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Can We Really Define A Company Culture, and should we even try?.

  • 01.17.2020

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  • Matthew Gilbert

Study after study after study suggests that candidates and job seekers are deeply influenced by company culture. Maybe it is true, or at least we can acknowledge that it’s a vital and influential factor in career decisions. I think we can all agree on that. I help develop the Employee Value Proposition for a wide range of companies in support of their employer brand building. Every EVP and EB project attempts to pin-point culture, define it, and, later on, communicate it in all manners of ways. It is always a challenge. It might not even solve the right problem. Here’s why.


Imagine a company situated in a 10-floor building. We’ll call it the Colorful Company. Employees are organized like many companies, by the department, and then again by team. People in the same department sit near each other. Sounds simple, right. On the 2nd floor is Department Yellow. On the 5th floor, it is department Green. On the 10th floor are Pink Sr. Executives.

 In the Yellow department, employees are long-tenured. People have worked together for many years and have strong bonds, close friendships, and collaborate easily. They’re high performing and also very casual, as is often found with people who’ve known each other and worked together for a significant amount of time. New staff is welcomed in quickly, and the camaraderie is felt right away. If we’re interviewing employees about their experience of the company’s culture, it will lean toward their immediate experience.

 The Green department is mostly new hires with a mix of tenured employees. Their work isn’t as readily collaborative. They’re all amiable people, but they don’t know each other all that well. Walking through this floor is quieter. The relaxed energy on the Yellow department’s level is missing. People don’t look as comfortable. It’s more independent work happening here, a few more earbuds in. There’s less personal life on display at the desks. Interviewing employees about their experience of the company’s culture would be very different than the Yellow’s experience, yet it’s still the same company.

 Moving up to the 10th floor and the Pink Executive area, it’s as quiet as a library. You can feel a deep sense of concentration. The office equipment is different than the other floors. Things are just more statuesque. People are in offices, and there’s no outward sign of community, yet many of these employees are very long-tenured. They’ve known each and worked together for decades. Interviewing Executives about company culture, and they are less likely to refer to their direct experience. They tend to extrapolate for the Yellow and Green departments.

What is culture then?

According to sociologists, culture consists of the values, beliefs, systems of language, communication, and practices that people share in common, and that can be used to define them as a collective. Culture also includes the material objects that are common to that group or society. Culture is distinct from the social structure and economic aspects of society, but it is connected to them — both continuously informing them and being informed by them.

 The most basic way of looking at culture for talent attraction is like saying, “this is how we do it here.” But there’s different communications, norms and behaviors among the department floors. There are department cultures. And when we look closer, there are partnership-cultures, the way small groups and people who sit near each other interact and relate. Sometimes we see subject-matter collectives and micro-cultures. The more senior people don’t feel like they are part of the culture, let alone see themselves as drivers of it.

Imagine now someone arrives for a job interview at the Colorful Company or visits its career site, social media pages, or any key touchpoint. It’s fair to assume job seekers will ask or wonder, “what’s the culture like.” No one wants to answer, “well, that depends significantly if you’re in the Yellow department or Green. And if you go to the Pink Executive floor, it’s even different.

 At the Colorful Company EVP get-together, the CEO asked, What is our culture? No one knew for sure how to answer, so instead, everyone got out a whiteboard, and using colorful markers just made lists of all the things people describe their experience of it. Should we show the whiteboard to the job seeker and say, “there, that’s our culture.” Not if we’re hoping to impress them, right.

If communicating and sharing culture is essential to your organization, and we all agree it is, then we need a better way than trying to define it, or fit it into a slogan, dare we reduce it into an EB pillar.

 I’ve developed an innovative approach I call Culture Sharing Maps. Here’s how it works.

Using similar research techniques of interviews, work-sessions, focus groups, and surveys, instead of looking to define culture, “what is it,” we seek to create shareable maps “how can we share all of it.”

Culture-share maps are packets of stories that express and exemplify cultural attributes and elements, from the tangible to the intangible. In place of trying to boil down an entire organization, made up of many diverse cultures and people and practices and norms, into a single sentence or elevator pitch, we don’t try. It’s solving the wrong problem.

Culture-share maps are a blend of jobseeker aligned expectations of culture woven into story content. It’s not a bullet point, it’s a series of stories, told in video, profiles, infographics, animation, and any creative medium that fits the map. This approach lets the jobseeker experience cultural attributes, not just a definition, in the most engaging way. It’s more effort to do this, but it’s well worth it when finding and attracting the best people is paramount. The more challenging it is to find great talent, the more critical it is to impress them, and this model goes way beyond impressing, it influences.

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