Who’s responsible for your company’s culture?

Recent revelations of wrongdoing in the private sector have placed the spotlight on that invisible, intangible thing called company culture.

Much has been written about company culture and there are many definitions of company culture, some long and some short, some simple and some complicated. Lurking in most, if not all, of those definitions, short or long, simple or complex, will be a reference to two things – values and behaviour.    

In a nutshell, that’s what company culture is all about – the values of the company and the behaviour of its employees. Referring to the values of a company is misleading. A company without its people is nothing. It’s just a shell, a name or a brand. So, to say that a company has certain values when the people in that company actually have different values is a bit pointless. The values of the people are what counts – they’re the values of the company, not the values that are on the wall in the reception area.

If, for example, a company claims to have values that include tolerance and compassion, but has a bunch of bullies and bigots running the show who think they can behave like that in the name of being a good business person, in reality the company actually doesn’t have any such values and shouldn’t be claiming to have them.

It’s therefore important that employees’ behaviour reflect the values of the company. THAT’S what tells you what the company’s values are.

What happens, then, in the case where there is corruption, “financial mismanagement” or something unethical going on in a company, regardless of how high up it’s taking place? Chances are, this type of activity can’t be hidden from everyone for very long. At some point, it’s going to become apparent to someone somewhere in the organisation. If there’s a culture of fear in the company, no-one is going to blow the whistle. And it’s quite understandable why. In South Africa, companies have a bad habit of turning on the whistle blower and penalising them for exposing unacceptable behaviour.

That says something about the values of those in charge. If they had a zero tolerance to wrongdoing, if they genuinely wanted to eliminate corruption and fraud, they would encourage whistle blowers and do everything in their power to protect them. Surely those are the kinds of people one wants in one’s company? Apparently not, if we look at how many whistle blowers have been victimised for their actions. This needs to change.    

Of course, an equally, if not more, important question is: who’s responsible for the company’s culture? Put another way, who’s responsible for the values and behaviour of the company’s employees?

Quick, obvious answers could include the CEO or the executive team and they wouldn’t be wrong as they are indeed responsible for everything that happens on the company.

More accurately, the person who is responsible for the company’s culture is the HR Director, HR Executive, Head of HR, HR Lead or any other title you wish to give the senior HR Professional in the company.

If you’re a senior HR Professional, compare what your company claims to be its culture with the behaviour of its employees. If there’s a gap between the two, you’ve got a lot of work to do. Senior HR Professionals who refuse to take responsibility for their company’s culture should be held accountable. They are responsible for the people, so they are responsible for the way people behave in the company.

I want to encourage senior HR Professionals to build an ethical culture by firstly leading by example, then expecting everybody else to follow that example. When you shift from, “Do as I say,” to “Do as I do,” you change the dynamics of the company’s culture. If you’re setting a good example, expecting others to follow suit and holding those who don’t accountable, you’ll be well on your way to building a company culture of value.        

Alan Hosking is the Publisher of HR Future magazine, www.hrfuture.net, @HRFuturemag. He is a recognised authority on leadership skills for the future and helps business leaders learn to lead with purpose and agility.

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