Yes, Your Company Culture Is Really Just a Myth

For years, I’ve been arguing that your company doesn’t have a culture.

If you believe you do, it’s because you are incorrectly applying the word “culture” to a group of people who behave a certain way because their lives are dominated by a few powerful figures in your office.

That’s it. Your crappy software company or little marketing agency doesn’t have a culture — it has a CEO and a leadership team that has particular points of view about how work should “feel.”

Hiring for fit is nonsense

You? You show up and go along with the flow. You cash your check. If you don’t like the vibe in the office, you eventually quit.

I’m on record saying that “culture” is what we talk about when a company’s products and services are unremarkable. We pay employees in culture when we can’t pay them in cash.

I have also written that hiring for “fit” is a lie. Most people don’t know how to hire, so they zero in on likeability and gut-level bullshit that cannot be measured by good folks, like me, who believe that you can measure human capital decisions.

Fit is nonsense, but lots of leaders push back and tell me, “Oh, Laurie. Screening for skill is easy. It’s the gut-level stuff in the trenches — personality, likeability, trustworthiness — that’s the hardest to measure.”

That’s garbage. Fit is a lie we tell ourselves because we don’t know how to weigh the one-two-punch of competency and character. What’s worse is that hiring for fit is often a cover for lazy, racist, sexist, bigoted, exclusionary, elitist, ageist and homophobic preferences in the work environment.

What HR leaders need to do

So, I’m on record all over the damn Internet with those statements. I have called BS on culture and fit before it was cool to hate on Zappos.

I won’t walk any of it back, either, but it’s getting harder and harder for me to watch HR professionals play in the intersection of culture and fit without wishing someone would get hit by a car. When you talk about culture and fit, you sound like a tool.

Human resources leaders have an obligation to guard against group-think and homogeneous hiring methodologies.

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We have an obligation to ensure that the best ideas get heard and that the best employees move forward within an organization. We have an obligation to advocate on behalf of the cranky, grouchy, unlikeable employees who question everything and don’t go along with the flow.

When we don’t do our jobs and question everything — including culture and fit — Goldman Sachs happens.

Afraid of the hard truths

I want my friends and colleagues in human resources to start making evidenced-based decisions. I want them to think before they jump on the business jargon bandwagon. While I think it’s okay to love your CEO, I think the cult of celebrity CEO leadership compels many people to lose their freaking minds.

So remember where you heard it first. Culture and fit are lies we tell ourselves because we are afraid of the hard truths behind the unglamorous, unsexy, boring world of work.

Maybe you should stop lying to yourself and your employees. That’s one pretty easy way to fix the reputation of human resources.

This was originally published on the Laurie Ruettimann blog.


Laurie Ruettimann (LFR) is a former Human Resources leader turned influential speaker, writer and strategist. She owns a human resources consultancy that offers a wide array of HR services to human resources leaders and executives. Check out her LinkedIn profile here. You may know Ruettimann as the creator of The Cynical Girl and Punk Rock HR (retired), which Forbes named as a top 100 website for women. You may have also read her book, I AM HR: 5 Strategic Ways to Break Stereotypes and Reclaim HR. (RepCap Press, 2014.) 


11 Comments on “Yes, Your Company Culture Is Really Just a Myth

  1. Okay Laurie, I like the straight talk–don’t hire on culture or fit. Then what’s the solution? Make evidence-based decisions….but on what evidence?
    Behavioral assessments? Work samples? We know the issues already.
    Like I tell my people, don’t bring be problems, bring me solutions.

  2. Wow, I buy the frustrations about culture but to say your company, organization, etc. does not have a culture is totally and completely incorrect. I am sure the rest of the faculty and guests at that have literally helped thousands of organizations over the past 40 years would agree with me. Yes, the majority of what’s written on culture is superficial and doesn’t even touch on what the true experts in this field have learned about how culture works and how that related behavior CAN be shifted / evolved / changed to have a direct and sustainable impact on results.

    I also believe most of what’s written on culture fit misses the mark regarding what’s truly important to understand about an individuals behavior and background but that doesn’t make hiring for cultural fit nonsense.

    It’s fine with me if you don’t want to call it culture but I am all about the need to take your organization on a journey that will 1) improve business performance, 2) improve customer experience, 3) resolve the top frustrations with how your team works together, 4) reduce silo behavior, 5) reduce the likelihood of bad behavior that could rock your organization to its core, 6) improve the success rate of your strategic priorities and change efforts, 7) improve talent attraction and retention, and 8) dramatically reduce negative employee feedback.

    I do agree you should NOT focus on culture but it’s imperative to understand how culture is impacting your top problems, challenges, goals and/or performance priorities AND to understand how cultures evolve with intent to have a direct and sustainable impact on results.

    “Culture and fit are lies” – No way. That’s a misinformed and totally incorrect conclusion.

  3. Laurie! As usual you’re funny as hell, but uh huh, I can’t agree with you on this one. Ask any one of those “grouchy” curiosity hogs, and she’ll tell you her company has a culture, and she doesn’t fit.

    I’m think the problem isn’t the terminology, it’s that leaders are so damned proud of their crappy cultures! (That is, when they’re not actually lying— either to themselves or others—that the culture is THIS when clearly it’s THAT.) Sigh.

    When did people start hating on Zappos??

    1. “When did people start hating on Zappos??”

      Probably about the time that one of the founders said that their hiring principles was ‘would you want to have a beer with this person?’

  4. Well, Laurie certainly does live up to her “cynical” brand in this article. And, she makes a few good points here.

    I agree that hiring for fit is a waste of resources if the process isn’t closely tied to an
    aligned culture and designed to fit proven behavioral attributes. When we implemented such a system at Southwest Airlines, we conducted evidence based research on performance outcomes and identified the behavioral attributes of our best performers. So, when we hired for fit, we had better performance. It worked!

    Very few organizations can claim they have established a sustainable winning culture, so to those of us who have not been a part ofone—it probably does seem ludicrous.
    I think Zappos is one of the few companies that has done it well.

    I disagree with much in the article. First, any organization that has more
    than 2 employees has a culture whether it was deliberately planned or not. The culture defines how things get done, and that has an impact on performance. Academics have conducted evidenced based research to prove that a winning culture adds value to the shareholders of public corporations and better results for others. There are many fine dissertations on the topic.

    I don’t believe HR should be the keeper of the culture. Culture works when it is one of the top two or three priorities the enterprise. HR is not a “tool” when it contributes to creating a winning culture. But HR can provide tools to align the HR practices with a desired culture and behaviors of leaders andemployees and tools to measure effectiveness and results.

    Consulting organizations like the Great Place to Work and others have developed comprehensive datasets to measure culture and its affect on performance. Other organizations, such as RoundPegg have assessment tools to help align culture and performance.

    The problem here is not that culture is a farce or a myth, the problem is that some HR people think they can own the culture and go about it with a “check the box” approach to fix it. We hold an offsite, and identify our mission, vision and goals (MVGs). And then declare them to the workforce. Focusing on the MSGs attempts to change behaviors by changing people via the environment rather than actually changing the culture.

    There is (almost) nothing that will change your behavior for the long-term. No workshop, no team-building exercise, no brilliant and charming CEO or terrific HR leader will change a culture.

    It is hard and takes dedication. It requires a second look at every process, all the infrastructure, and an evaluation of every leader and employee to ensure their personal values align with the company’s.

    Hiring for fit is one of the most powerful ways to make an impact or culture when done well.

    1. “Very few organizations can claim they have established a sustainable
      winning culture, so to those of us who have not been a part of one—it
      probably does seem ludicrous.”

      Another way to put it is that for everybody who does have such a thing, there’s dozen deluding themselves.

  5. Satire usually works for Laurie because she’s coming at topics that are overblown or where ignorance abounds. Some of her writing is worth reading because it’s adds flavor to otherwise hopelessly bland subject matter and it’s funny. HR, does some thankless “dirty work”. I get it. The best of the best in sales hears “no” or nothing at all, far more than “yes”. Part of the job. A sense of humor helps makes even the hardest work more bearable.

    Suggesting that something as real and powerful as workplace culture doesn’t exist is a stretch at best, even if the brand is revolves around shock value. Whether built and maintained intentionally or by default, every company has a culture. Many people talk about company culture without knowing what it is. In a lot of companies the real culture is unspoken and contrary to the stated mission, vision an values plastered on the coffee mugs, websites and framed on the lobby walls.

    If something can be objectively quantified, empirically correlated to this, that and the other and efficacy demonstrated though control groups, it exists. Regardless of how we may feel about it. This is true irrespective of the degree to which the topic is ill-defined, misunderstood, misapplied or bastardized to serve particular interests.

    Whether unwilling or unable, companies that fail to differentiate between the culture they want/ need/ demand and the culture that they have will loose to companies that can and will. Putting our head in the sand only changes what we see, not the world around us.

    If “hiring for fit” is defined according to personality, likeability and trustworthiness I agree that it’s junk that leads to the damaging -isms mentioned above. Start with a definition of fit and then be smart and weight “fit” according to a candidates fit score to their manager, team and company since that’s how it works in the real world.

    The existence of scam artists who would sell us dietary supplements that don’t work, set false expectations or that are even dangerous doesn’t mean that we should avoid vitamins or suggest that they’re not real. Just means that we have to be intelligent buyers who are educated enough to make responsible decisions.

  6. A pugnacious marketing approach is attention-getting, but can backfire badly. This post is an example. Why does she need to condemn or demean a business she’s never been around as a “shitty software company” (her original post – was cleaned up here)?

    And how does it help transform behavior she dislikes by declaring that people who think culture is important are just covering for “lazy, racist, sexist, bigoted, exclusionary, elitist, ageist and homophobic” behavior? Could some of them simply be doing it wrong, and not evil? And if so, will her comments help win them over?

    This post (and many others by her) don’t appear to be written to solve a problem or help people grow, but to declare a radical, eye-brow raising, attention getting position – pure marketing shtick.

    When I challenged her on Twitter regarding the blanket condemnations above, her response on Twitter was “The world doesn’t need to see one more old white guy telling me how work “works” and how wrong I am.”

    This is sad. Laurie claims as her focus that she is a defender against discrimination in the workplace. She writes regularly about how applicants don’t get a hearing because of their age, sex, or race. And yet here she is saying she has nothing to learn from someone she has never met and knows nothing about, because of their age, their race, and their sex.

    Contrarian is a great thing. But hateful (“your shitty software company”), demeaning (“your little software company”), accusatory, racist, sexist, and ageist (“old white guy”) are not good things. Maybe this post will be a wake up call to her. The pugnacious marketing shtick may not be a long-term good strategy, unless of course her only objective is making money.

    Shock value always sells, but it rarely helps.

  7. Oh, a company has a culture, alright. The culture may be intentional or unintentional depending how much thought is given to it by management and the HR department. I tend to focus on the unintentional company culture in my posts at since the situations are more amusing.

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