HR Insights 6 min

Ask an HR Expert: Company Culture

January 6, 2020

Culture might be the single biggest challenge facing organizations today. As the director of HR at BambooHR, I’ve been lucky enough to help build and maintain one of the strongest company cultures I’ve ever seen at any organization, and I get to experience and benefit from that culture daily. I’ve also answered hundreds of culture questions from employees, executives, and colleagues throughout my career in human resources. Here are a few of the best, which I’ve tried to answer as best I can.

Who really owns company culture? Is it HR, executives, or employees?

This may not be a popular opinion, but I believe that company culture is not owned by HR. Sure, it is important that HR helps drive culture, but sometimes HR departments feel like they need to be and do everything. Instead, what’s most important is to identify who the right person is to focus on each component of developing the culture, and to support their efforts.

For example, I support leadership with the initiatives that will impact the business at a company-wide level. However, each team and department acts as a microculture. Because of this, managers have a vital role in shaping and preserving the culture. They are aware of and responsible for what is happening on a team level. If you think about it, most employees don’t leave a company; they leave their manager.

Free Ebook: The Definitive Guide to Company Culture

One way to help your managers become owners of the company culture is to sit down with them and discuss what they could be doing to create a stellar onboarding process. Focus on where your best opportunities are. Don’t be passive; plan, decide, do. HR can’t do it alone.

What’s the best way to strengthen company culture without it feeling forced or fake?

Each business is faced with unique pressures that may be taking priority. These influences may be outside of your control. What you can do is be authentic to who you are, rather than aspiring to be something that you aren’t. Being a culture warrior may not come in the form of organizing huge initiatives; everyday HR work can impact culture if we approach it from a culture mindset.

If you want to do culture well, you have to own all of the HR processes and make sure that you have culture layered in, based on what is appropriate for the company. Let me share a couple of examples that show how this can help.

Our benefits manager has deep knowledge that makes her an expert in her role. However, it wouldn’t mean anything if she didn’t approach her job with the intent of preserving our culture. One of our company values is to “Enjoy Quality of Life.” So, when working with an employee on a Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) issue, she recognized that while there are forms that need to be completed, there is also a real person involved, with real concerns. She used what could have been a cold transaction as an opportunity to genuinely invest in the employee and help them through not only the paperwork, but the pressure that the situation was putting on them and their family.

Personally, I like to join department leadership meetings whenever I have the opportunity, so I can learn first hand what is happening throughout the organization and see how my work can help. For another example, our Sales Leadership team was working on how to better evaluate senior team members and define their career paths. I was able to propose a new approach to our promotion process as well as create a rubric to assist them in their goals. By doing so, I was reinforcing our company value of “Lead from Where You Are” as well as living it in my practice.

What elements create the best foundation for a strong culture?

A mission statement, vision statement, and values are essential components of a healthy culture. Everyone in your organization should know them, hear them, and understand them. Make sure they are written down and communicated often. It is great to aspire to be something, but it can go wrong if you stray from the culture that authentically exists in your organization.

We have a written Culture Constitution which defines the attributes and skills that make someone a culture fit.

How does company culture affect who you hire?

Our culture was defined and created by our co-founders, Ben Peterson and Ryan Sanders. As it took shape, efforts were made to align our culture across the company, especially in Talent Acquisition. We are selective in the hiring process, always seeking to find people who support our values. At BambooHR, one of our company values is “Grow from Good to Great.” We don’t say, “Grow from Mediocre to Amazing.” I like the quote from Tony Hsieh, the Zappos CEO: “It actually doesn’t matter what your values are. What matters is that you have them and you commit to them and align the entire organization around them. That means you’re willing to hire and fire based on them.”

We have a written Culture Constitution that defines the attributes and skills that make someone a culture fit. In every step of the hiring process, we are comparing candidates to the Culture Constitution. Our war cry in Talent Acquisition is “Protect our culture,” which means we do not let people who would degrade the culture get past our gates. We care deeply about this, and we apply it in all of the layers that we oversee (hiring, training managers, and follow-up interviews with new hires).

We take accountability for the new talent we bring into the company. We are always growing and adapting our processes. As we hire, we meet with hiring managers and look for patterns and potential items that we need to screen for moving forward.

What are your favorite BambooHR values?

Personally, I love the challenge that goes along with “Grow from Good to Great,” but in my role as an HR professional, I love the values “Be Open” and “Assume the Best.” When these values are lived the right way, it can transform people’s lives in the work setting. We have to be willing to have productive and meaningful conversations about our values. By doing this, we are able to move relationships and work forward.

Learn More About Culture

What Is Company Culture (And Why Is It Important)?

3 Steps Toward a Great Company Culture

How to Successfully Manage Culture Change in the Workplace

Cassie Whitlock
Director of HR

Cassie started her career in the accounting world, but in her work with small and medium-sized companies, the HR function was always handed to her. She loves the intersection of business and humans and believes that when companies focus on their people, the people, in turn, focus on the business needs. She enjoys her work most when she can take her talents in data, processes, and human psychology to make someone's day better.