Corporate Culture Can Kill Your Career
"REMEMBER: Company culture is everything... You can't work where you don't fit. You won’t succeed if you think your co-workers are annoying (or vice versa) ." — Scott Ginsberg
It's All About Culture - What is Corporate Culture?
Do you ever ponder on the corporate culture of a company before hopping to a new company? Corporate culture can kill your career because what works superbly in one culture may not necessarily work in another. I had found this out the hard way.
In the late 1990s, I had chalked up considerable success as a human resource manager for an American electronic service provider (contract manufacturer). The industrial relations consultant of the Malaysian Employer's Federation (MEF), whom I used to consult on and off, told me, one day, that I was among the best human resource managers in town, after we had discussed how to handle a personnel problem. My success was further borne by the fact that all the operators went on strike, when I left the company over a disagreement with the newly-promoted plant manager. When I subsequently applied for a job with a large Chinese family business, it was he who gave me a strong endorsement, when the boss of the Chinese family business called him for a reference.
The following account shows some aspects of the contrasting corporate cultures of the two companies.
Corporate Culture of the American Contract Manufacturer
Being trained in the Western approach to business management, I always took for granted that authority and power come with the job, otherwise it would be unreasonable to hold a manager responsible and accountable for what he does. This was a mantra in the corporate culture of the American contract manufacturing plant, as evidenced in a management meeting, when the plant manager stopped the production manager from chastising me and teaching me how I should be handling a human resource problem. "Stop here", he said, "Now, who is the human resource manager? You or him?" The production manager kept quiet from then on, and all of us knew not to interfere with one another's role, especially since the organization structure is so clearly defined by the organization chart.
Our weekly meetings had a specific duration of 3 hours. When we could not find a suitable solution to any problem, the plant manager would say: "Okay, we are faced with 2 equally unfavorable options at the moment. Let's pick the one which we think is better and bite the bullet until we can find a better solution."
(NOTE: The plant manager referred to is not the newly-promoted plant manager. I did not stay long after the new plant manager took over.)
Corporate Culture of the Chinese Family Business
When I subsequently worked for the Chinese family business, I thought I could transplant what worked so well for the American company to the new company. I began first by updating the Employee Manual. While the exercise was a breeze in the American company, the same exercise was a daunting task, as there was no one to authorize the manual. The boss told me to discuss it with the Management Committee for Human Resource, a committee comprising department heads where everyone acted as if they were the chairman! (In fact, they took turns to chair the monthly meetings before I arrived on the scene.) It was a human resource manager's nightmare! (Historically, the committee was formed because more often than not, there was no human resource manager in the company, as the turnover rate was very high. I worked there for 6 months, breaking the previous record of 2 months!)
Managers, especially new managers, did not have power nor authority in the company. As a matter of fact, a long-serving operator could have more power than a manager because the company placed a huge premium on loyalty, rather than on an employee's position in the company. In fact, even the title of my post was uncertain. I was supposed to initially hold the post of Human Resource Consultant for 6 months, according to my appointment letter. However, upon joining the company, I was immediately asked to sack a few managers, and I told the boss that according to Malaysian law, a consultant has no right to do so. He then unofficially appointed me as Group Human Resource Manager but later asked me to double as the human resource manager, reporting to one of the plant managers, when the latter complained that he had no human resource manager under him. The organization structure is so fluid that you have an unofficial organization structure superimposed on the official organization chart. In any case, the official organization chart is so messy that you have reporting lines crisscrossing all over the place.
There was no weekly meetings until I proposed that we should have one. However, these meeting turned out to be time-wasters when no one wants to make a decision. The boss's mantra was "don't rock the boat". So the meetings became a weekly ritual that was long-drawn and held for the sake of holding.
I eventually left after 6 months, when I was hit by black magic, initiated by a dishonest subordinate whom I was told to remove. My joining this company would have been disastrous, had it not been for the fact that I was already planning to retire, prior to getting this job.
What Exactly is Corporate Culture?
Corporate culture is the personality of an organization. It is the glue that binds a large group of people together. The corporate culture of a company is created and maintained by its people. It is made up of the experiences and personalities that each person brings to the company, which are then translated into acceptable norms of behavior. However, corporate culture is especially influenced by the leaders in an organization, such as the founders, executives, and management staff who set the tone which filters through each and every department and employee.
There are 3 levels of corporate culture:
- Aspects that we can physically see: This is the most visible of the 3 levels, e.g. dress codes, office layout, and the technology used.
- Accumulated values of employees within the workplace, often attributed to the values that they have, outside of the work place; and
- Beliefs of the company and employees: This is the deepest level. If the beliefs of the employees clash with the beliefs of the organization, then a negative culture could develop, resulting in negative consequences.
Each organization has its own unique culture and no two are the same. There are no right or wrong cultures; only functional and dysfunctional ones. As companies evolve, cultures likewise change.
Types of Corporate Culture
There are 4 main types of corporate cultures:
- Power culture: This type of corporate culture generally revolves around one single charismatic leader. Power cultures are often demanding, requiring extra inputs from employees such as late nights and weekends. Hard work and loyalty are awarded. An example of this is Apple Inc., under Steve Job. A power culture can be inefficient, if everyone has to wait for approval, before moving on with a task.
- Role culture: This type of culture relies on procedures, whereby clear goals are set and achieved. It rewards dependability and consistency. Due to its well-structured system, goals are usually met without too much pressure on the employees. Because of the non-collaborative nature, employees can become disinterested and their talents may go unnoticed. The American company that I mentioned above is an example of this type of culture.
- Achievement culture: This type of culture comprises motivated people who can work independently, better than as a whole. The employees are extremely goal-oriented and ambitious. This culture, however, becomes dysfunctional when people become competitive.
- Support culture: This culture has a community feel, whereby people cooperate and help each other throughout the process. Effective communication support systems can become dysfunctional when employees blur the line between friendship and work colleagues. This can hinder productivity and often, the needs of the individuals supersedes the needs of the organization. The Chinese family business that I mentioned above is an example of this type of culture.
Look Before You Leap
It is all too common for employees to jump ship when an offer of better salary is dangled in front of them somewhere else. Most of them seldom bother to look beyond the job description and salary/benefits to investigate into a company’s corporate culture. In order to fit into a company or an organization, job-seekers ought to match their personality to the company's personality, i.e. the company’s culture. TheLadders.com says:
"Here's the reality: You can't work where you don't feel comfortable. You can't thrive where you don't feel at home. And you can't grow where you don't feel welcome. Therefore, the culture of the company you're applying for carries tremendous weight on your decision to work there."
In its article, "Changing jobs? Check out corporate culture first", Reliableplant.com says: "If they did [check the corporate culture first], there would be far less turnover, not to mention angst accompanying job-changing."
But how do we go about investigating the corporate culture of a company? Reliableplant.com proposes the following method:
- Visit the company's corporate web site (if available). Although you won't be able to find much there, other than the normal corporate gloss and puffery, you will, nonetheless, have some idea as to what the company is trying to project.
- Google for some recent news stories to find out where the company is standing in its industry, and how competitive it is.
- Read blogs of present and former employees. You may even be able to ask questions and get some honest answers.
Apart from these suggestions, you may sometimes also be able to ask friends of friends, who are working in the company. Or you may know a company supplier who is also doing business with the company that you want to hop to. (Won't that be risky? Well, it all depends on how smart you are. You can always ask casually, as if as a matter of conversation.)
But what questions should you ask? TheLadders.com offers 7 Interview Questions to Uncover Corporate Culture. Depending on the culture of each country, however, such questions as suggested by TheLadders.com to your interviewer could potentially kill your job interview. Nevertheless, you try to find out as much as possible the following before making a leap:
- Describe the corporate culture in 3 words. These words may include, say, task-oriented, employee-focused, trusting, suspicious, secure, inspiring, or “work-hard-and-play- hard”.
- What is the best part about working in the new company's environment?
- What are the most common complaints that employees make about the new company's culture?
Finding the answers to these questions would at least give you some idea as to what you can expect, upon joining the new company. Nevertheless, always be aware of the possibility of subcultures existing within an organization.