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True Culture is Experienced, Not Written


Have you ever started a job at a company you were really excited to go work for, only to be disappointed by the reality of actually working there?


How can you tell what the culture really is?

The true measure of workplace culture is not the formal definition written in the mission statement, operations manual, or employee handbook. Nor is it the upbeat description told to candidates during job interviews or reflected on the company website.

The truest measure of a workplace culture is how the culture is experienced by the people who actually work there, who can attest to how well idealized written conception of culture aligns with the on-the-ground reality.


When the ideal and actual cultures closely align, you get happier, more engaged, and more committed teams.

When the ideal and actual are mismatched, you're in for trouble. In fact, the experience of working in a company that sees itself as having (or at least publicly claims to have) a great culture but is actually has a pretty toxic place to work can be even more upsetting and cause more damage than working in a company that doesn't even try to take culture seriously.


When the Reality Doesn't Match the Ideal

Let's look at an example.

Right now there is a lot of discussion about how to build diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplace cultures, with companies trying to address systemic biases and barriers (both intentional and unintentional). Many companies are updating their mission and vision statements to add language about inclusion, offering all-staff workshops on unconscious bias, and changing hiring practices to attract candidates from different backgrounds. These are all examples of adding positive features to the culture so the company can go better going forward.

Adding positive features can certainly be effective, but for people who already work in the company and have witnessed (and may continue to witness) discrimination or offensive behavior, their experience working for the company is largely tainted by the existing negative features.

  • Males frequently talking over their female colleagues during meetings.

  • Employees who don't have children regularly having to work late in order to meet deadlines after their parent colleagues sign off for the day

  • Black employees having to cringe silently when someone makes a racist joke

In order to have a healthy, inclusive, progressive workplace culture, a company must take proactive steps to stomp out the negative features. Until they do, any efforts to change culture will ring hollow.


"Culture is Defined by the Worst Behavior Tolerated"

This provocative, but ultimately correct statement was made by John Amaechi, a guest on a recent episode of Adam Grant's *Work Life* podcast, and it perfectly explains why the employees' lived experience working in a company is the most important measure of culture.

Until employees see consequences for people who do or say things that run counter to the ideal, written company culture, they won't believe that efforts to improve culture are genuine or that change is possible. And this applies equally to serious offenses (like racist comments or managers who play favorites) and smaller offenses (leaving dirty mugs in the office kitchen or one co-worker dumping an unexpected last-minute assignment on another) alike.