Kristi Riordan, COO at Flatiron School
Kristi Riordan, COO at Flatiron School. Image: Flatiron School

What is good company culture and why is it important?

31 Jul 2018

Having a good company culture is essential to retaining top talent. But what exactly is it and how do you make sure yours is good?

Company culture is one of the many key talking points of the working world now. It is fast becoming an integral part of the future of work, especially given the continuing war for top talent.

But what does it mean exactly? Would you be able to confidently talk about what your own company culture is like?

While company culture might seem like just a buzzword, there’s so much more to it than that. spoke to Kristi Riordan, the chief operating officer of Flatiron School, about why organisations should examine company culture.

“A company’s culture is not just a list of words or a slogan, but rather the established norm of day-to-day behaviour exhibited throughout an organisation.”

She added that companies wanting to identify their own culture should go to their employees first. “Employees will articulate what the actual culture is, areas of strength and need for improvement, regardless of what is written on the wall.”

So, what exactly is good company culture and how does it compare to the bad examples? Riordan said culture should serve as the North Star for actions of every individual in the company.

“The desired values and behaviours of a strong culture are articulated, modelled, reinforced and rewarded,” she said. “When culture is not properly established, nurtured and used as the core operating system of an organisation, actual employee behaviour can stray very far from aspirational values.”

As Riordan attests to, culture is the present behaviour of a company, not what a company wishes their culture was. You can’t simply make a good company culture by writing a decent manifesto.

‘If the cultural conflicts are strong enough, they will lead to a virus within an organisation’

As we’ve seen with many companies over the years, if you don’t practise what you preach, what you preach becomes meaningless.

“Office slogans never include words like ‘cheat’ or ‘harass’ and a culture-defining sentence is never ‘alienate your colleagues who are different’, yet we read with depressing frequency about companies whose culture produced exactly those behaviours,” said Riordan.

“By the time we hear about these episodes in the press, they are probably features of a culture, not bugs.”

Tech company culture

Riordan believes that when companies leave culture to evolve on its own, it can go dangerously off course. For tech companies, nurturing positive company values has become even more important. It is also vital that these values come from the top.

“These values and behaviours must be embodied and exhibited by leadership and managers. Their actions will speak much louder than anything written on a website, wall or handbook,” she said.

“Leaders or managers who do embody a company’s culture will eventually reset what the culture is. If the cultural conflicts are strong enough, they will lead to a virus within an organisation and begin to spread new normative behaviours.”

Recruiting for values

While leaders at the top have the power to alter a company’s culture, new hires can also affect it.

“Who a company hires, retains and transitions has everything to do with what the culture is,” said Riordan. But hiring for a so-called ‘culture fit’ isn’t always easy.

“The way in which a candidate’s culture fit is typically assessed invites unconscious biases that can result in less-than-optimal hiring decisions,” she warned.

“Rather than using the dated test of whether someone seems like good company for a beer or business trip, assess for ‘values fit’.  For each value within company culture, a corresponding behaviour should be articulated that helps express how that value will be brought to life.”

Back to basics

By now, you should know how important company culture really is. Realising yours isn’t a simple matter of taking a look at some mission statement in the company handbook.

As Riordan advised, start by asking your employees to find out what the true culture is. Specifically, she suggested asking: ‘On a scale of one to 10, how likely are you to refer a friend to work here?’

Follow that question with: ‘What is the most important reason for your score? What would it take to increase your score by one point?’

If there are issues with the culture, look to leadership. Find out where the discrepancies lie and follow your employees’ advice about changes you need to make.

Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the editor of Silicon Republic in 2023, having worked as the deputy editor since February 2020. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

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