No two cultures-societal or organizational-are exactly alike.  If you have ever traveled to other countries, you no doubt have observed widely different ways of eating, celebrating, and worshiping.  In comparing societies across the globe, the acceptable norms for behavior, communication, and relationships vary as widely as their languages, foods, and religions.  Visitors to different countries are often surprised by their observations and experiences in a new culture, because they are so different from their own.

Each summer for several years, I've spent three weeks teaching in south India.  Although I've had students in the U.S. who were from India, and a good friend in graduate school who was Indian, I was not completely prepared for what I experienced on my first trip there.  Besides language and food differences, which were expected and eagerly anticipated, I was most amazed by the traffic! 

On narrow, two-lane roads are large commercial trucks, buses overflowing with riders, oxen that are pulling carts, two-wheeled motorbikes, passenger cars, donkeys, autorickshaws (small, three-seated taxis), bicycles, and pedestrians.  There is constant, loud honking as all of these travelers attempt to navigate a dangerously narrow road, much like New York City or one of our large metropolitan cities.

The most fascinating part, however, is the difference between the traffic "culture" of the U.S. and India.  In India, they accommodate each mode of transportation; in the U.S., in general, we are more concerned with our own progress and rudely cut off anyone who gets in our way.  The common understanding in India that all must share the road, as well as how each traveler needs to be accommodated, allows for relatively smooth (albeit noisy) navigation for all.  It is, in some way, an analogy for what we should be doing in our U.S. organizations.

This really is the essence of culture:  a shared pattern of assumptions - a cultural paradigm - about how everyone in that culture sees the world and navigates through it together.  But how do you learn what is acceptable in Rome if you are from India?  That is the problem faced by every new member entering into a new cultural experience.  In this regard, organizations are no different from civil societies.  New members bring their own experiences, customs, and perceptions from their old culture into the new situation.  In addition, the interpretation of the new culture becomes problematic, because new members see it with "old" eyes.

This is an important point for HR folks, because they have the first chance to convey the culture of their organization to new members.  However, a strong culture can also create feelings of isolation and exclusion for employees, clients, and customers who are unable to grasp the subtleties of the culture or who just do not "fit in."  Even some things most of us take for granted can be different for those from other cultures. 

What You See Is What You Get

The vast majority of the population is comprised of visual learners.  That is, they learn by seeing, rather than by hearing or doing.  Your organization's culture is also absorbed, often unconsciously, by what a new member actually sees for himself.  Office décor, pictures and posters, logos, office arrangements, and modes of dress convey a "set design" for the organization's visual production.  Go out and look at your reception area.  Are there comfortable chairs, soft music, refreshments, and television?  Or is the area devoid of comforts, a kind of "early 1960s doctor's office" décor, with year-old magazines and standard metal chairs? 

Interestingly, one might think the comfortable reception area would be desirable, while the stark one would not be so desirable.  However, the culture of the first may say to a visitor, "you are going to be waiting here a LONG time, so we wanted you to be distracted."  Conversely, the other may convey that "we'll be with you so quickly, there won't be time to get comfortable, so don't mind the uncomfortable chairs." 

The issue here is what you want to convey, as well as how it is seen by others.  Offices with rat mazes of cubicles that separate employees from each other can convey a sense of isolation and exclusion, or they can communicate a sense of egalitarianism.  Managers' offices that have real wood furniture tell a very different story than do those with metal desks and file cabinets.  Again, we are not suggesting that one is better than another.  Rather, the decision about the set design for your organization's culture should be consistent with that culture, or it will send mixed messages to employees about what is valued. 

Culture Orientation

Up to this point you are probably asking yourself, "how would a new employee learn about an organization's culture unless he or she spent time in it?"  You would be correct in thinking that deep understanding of "the way things are done" around any organization does take some exposure to and experience with the organization.  However, as HR professionals we can also give new employees a leg up by introducing much of the accepted culture during an orientation session devoted to understanding what behavior is rewarded, punished, and celebrated. 

For example, consider incorporating into the new employee orientation material a list of jargon and acronyms commonly used in your organization.  Including a list of shorthand names for forms, too, surely would have helped this new hire:

During the first week of my new job as an HR rep in a hospital, I was asked several times about "the current STD."  I was a bit embarrassed at first, so I didn't ask anyone what it meant (and hoped it didn't mean what I thought it did).  It turns out it was a form that reported the comparison of monthly time-to-fill-position data with the hospital's benchmark STANDARD.  Who would have known that?

An organization's culture won't always be pleasant, because culture consists of the good, the bad, and the ugly of who we are as an organizational community.  Losing a valued employee because of an unhealthy culture occurs frequently.  The sad part is that many organizations are not even aware that the culture is often the culprit in employee turnover. 

There is an awesome power to culture.  Whether or not you know for sure why people leave your organization, it is part of your job to help manage the culture so that it isn't driving people away.  And, to that end, here are a couple of suggestions about how to incorporate a cultural orientation into what you now do for new employees as they begin in your company.

Conduct a cultural audit

  • Ask a variety of current employees and managers these questions: "what stories have you heard from others in this organization that best represents what ABC company stands for?" "What do we celebrate here that truly captures the best part of ABC?" "What language or jargon do we use here for which an outsider would have no clue about its meaning?"
  • Walk around your organization and pretend you are a set designer for a movie or television show. What message(s) are conveyed by what you see (e.g. décor, behaviors, dress, etc)? Ae there competing messages, or does the "set" pretty much convey a similar overall message to you?
  • From all the information you gather, make a list or a storyboard of your organization's culture. In your regular new employee orientation, invite the new employees to walk around for a day or two, and then to come back and share their perceptions of what they saw and heard. Then, share your storyboard. It will be instructional for all of you!
  • Conduct "stay interviews" after the initial 90-day introductory period. Ask if your organization or managers are doing anything that would cause them to reconsider their employment decision. And it doesn't have to stop there. Conducting brief, periodic interviews will help you to avoid culture-related turnover.

Incorporate Facebook and Twitter into your pre-orientation

Invite new hires to link to current employees with whom they will work. In that way, current employees can begin to share information about the workplace, including dress codes or norms, parking lot etiquette and protocol, lunch hour activities, and photographs of coworkers. Encourage current employees to reach out to the new hires by asking their opinions and generally providing support and encouragement. You may even want to start a new employee blog that provides important information about benefits, current events and programs, product or service information, and messages from the boss. You are only limited by your own creativity!

About the Author

Dale Dwyer Ph.D.

Dale Dwyer, Ph.D., is a professor at the University of Toledo, Department of Management.

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