Frank Persico, the vice president of learning at IBM, is fairly accustomed to starting anew, having held jobs with six or seven major corporations throughout his career.
Looking back, the veteran human resources executive said he doesn’t remember much about what he did for those companies; the day-to-day grind and frenzied pace of a job can leave most professional recollections a blur. “But I remember my first day at every one of them,” he said.
Much of a new hire’s first impression of an organization rests on its culture — that mostly hard-to-define mix of values and norms, sometimes readily apparent and clear-cut, and other times subtle and learned through time. Most companies will say they have a clearly defined culture, often expressed with general adjectives such as “hard work,” “team-oriented,” or “work-life balance” and “collaboration.”
But the real nuts and bolts of corporate culture can be far more complicated. Further, the effect culture can have on a new employee is pivotal to his or her ability to smoothly transition into a role and perform at a high level.
This makes teaching corporate culture during the on-boarding process a must.
As Mark A. Stein and Lilith Christiansen write in their book, Successful Onboarding: Strategies to Unlock Hidden Value Within Your Organization, “firms seeking to improve retention, productivity and other metrics as well as those seeking to transform their cultures and operating norms should work to convey an honest and deep understanding of culture to new hires.”
But first, organizations must define their culture.
Persico described organizational culture as “the residues of our behaviors,” a series of artifacts built over time that are best displayed by the actions of a company’s leaders or longest-standing employees.
Robert Kaplan, a professor of management with a focus on organizational behavior at Harvard Business School, offered a more nuanced definition:
“Culture is a function of a number of different factors in an organization,” he said. “It’s the style of the leaders. It’s a function of the type of people you hire. It’s a function of how you sit — do you sit in offices, or do you sit out in the open? It’s a function of how you pay people and what incentives you give them. And it’s very much a function of the nature of the task, the job.”
In other words, culture can be aspirational — leaders can define cultural goals and seek to attain them through behaviors. But culture also can be more implicit — there may be behaviors and norms in employees or leaders that are more unspoken and largely ambiguous.
Ben Dattner, an organizational behavior consultant and author of The Blame Game: How the Hidden Rules of Credit and Blame Determine Our Success or Failure, said of implicit culture: “In some cultures, if you make a mistake you have to stand up in front of everybody and take ownership of it. In other cultures, if you do that you’ll be road kill.”
Harvard’s Kaplan, who worked in the private sector before teaching, said companies must make concerted efforts to fully examine their leaders’ behaviors so they can determine the makeup of their corporate culture (see sidebar).
Get a Head Start
Once behaviors and norms are defined, the timing of teaching culture is important. “Anyone who waits until day one to start teaching somebody about culture has completely blown it,” said George Bradt, founder and managing director of executive on-boarding firm PrimeGenesis, “because you’re starting to communicate your organization’s culture at the very first contact with a potential employee.”
How job candidates are treated during recruitment — the feedback they receive when they submit an online application; the communications they have with the recruiter; the interactions and behaviors displayed when they are brought in for an interview; and the level of interaction between when the candidate accepts an offer and the first day — is important to teach culture, Bradt said.
Technology can be an effective tool to facilitate timing, specifically video and other multimedia via the Internet. Annette Thompson, vice president and chief learning officer at Farmers Insurance, said as soon as candidates are hired at Farmers they’re given access to an on-boarding portal on the company’s website. There they can watch videos of other employees talking about their experiences working for the company and interact with their peers.
All of this happens before the new hire steps in the building. By the time new Farmers employees show up for the first day and begin in-person on-boarding sessions, they’ve already been exposed to leaders’ behaviors and values.
IBM takes this a step further. Persico said the minute a candidate receives an offer from the technology company he or she is invited to join an online community, “Soon 2 B Blue.” There, new hires are often grouped based on department and specialty area and are encouraged to begin interacting with one another to share backgrounds and get answers to questions.
“The process itself says we’re an organization that is socially enabled in a sense of social computing, social business, social interaction,” Persico said. “We’re collaborative because we’re telling you to interact with other IBMers to get the information you need … and we’re suggesting that we’re team-based, because again, we’re suggesting that you go through your first period of time as part of a cohort.”
Persico said the online community approach is particularly effective with Generation Y because most college hires are already accustomed to interacting with peers through online social networks; having them introduced to IBM’s culture that way is natural.
Walk the Walk
Using technology to teach culture should not be limited to the pre-employment stage, however. In addition to a three-day orientation session, Canadian telecommunications firm Telus uses a virtual environment with videos and online learning to embed culture into a new hire’s everyday experience.
Dan Pontefract, the company’s senior director of learning and collaboration, said among the more effective tools used to teach culture is an online badging system called Passport.
The system allows new hires to check in and earn recognition when they participate in a learning activity, many of which are related to culture. This could be reviewing the company’s culture credo, “Customers First,” watching a video or reading an article on the subject.
Those first 90 days also need to include in-person, face-to-face interactions for new hires to fully understand a firm’s culture, said Kelly Botto, a partner at leadership and talent development firm Camden Consulting Group.
“You can’t do it all via WebEx or webinar,” she said. “You lose that personal touch, and a lot of [culture] gets communicated through that personal touch.”
Most companies have new-hire orientation sessions to teach culture, and what companies do during that time can make a difference.
Leaders at sports media entity ESPN say the branded new-hire orientation, “Rookie Camp,” is a primary culture driver for the company. Tonya Harris Cornileus, ESPN’s vice president of learning and organizational development, said branding the program helps tremendously with engaging new employees in the company’s culture. “Branding is everything,” she said.
ESPN also uses storytelling during Rookie Camp to teach its employees about culture. Although ESPN is a large, global company today, it started as a seat-of-the-pants operation, with a cohort of young and inexperienced reporters broadcasting a sports-only cable channel when no one thought it was possible.
Vicki Ruiz, the company’s senior director of learning and development, said ESPN’s humble beginnings — as “the little engine that could,” as she put it — is a big part of how its leaders behave today, though the company has grown significantly. ESPN’s leaders tell new hires stories of its small beginnings to illustrate the mindset employees are expected to operate under.
Rookie Camp also includes a panel where employees who have been with the company for less than a year field questions from new hires. Ruiz said this is effective because it gives new hires access to insights from employees who are generally still learning the culture themselves.
New employees may not get a grip on company culture until they’ve spent considerable time on the job, but pre-hire social networks, online communities and branded new-hire orientation programs are a solid place to start.
When it comes to getting a handle on some of the finer aspects of office culture — those that may be more implicit — the onus lands on the front-line manager, said Bill Berman, managing director of leadership development consultancy Berman Leadership Development.
Aside from making sure employees are fully assimilated to the broader company culture, front-line managers need to communicate intra-office subcultures to new hires as well.
Further, Berman said front-line managers must take an enhanced role teaching culture when a company has multiple offices in different locations across the country or internationally. They can do this by walking around and actively engaging in culture-related conversations with team members.
He said dispersed offices in different parts of the U.S. or in other countries are also likely to have their own subcultures, and managers must make sure new employees are aware of these nuances in addition to any overarching cultural characteristics embraced by the company at large.
HR also needs to be aware of these nuances. “It’s incumbent for HR to know those differences [in office subcultures] and be able to try and educate and inform — and, to some extent, inculcate people into that culture.”
A new hire’s first impression of an organization rests on its culture — that mostly hard-to-define mix of values and norms learned over time.
To ignore culture during the on-boarding period leaves open the potential for major setbacks in a new hire’s quest to fit in and contribute.
Audit Culture Before Seeking to Teach It
Before a company can devise a strategy to teach new hires about its culture, managers must have a deep understanding of the behaviors and nuances that define it. Performing a formal cultural audit can help.
The audit happens in three stages, according to Mark A. Stein and Lilith Christiansen, who outline the process in their book, Successful Onboarding: Strategies to Unlock Hidden Value Within Your Organization. First is the data-gathering stage, followed by the catalog and analysis stages.
One common way to gather feedback and data about organizational culture, the authors write, is through an employee or engagement survey. But Ben Dattner, principal of Dattner Consulting LLC, an organizational effectiveness advisory, said these surveys must be anonymous.
He said if the company conducting the survey has a culture of fear and employees are identified, they are unlikely to offer honest data.
It is also important to ask questions that gather information about employees’ perception of culture, because intended cultural values and actual culture don’t always align, Stein and Christiansen write.
For example, a question might read, “Does the organization value teamwork?” If a company’s leaders say they have a culture of teamwork, but employees don’t report so on a survey, there is inconsistency between perception and reality.
Stein and Christiansen also write that employee focus groups and targeted interviews with business leaders are helpful in the data-gathering stage. Exit interviews and performance management meetings also may be ripe for the culture audit conversation.
Once data is gathered, the authors suggest HR catalog the results. List perceptions and stated corporate values, and compare them to dominant behaviors and unconscious assumptions in the organization.
Some even recommend bringing in an outside consultant as part of the data-gathering process to further identify behaviors, patterns and cultural perceptions.
Kelly Botto, a partner at Camden Consulting Group, said she has seen some larger organizations bring in consultants to observe and conduct formal culture audits. These consultants bring an outsider’s perspective; therefore, they can evaluate culture in an unbiased, independent way.
But for some, having an outsider’s perspective is exactly why consultants are ill-equipped to evaluate organizational culture. “There’s always a danger with an outsider,” said Robert Kaplan, a professor of management at Harvard Business School.
He said that although outsiders are useful when collecting data and administering interviews and surveys, they’re less able to comprehend and draw conclusions because they haven’t experienced what it’s like to be an employee of the company.
Botto said an alternative might be to use new hires as culture auditors. “When you’re new, it’s so much easier to see the things that are working and the things that are not,” she said. “When you’ve been there for awhile, you’re in it, you’re in the thick of it, and it’s harder to be as objective.”
Lastly, analyze the results. Stein and Christiansen write that companies should take all the data — surveys, focus groups, interviews or consultants — and identify consistency and differences among the following: corporate culture and organizational culture; company heritage and current strategies; perceived culture and actual culture; and stated cultural values and “ones that reflect aspirations for culture.”
Cultural audits should be updated annually, perhaps in tandem with annual employee engagement surveys. Informally, however, front-line managers should be assessing and evaluating office culture on an ongoing basis.