Elizabeth Owens Bille, JD, SHRM-SCP

Creating a workplace culture that employees will love is no easy feat, but having a well-defined process can help. With an unemployment rate hovering at or under four percent and increasing demand for employees with the right combination of soft skills and technical competencies to meet companies’ needs, the ability to attract, engage and retain employees has never been more top-of-mind.

Building and sustaining culture isn’t an event, it’s a process. We’ve broken that process into five, actionable steps that can help your organization create a foundation for a strong workplace culture that can be defined, shared through examples and stories, supported through positive and constructive actions as necessary, monitored, and measured.

1. Define your company culture.

Companies need to be very explicit about what their desired company culture is—to communicate that culture to employees in ways that they understand and in ways that clearly tie to the job they perform for the organization.

For instance, healthcare organizations often talk about a “culture of patient engagement.” But, what does that mean in practice? It might mean that the organization has an expectation that all employees will interact—make eye contact and offer some verbal response like “hello, how are you today?” – with patients and family members, they may encounter in the hallway. Or that all employees are required to seek feedback from patients they’ve served and, further, that they have specific goals—and are held accountable—related to patient feedback on satisfaction surveys.

The point is, make sure to define what you mean so employees understand specifically how they contribute to creating a workplace culture.

2. Provide positive and constructive feedback—and give employees permission to do the same.

Once you’ve defined your desired workplace culture and laid out expectations that are aligned with your organization’s mission, vision, and values in the workplace, it’s important to support that culture through both positive and constructive feedback. When managers see employees doing things that are supportive of the desired culture they should acknowledge these behaviors and thank them. Conversely, when employees’ actions are not culture-supportive they need to be informed of this as well. That includes employees from the top to the bottom of the organization.

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Employees should also be empowered to provide this type of feedback. For instance, at some organizations leaders empower employees to speak up and intervene when leaders’ behavior may not be supportive of the desired culture. In a company introducing a strong safety culture, for example, with very strict rules about wearing hardhats or using handrails in specific areas, leaders may actively say: “We want you to also tell us when we’re not exhibiting these behaviors.” An employee who witnesses a senior, C-suite leader not following these guidelines should feel comfortable approaching them to say, “I’m sorry, but you need to hold onto the handrail here.” The senior leader’s response should be, “Yes, thank you for pointing that out to me.” It’s important for leaders to visibly convey their desire to encourage reporting and intervention.

3. Share examples and stories of the workplace culture you’re working to achieve.

Even in organizations with senior leaders and managers that do a great job of providing actionable feedback to employees in support of the desired workplace culture, communication can be constrained and fail to move up and across the organization so that all staff are aware of the kinds of behaviors that are valued.

Stories can be shared through department meetings, Town Hall meetings, newsletters, celebratory events, etc. These stories go a long way toward supporting and driving home to employees what the desired workplace culture looks like.

4. Take swift action when necessary.

One of the quickest ways to erode your workplace culture is to fail to support it through appropriate disciplinary, and sometimes termination, decisions. Some employees, despite your best efforts in hiring, onboarding, coaching, and counseling throughout their tenure with you, will simply prove to not be a good fit. It’s very difficult for employers to change the hearts and minds of employees who, for whatever reasons, just aren’t a good match with the corporate culture. They’re not bad people. You’re not a bad company. The fit just isn’t there.

When that’s the case, a decision needs to be made to exit that employee. This, of course, is something that will take place after a series of conversations, feedback, coaching, and working with the employee to find the right fit. Ultimately, though, it’s best for both the employee and the company, in some situations, to part ways.

5. Monitor and measure – strategies to improve workplace culture.

Business guru Peter Drucker has been widely ascribed the sentiment: “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.” We believe this is certainly true when working towards creating a workplace culture. It’s important to be able to quantify whether or not your work is actually achieving the desired results. There are many complex strategies you might use to measure the impact of your corporate culture. Measurement doesn’t have to be extremely complex, though. Simply surveying employees on a regular basis, or including specific questions in already planned employee engagement surveys, can help you get the information you need:

  • Do employees agree that the desired culture is a reality?
  • Do they believe the culture is aligned with the organization’s mission, vision, and values?
  • Do they believe they have the tools and resources to support that culture?
  • Do they believe the culture contributes to the company’s success?

Finally, be sure to engage employees in the process. Creating a workplace culture isn’t the sole responsibility of the HR department or senior leaders. To make sure that a company continues to be a great place to work, we all have a shared responsibility every day for taking actions that support the company’s values and positive workplace culture.

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