Culture shock creates climate of quitters

Hire carefully to avoid repeat effort

By Amanda Horswill

Forget quick-fix recruitment measures – get the basics right and no one will want to resign.

At one company, the boss is cranky, the lunchroom gossip is nasty and workers feel like drones. Picture flickering lights, windowless rooms and an enforced hush at all times.

At another company, the manager asks for input, lunchtime is a team-building experience, and employees feel valued and enthused. Imagine colourful walls, natural light and beautiful views.

At which workplace would you choose to spend eight hours a day?

It’s no surprise to workers that employee retention is directly linked to the employing organisation’s workplace culture. A negative culture will lead to high turnover and high recruitment costs, while a positive one will have candidates lining up at the door.

However, that message does not seem to be translating up the chain to management in some companies suffering cultural illness.

"Corporate culture refers to the predominating attitudes and behaviours that characterise the functioning of a group or organisation," Centre for Corporate Performance managing director Kimberly Anderson says.

"When these predominant attitudes and behaviours have a negative effect on individuals, this inherently leads to a negative corporate culture. Often, this is generated when leaders display those attitudes and behaviours themselves, or they allow others to do so."

"An organisation’s culture is considered to be negative when the tangible and intangible costs associated with the behaviours impact the workability and productivity of the organisation, leading to financial detriment.

"It may or may not be apparent to leaders that the financial costs are a result of the culture that has been developed within the organisation.

"This is because the cause of the matter is psychological in nature and, as with many intangible performance factors, it is difficult for many organisations to interpret the actual impact and loss associated with declining productivity."

Karen Williams, principal of change and communications consultancy Message Stix, says staff resignations should act as a warning bell to managers that something is not right.

"Yes, absolutely, that is one of the telltale signs and one of the most tangible," she says.

"A downturn in profits is another, or investors not wanting to support an organisation.

But the biggest one of all is people – not only do they leave but people talk. From an advertising or promotions perspective, if former staff are rubbishing the time they spent working at a company, people are going to remember that."

Knowing the company has a problem is the first step towards fixing it.

"Do the things that managers who are so busy working in, as opposed to on, a business have no time to do: Listen," she says. "Listen to the subliminal messages rather than the overt ones; pay attention to the conversations around the water cooler; pay attention to email trails on social networks; pay attention to who talks to whom at the Christmas party; tune in to the indicators of unrest. When staff are disgruntled it begins with a whisper that becomes a roar."

Remedies for a rotten culture vary. Some firms hire in-house change managers, usually human resources workers or management experts.

One Bite at a Time co-author David Brewster says the one thing managers should avoid at all costs is quick-fix measures that only deliver surface improvements.

"Cultural change is like renovating a house – you just can’t do it overnight," Brewster says.

His preferred system is to start from the bottom and work up, to gain maximum benefit.

"In large organisations, by the time the message has filtered down six or seven levels, what is trying to be achieved is lost," Brewster says. "Apart from that, people get more satisfaction and a changed culture is stronger when workers feel like they have contributed to it.

"Rule number one is to look to the medium to long-term and to not expect it to happen overnight. Take one team – one bite at a time – and say to them, ‘As a team, let’s think about all the things that get in the way of doing our jobs and as a team try to fix those’. Ask how we can improve the work environment in our area. Then the next team does it, and the next, and then you have a strong culture."

The greatest enemy to change – apart from change-averse management – is a lack of "genuine communication".

"That is ironic at the moment because technology communication is rife. Among all that, how much real communication is going on? If meetings between management and the frontline are a one-way briefing station, that is not genuine. It’s about the way we used to communicate – getting down and walking around the floor and chatting to people. A lack of two-way communication is the biggest thing that people are frustrated by at work."

"Even watercooler conversations have disappeared – bring them back."

Change is gold for happy staff

Case study 1
Silver Chef

Silver Chef boss Allan English says the Milton food equipment finance company started a cultural change process 18 months ago after a period of intense growth. He says the company’s culture wasn’t negative, but needed work.

"You have to have purpose to what you do in your day-to-day living. If you are only coming to work for eight hours a day to collect pay that is an awful waste of your life," English says.

"We have to enjoy what we are doing and so our philosophy and culture must be about something bigger. It works, and it has created a culture so that people enjoy working here."

English used the Birthing Giants program, from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US, to shape his plans, employing an Australian consultant trained in the technique to assist in the transformation.

That program emphasises core values of the organisation being applied wherever possible.

Called TRAFIC, the core values are teamwork, respect, attitude, flexibility, integrity and communication.

"The greatest challenge was to get staff to clearly understand how important the core values were to the company and ensuring that our management team displayed those core values every day," he says.

"For example, our management meets every day at 8.44am for a stand-up talk that lasts no longer than 10 minutes.

"At the end of that meeting we are asked for a demonstration of a core value where one of the team identifies a staff member who has demonstrated a core value the previous working day. We then provide feedback to that member."

Rewards breed goodwill

Case study 2
Pharmacy Guild of Australia, Queensland branch

Employees rave about the working environment at the Pharmacy Guild of Australia, Queensland branch, at Spring Hill – usually with a birthday cake-splattered napkin in hand.

Branch director Robyn Ede says as an industry body that provides business training, HR practices are constantly kept up to date, ensuring a strong culture.

"The basis of the organisational culture at the Queensland branch has developed over time through longstanding relationships – many staff have been here for more than five years, with a number in excess of 15 years," Ede says.
"Staff achievements are rewarded, and we engage employees in the success of the organisation with activities such as annual and key event dinners, milestone celebrations, social events on weekends with a focus on including partners, children and pets, routine end-of-week catch-up/discussion sessions and morning teas to celebrate staff members’ birthdays.

"At the moment our staff, their families and pets are getting ready for a ‘family and pets barbecue’ we’re holding later this month, where both our two-legged and four-legged children can enjoy a day outside in the sunshine. Through those kinds of events we’ve focused on building and maintaining team rapport, so our staff enjoy being in the office and are motivated to work towards a common goal."

She says the benefits are almost incalculable.

"Excellent staff retention; great working relationships that in many cases extend beyond the office – for example, a staff member got married recently and a number of staff not only attended the event but were a part of the bridal party. We have happy, motivated staff; an enjoyable working environment; and better outcomes for the organisation."

Take the culture test
Does your company have a poor working culture? Answering these questions from Centre for Corporate Performance managing director Kimberley Anderson will help you decide.

Are people in your organisation:
Acting superior or "better than" another?
Being dictatorial and rude?
Being overly defensive?
Justifying and/or proving oneself?
Being competitive at the expense of others?
Bullying workmates?
Making sarcastic or snide comments?
Gossiping and rumour-spreading?
Working long hours (often unproductively without tangible results)?
Treating people like machines or workhorses?
Being judgemental (particularly in regards to the competence of another)?
Hiring and firing at a whim?
Over-allocating work to people?
Displaying favouritism unhealthy relationships and cliques?
Breaching company policies or procedures without care of consequences?

Does your company suffer from:
Excessive staff turnover at a corporate, division or departmental level or within one specific business unit?
Excessive training costs and hiring costs?
Low levels of output, outcomes and results compared with what is possible or expected?
High levels of HR-related complaint across the organisation?
High levels of Sick Leave (single day sick leave is the first indicator)?
Reduced financial performance over time?

If you have ticked more than half of these boxes, your company needs a complete cultural overhaul.

The Courier Mail

Related articles you might be interested in reading