is there flextime? Is there telecommuting? Is there a punch clock or some other kind of employee time-in-the-office monitoring? Is it more important that the employee be present or that the work gets done? In some offices it’s the former; in others, the latter.
Then there are questions about employee interactionAs an aspect of organizational culture, the way members relate to each other on the job.. Is each worker situated in a private room or a more open, common space? Do people tend to compete with each other or is teamwork a higher value? To the extent there’s individual competition, how far does it go? Is it a good-natured jousting, or closer to hostile blood sport? Of course different kinds of organizations are going to recommend themselves to one side or the other of the spectrum. For example, a doctor’s office, an archeological dig, a construction company are relatively good places to value teamwork. A stockbroking office, a pro basketball team, and an actors’ studio are spots where you may want to encourage individuals to outdo those around them.
What’s the workplace moodAs an aspect of organizational culture, the mood at work on a typical day.? Fun? Somber? Energetic? Modern? Traditional? Many Volkswagen dealerships are remarkable for their huge windows and sunlight; it’s a kind of work environment for the sales staff meant to encourage an open, airy feel conducive to car buying. Elevated heating and cooling costs go along with all that glass, however, and different workplaces where money is valued more than ambience may choose to cut operating costs with a drabber space. Going beyond the architecture, different offices have different moods. It’s pretty rare that you see practical jokes or trash-basket basketball games going on at the dentist’s office. On the other hand, anyone who’s ever operated a call center telephone knows there’s a solid chunk of each workday dedicated to high jinks.
Is the workplace personalizedAs an aspect of organizational culture, the extent to which an organization’s members make their physical space at work their own space.? Some office cubicles burst with family snapshots and personal memorabilia. Most assembly lines, on the other hand, are practically devoid of individual touches.
Are employees workers or people doing workAs an aspect of organizational culture, the degree to which an organization’s members are valued as integral people with aspirations beyond those of the organization.? If the former—if the value the organization attributes to those receiving paychecks is limited to what they do to earn the check—then few resources will be dedicated to supplementals and benefits. On the other side, a corporate culture valuing its employees as people may provide extra vacation time, health insurance, and retirement plans. Branching out further, you can get an idea of a workplace culture by checking to see if a gym or exercise room is provided. Day care for those with young children is another sign of the corporate culture that values workers as integral people.
Dress codesAs an aspect of organizational culture, a set of rules—explicit or implicit—distinguishing what garments may and what may not be worn in the workplace. reflect the organization’s values. Is uniformity or individuality more highly prized? If uniformity is the rule, what kind is it? In some advertising agencies, for example, the people who work in the creative department conceiving the commercials at first appear to be a diverse collection of independent-minded dressers, but get a few together and you’ll immediately perceive a uniform that’s as binding as the most traditional office—it’s just that ratty jeans replace slacks and clever t-shirts replace neckties.
Another cultural indicator runs through the employees’ leisure timeAs an aspect of organizational culture, the leisure time habits and preferences of an organization’s members.. Where do people hang out? Do they go to football games, the opera, church? Do they spend their weekend mornings on family excursions because they have spouses and children, or are they still in bed, sleeping off the night before? More, is leisure time spent with coworkers? Do employees get together just because they enjoy each other’s company? If they do, the social outings are more likely to occur in connection with organizations seeking a harmonious workforce and expending resources to foster camaraderie on the job. They’re less likely to occur at organizations where everyone is fiercely competing with everyone else, as sometimes happens, for example, at stockbrokerages.
Healthy community interactionAs an aspect of organizational culture, the degree to which an organization and its members participate in local, nonwork endeavors. is a value emphasized in some corporate cultures. Everyone has seen the “adopt a highway” signs indicating that a local firm or group has taken responsibility for keeping a stretch of highway litter-free. The professional sports leagues have traditionally asked players to dedicate some season and off-season time to community outreach. Other kinds of organizations, by contrast, may not even have a local community. Telecommuting and cloud computing mean employees can easily form a functioning organization with members living in different states, even different countries.
Social cause activismAs an aspect of organizational culture, the degree to which an organization and its members participate in social causes not directly related to work endeavors. is another marker of corporate culture. The shoemaker TOMS Shoes fights rural poverty in developing nations by donating shoes. Other companies focus entirely on doing well in the for-profit marketplace.
Political actionAs an aspect of organizational culture, the degree to which an organization and its members participate in partisan political activities not directly related to work endeavors. may (or may not) infuse a corporate culture. Many companies steer clear of overt or even hints of political partisanship for fear of alienating one or the other half of the electorate. This is especially true for larger enterprises spread across the entire country, drawing consumers from liberal corners of San Francisco, conservative bastions of north Dallas, and the libertarian towns of New Hampshire. Local businesses, however, especially those catering to relatively homogenous communities, may find no downside to flipping the switch on political activism and breeding partisanship as a guiding value. The company Manhattan Mini Storage provides (obviously) storage for household items in Manhattan. Their big competition comes from warehouses in New Jersey. The Manhattan Mini Storage billboard ads read, “If You Store Your Things in New Jersey, They May Come Back Republican.” This appeal may work pretty well in central New York City, but it won’t seem very funny most other places.
Like politics, religious beliefAs an aspect of organizational culture, the degree to which an organization and its members embody a faith not directly related to work endeavors. and doctrine are rarely set at the center of the largest corporations, but smaller outfits operating in a narrow social context may well embody a particular faith.
Conclusion. Taken together, these categories of values begin shaping the particular culture defining an organization.
A specific culture may be instilled in an organization through a set of published rules for employees to follow or by the example of leaders and employees already working inside the organization.
Instilling a culture through established rules typically means publishing an organizational codeA set of written rules defining an organizational culture and indicating how individuals ought to act within the organization. governing behavior, expectations, and attitudes. The multinational firm Henkel—the company that invented laundry detergent and today produces many cleaning and health products sold under different brand names around the world—has published this kind of code. It’s quite long, but here’s an edited section:
Shared values form the foundation of our behavior and our actions throughout Henkel. Every single person plays a key role here. It is the sum of our actions that makes Henkel what it is—a lively corporate culture in which change is embraced as opportunity and everyone is committed to continuous improvement.
This statement sounds good in general. The stubborn problem, however, with trying to capture a corporate culture with a string of dictates and definitions parallels the ones constantly faced in ethics when trying to make decisions by adhering to preestablished rules and duties: frequently, the specific situation is far more complicated than the written code’s clear application. So, in the case of Henkel, we learn that they embrace change, but does that mean employees can change the dress code by showing up for work in their pajamas? Does it mean managers should rank and yank: should they constantly fire the lowest-performing workers and replace them with fresh, young talent in order to keep turnover going in the office? There’s no way to answer those questions by just looking at the code. And that creates the threat of an at least perceived cultural dissonanceA conflict between the values the organization publicly promotes as essential to its functioning, and the values guiding an organization’s workers in their day-to-day activities. within the organization—that is, a sense that what actually happens on the ground doesn’t jibe with the lofty principles supposedly controlling things from above.
The second form of instilling a culture doesn’t work through rules but through social conditioningA set of social cues and pressures provided by the actions and habits of an organization’s member that guide new members toward how they are to act within the organization.; it’s not about written codes so much as the cues provided by the customs of the workplace, by the way people speak and act in the organization. New employees, in other words, don’t read handbooks but look around, listen, and try to fit in.
In his book Business Ethics, O. C. Ferrell lists some of the social ways a culture infiltrates the organization.O. C. Ferrell, John Fraedrich, and Linda Ferrell, Business Ethics, 7th ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008), 181. Selecting a few of those and adding others yields this list:
An organizational culture may reinforce itself through self-selective processes. A self-selective processA process where individuals effectively select themselves into a group as opposed to being selected by others. is one where individuals effectively select themselves into a group as opposed to being chosen by others. Hiring presents a good example. Presumably, when an organization hires new employees, certain filters are constructed to reduce the applicant pool to those most likely to succeed. The process becomes self-selective, however, when job interviews are conducted as they are at Google. There, perspective employees are faced with bizarre questions that have nothing to do with the typical “Why do you want to work at Google?” and “Why would you excel at this job?” Instead, they get the following:
In response, some applicants will dive into the challenges excitedly, while others will find the whole process really weird and prefer not to be caught within a mile of a place where job interviewers ask such bizarre questions. In the end, those who enjoy and want to continue with the job application process are precisely those who will fit in at Google. Perspectives, that means, select themselves.
Conclusion. Two ways a corporate culture may be instilled and nurtured in a workplace are a list of codes to be followed and a set of social techniques that subtly ensure those sharing a workspace also share values corresponding with the organization.