“Good” is Relative
Thinking about your expectations of a good workplace culture, what might be at the top of your list?
- Strong benefits package?
- High pay?
- Training opportunities?
- Self-care and wellness programs?
If you said all of the above, that is understandable. But for many younger workers, what is important to them, isn’t even on this list.
Workplace Culture – Definition
As children, we learn to sense the culture of a place. Is it friendly, generous, interesting or closed, tight, frenetic? We get signals about who’s important, what the culture expects from us, and whether, we belong. This happens in families, churches, communities and work places.
At work, “culture” (defined as: “the character and personality of your organization. It’s what makes your business unique and is the sum of its values, traditions, beliefs, interactions, behaviors, and attitudes,”) acts as driving force for the mission. If the mission is to sell widgets and make a profit, then the culture is designed to facilitate that. If the mission is to provide a good work environment and value to customers, the selling or providing services, facilitates that, but the culture focuses on the people, customers and employees.
Where you work/go to school; where is the focus? What is the culture like? How do the words that the organization uses to describe the culture, differ from what actually happens? Use this article as a resource. Six signs your corporate culture is a liability?
The Roots of Modern Workplace Culture
Many people don’t realize that modern workplace structure is built on a military model. Since we’ve been going to war longer than we’ve had commerce, it’s reasonable that the hierarchy, chain of command, operational vs. staff positions etc., have been adopted by our institutions. What isn’t always apparent, is the effect that the lack of evolution of this model, has on workers. The hierarchy (top down decision making) means that power and rewards are consolidated at the top. Think for a moment how families fare, when all the power resides with one person, and doesn’t evolve as the children in the family grow into adulthood.
Younger Generations of Workers Require Evolving Cultures
There are interesting examples of organizations that have focused on creating a culture that nourishes all those involved… Customers, employees, stockholders and the larger world around them. For example, B Corporations and Benefit Corporations are for profit companies that have decided to expand their mission to include a broad set of stakeholders. Some well-known brands make this perspective an important part of their message to customers: Patagonia, Bombas, Uncommon Goods.
If we could all work for these companies, maybe we’d feel good about our work. There aren’t enough of these companies yet. Also, it doesn’t mean that an organizations status (for profit, not-for-profit or legal entity), is critical to whether they are employee, customer and environmentally-conscious. The best way to find those companies? Word of mouth. If you work somewhere great, tell others. Help them grow.
There are millions of other workplaces who haven’t evolved enough to take a broad view of commerce. I believe in capitalism as force for change, and good, I just don’t see as much of it as we need.
In Difficult Times, What’s a Young Job Hunter to Do?
One way to approach this shortage of evolved employers is to understand and focus on our own values and priorities. Narrow down the values that mean the most to you. For instance, if I value sustainability, it may be easier to sort out which employers put their money with their ‘mouth’ is. We know the difference between a company that says it’s pro-sustainability and one that whose business model requires the company to act on that value.
Create that list of organizations who, for whatever reason, seem to have the ‘right’ culture for you, regardless of whether they have jobs that fit your skills right now. Now look at their competitors. Maybe there are smaller or up and coming organizations that are ready for exactly what you have to offer. Keep looking, look for job titles that interest you. Keep searching, your persistence will pay off.
Interview Questions That Get Closer to the Truth…For You
In my research, I asked young career professionals what questions they asked to understand a future employer’s culture. I got a lot of shrugs and I don’t knows. Asking about benefits and training are a starting point, but what questions get at the heart of whether a place might fit with what you personally require?
Here are some sample questions that will get you started. Please add your own in the comments. We need to learn from each other.
- How are employees shown that they are valued?
- How are learning opportunities communicated to employees? What are the most common types?
- Are there employee community-building activities? (i.e.,lunches, softball, etc.)
- What was the most recent big accomplishment/milestone and how was it celebrated?
- Why is this a great place to work?
The answers to these questions will only skim the surface of culture. I suggest you look the respondent in the eye when they are answering. Watch their body language. How quickly do they answer? The words may be rehearsed but it takes a talented actor to be able to control their facial expressions and unintended bodily responses. Slumped shoulder, looking at the floor, etc. say way more than any words. Trust your gut. If you need to take a job… for any reason… be clear with yourself that you may be frustrated with the environment. Keep looking for ways to keep the job search channel open while you work at this gig.
What About Today?
The pandemic and it’s negative impact on the job market are further aggravating and already difficult situation. Do we choose between college and huge debt? Working at some shitty job just so we exist? Where’s the hope of something better?
We can’t change everything outside ourselves, but we can get to know ourselves better. We can be clear about what we require, today. That might change next year, but we only have right now.
My other suggestion, find others who are on your same journey. They don’t have to share your profession, industry, location or anything else. As long as they are willing to listen … and talk, you will, together, find a way forward. We are not waiting for the world of work to change, but there’s only so much we can do. Let’s get to it.
For more on this and related topics, check out An Authentic Human’s Guide to Finding Meaningful Work.