Company culture: Why it must go deeper than HR policies

Vineet Gambhir, Head of Talent for Yahoo Asia-Pacific, explains why HR is not the sole custodian of company culture.

About the author

Vineet Gambhir

Vineet Gambhir, Vice President of HR, Asia-Pacific, Yahoo

“So, what is your company culture like?” As an employer, how many times have you been asked that when you meeting with a candidate?

It is a question I hear a lot, and unfortunately, it is one that can be very difficult to answer effectively.

The temptation can be to say things along the lines of "we have a fantastic culture", or a “fun environment”, or an “open and collaborative workplace".

These are all natural and common responses, but they are by no means sufficient to define the culture of a company.

That’s because while HR policies can reflect and enhance an organisation’s personality, ethics, and ethos, a company’s culture is not merely the sum total of its employee benefits and entitlements.

To understand what organisational culture means, it is important to get to its roots.

Key determining factors include how the organisation came into being, the personality and vision of its founders and top executives, the written as well as the unwritten codes by which it conducts its business and how it meets its objectives as a corporate citizen.

All of these collectively shape and hone its culture as a company evolves; it is not something that can be enforced on day one of its operations.

Let’s take two of the above descriptions, “fun” and “open” cultures, as prime examples.

All too often, examples of collective celebrations are used to highlight a fun culture. But a few fancy dress days each year do not mean an organisation is a fun place to work, especially if participation is compulsory, and the dates and themes are set by senior management.

While celebrations and festivities are important, a company can only truly be called a fun place when employees relish and enjoy their roles and working environments on a daily basis, not just on permitted days.

Likewise, many companies claim to have an open culture. But when you look inside, this openness is all too often restricted and opinions are only shared on management's terms.

For example, how many companies actually encourage employees to walk up to their managers or other leaders to share their ideas?

In truly open cultures, this is what happens. Great ideas come from all levels. These ideas are then given ample resources for execution, regardless of whose suggestion it was.

So how can we define the culture of a company? In my opinion, a positive culture is embodied in an individual’s work, opportunity, and environment.

The work that people do should be enjoyable and challenging, while targets should be ambitious but ultimately achievable.

There also has to be ample opportunities for people to pursue new projects and progress their career through relatively flat organisational structures, where opinions are valued and acted upon.

They also need to benefit from an inspiring and welcoming workplace where people feel comfortable and are able to share thoughts, exchange ideas and interact with their colleagues at all levels.

It is also crucial to understand that individuals within the organisation will have different wants and needs in order to be able to thrive in this culture.

For example, some people will benefit better from more flexible working arrangements where they are trusted to work autonomously, while others will flourish if they have access to a dedicated and effective mentoring programme.

Ultimately, a company needs to accommodate individual needs as far as possible if it is to foster a positive culture, while at the same time, having a common, clear purpose, mission and strategy for achieving its wider business goals.

When put in this context, it is obvious that HR alone is not the sole custodian of culture.

At best, a world-class HR organisation can help reinforce, reflect and promote a company’s culture. Creating it, though, comes from heritage, leadership, vision and shared values across the entire team.

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