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It’s All About Appearances

One way of attracting talent and stakeholder approval is to be seen to be doing the right thing…

Mention “Corporate Culture” and images of sleek, successful IT companies invariably spring to mind: Google, for instance, with its name in bright primary colours and its purportedly ultra-relaxed working environment; its headquarters in Mountain View has 30 cafes, and food is free. Or Apple, with its propensity for uniquely-designed computers and the legacy of the iconic Steve Jobs. Or Microsoft, with its monopoly on software and its billionaire founder who is now intent on giving away his fortune. But what exactly is corporate culture? It’s a generic term that we use to describe what we perceive as the unique characteristics of a company.

While free food, ping pong tables and bean bags for employees who need to take naps during working hours are all extremely attractive and have resulted in people clamouring for employment in these firms, we tend to forget that what we perceive is generally from an external perspective. Internally, the perspective may be a very different one. More importantly, corporate culture can make or break an organisation because it can be used as an indicator of its internal health and a measure of its employees’ commitment to the objectives of the firm.

It should be noted, however, that regardless of how similar one company’s corporate culture appears to be to another’s, corporate cultures are in actual fact never really the same. For this reason, developing a corporate culture is always a bespoke exercise, and it is this need for customisation that makes it very difficult to develop a viable corporate culture that is anything other than organic because it is quintessentially formed by the beliefs, behaviours and everyday practices of the individual firms, which in turn are made up of individuals with their respective sets of beliefs, behaviours, backgrounds and skill sets.

“How we do things around here” quite accurately describes corporate culture but developing a corporate culture is truly a major challenge. It is changeable, and depends to a great extent on the tone at the top. It may have started out with certain characteristics but over the years, reflects changes in the cultural attitudes, societal norms and regulations of its environment. Logging companies, for instance, may have deforested indiscriminately in the past but are now required to replant; construction companies have to carry out environmental impact assessments before building; many firms may also have CSR programmes to “give back” to the communities where they operate.

All these are part of corporate culture, although in many instances, they may be legislation-driven. In recent years, however, there have been concerted efforts to turn corporate culture to corporate advantage. Companies are trying harder to understand what is required to develop a viable culture in their respective organisations, and how to leverage it to improve competitiveness. Firms are aware of how their corporate culture relates to their reputation, and how this can attract both the talent and the funds necessary to their existence. And that may mean changing “the way we do things around here.”

One way of attracting talent and stakeholder approval is to be seen to be doing the right thing. Corporate culture should support the human/social agenda although doing this may ultimately benefit the organisation commercially. Gender balance, ethnic diversity, community concern, environmental preservation, fair wages, non-exploitative labour policies – these are just a few of the factors that concern an organisation’s external public. But corporations should realise that there is little difference between their external public and their employees, who are their internal public.

Corporate culture may be created by and within the organisation, but it is coloured by the attitudes of the organisation’s individual members. Therefore, it will be effective and sustainable provided it fulfils the requirements of the majority. It will fail dismally if established only in the interests of the minority.