WTF Is Organizational Culture?

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A couple of years ago when I was interviewing companies, I would ask a similar question in all of my interviews.

Me (in an interview): “So tell me a little about your company’s culture?”
Recruiter: “Great question. We have a very youthful and innovative culture here at company. We have casual Fridays and an annual philanthropic event that many of our employees participate in called .”

Me: (not trying to pry or insult) “ahh, thanks for letting me know.”

What I really wanted to ask was ‘what the heck does that even mean?’ In defense of the recruiter, that is a very difficult question to answer.

To understand why that is a difficult question to answer, let’s dive into what organizational culture is. According to study.com:

“Organizational culture is a system of shared assumptions, values, and beliefs, which governs how people behave in organizations. These shared values have a strong influence on the people in the organization and dictate how they dress, act, and perform their jobs.”

So, according to the recruiter that I interviewed, she kind of answered the question. Although, it didn’t really help me as a college student who at the time had no preconceived notion of what organizational culture was. The recruiter telling me about her youthful and innovative culture tells me that the company is trying to adapt to the changing future. Her telling me about casual Fridays tells me how the employees dress on Fridays and the philanthropic event tells me how some of the employees act during that once a year period when the event is going on.

But what about the shared values, beliefs and assumptions? How am I supposed to create a picture of what a company’s culture is like without this information?

To play devil’s advocate, if people know about casual Fridays, but think that it is a joke or would rather not change their dress routine for one day of the week, how pertinent to the culture of the company are casual Fridays? If there seems to be a trend that the people who participate in this annual philanthropic event get higher bonuses (maybe because the owner, president, or board started this organization or is heavily invested in this organization), is it really optional and (if it is perceived as not optional because those who don’t participate in the philanthropic event tend to not get bonuses) does it really contribute to the culture of the company? If the only reason the recruiter described her company’s culture as youthful and innovative because she recently hired a bunch of recent college graduates and the term “innovative” tends to attract young people, is the culture really energetic and willing to try new things that shape how business is done in the future? These are hypothetical questions, but questions nonetheless that I am still left wondering as a student interviewing a company (that I don’t feel comfortable asking for fear of insulting).

The reason why asking the recruiter what her company’s culture is like is a difficult question to answer because it is her opinion.

Organizational cultures are not universally good or universally bad for every person. Just because two organizations have the exact same activities (i.e. casual Fridays and philanthropic events) doesn’t mean that those activities are received the same way at each company by the employees. Some employees may hate those types of activities while other employees may love them and an employee’s love or hatred for doing an activity may depend on who they are doing that activity with (i.e. their colleagues).
Just because a company writes on their website their values and beliefs, doesn’t necessarily mean that the employees share them.

When hired, every person enters the hiring company with a set of values and beliefs. That individual has an influence on the overall culture, but will ultimately have to adapt their values and beliefs to that of what already exists at the company. The individual can either fight those values and beliefs by not seeing how their values and beliefs can be fulfilled through the company or they can buy into the culture of the company.

Many employees for a company fall in between these two choices because they have not taken the time to think about their own values and beliefs and how they pertain to the company in which they are working. Many employees accept their job for what it is without acknowledging or appreciating the little things their company may be trying to do to make their work more enjoyable.

Ultimately, it is up to the individual applying for the job or as an employee within the company to decide what the company’s culture is like. It is up to this individual to understand their own values and beliefs and see how those values and beliefs are being fulfilled by the company. If this understanding can be developed by all or at least a majority of the employees within a company, organizational culture can thrive.

Garrett Mintz is the founder of Ambition In Motion. Essentially, Garrett is a career coach for college students and young professionals. But what Garrett does goes beyond helping people get jobs. He helps young professionals understand what they want in their careers, learn pertinent information about what fulfills them, get their “foot in the door” via informational interviews, and evaluate which career fits them best. Ultimately, Garrett’s goal is to help young professionals build a realistic and thorough perspective of their potential occupations BEFORE accepting a job as opposed to after. Garrett believes that it is paramount to successful employment that young professionals gain clarity of what they want and don’t want in their careers. When young professionals’ perceptions of their careers meet reality, higher engagement, productivity, retention, and job satisfaction follows.

Learn more about Garrett’s work at www.ambition-in-motion.com. Follow Ambition In Motion on Facebook, on Twitter: @AIMbtown, and on LinkedIn.

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