Organisational culture – why, what and how?

2 minute read

We discuss organisational culture as if it were a precise subject about which HR has all the answers. We treat it as a mega–big subject and surround it with bland, nebulous and seriously top drawer HR language. But it is the day-to-day actions that organisations take that inform an employee's view of its culture

Martin Tiplady

Who why what how of culture

Organisational culture is one of the most important things we – in HR – can address and spend our time working on. It defines what we do, how we do it and when we do it, as well as justifying the identity and style that we wish to project.

Often, we review our organisational values and behaviours as part of it – something really important in my mind – but our way of doing it does leave us open to yet another HR driven initiative that adds sod all to the bottom line. I have seen more mouse mats, pens, posters, credit card summaries and straplines on payslips than I can shake the proverbial stick at.

In annual reports, employers declare they have redefined their organisational culture, redefined their mission and values and instigated an extensive training process involving 360 feedback et al in order to make sure that their ambition of an altered culture is achieved. And then the activity stops. I often wonder what those organisations’ KPIs look like in terms of culture.

Credible that some of these values driven approaches are, they do diddly squat to change a culture, And they can cost millions of pounds. So what is going wrong?

One issue is around what we mean when we talk about culture. Do we mean the way that we do our business? Do we mean the way that we interact with each other? Do we mean the way that we are organised?

What about the way that decisions are taken? Or the day-to-day systems that we operate? What impression do we give to new starters coming into the business? How do we do when communicating news across the organisation? Do we manage our managers well and are they involved or told what to say? How do we make someone redundant? How do we reward someone?

We all say that we are family flexible yet there are dinosaurs among us that still think that anything to do with diversity is a dirty phrase. How do we recognise exceptional and good performance? What is our customer service? I mean true customer service?

So many individual elements, all of which fall under the umbrella of organisational culture. Let me give you a couple of personal examples.

The other day I parked across two bays when the car next to mine – the largest Range Rover – was parked into my bay and the only way that I could park was to go across the next bay as well. That bay had a load of debris, black sacks and broken tree branches in it and was not in use. Or so I thought. For when I got back I had a parking ticket. I rang the well-known parking company and got through to their customer services. Now, how is it that anyone in customer services can tell a customer to ‘f*** off’ is beyond me. I did get the ticket waived, by the way.

Or when I first joined the Met and claimed expenses my form was voided and returned on three occasions because it didn’t have the receipt, or had the wrong cost centre code written on it, or was added up wrong, or…..,or…… Actually, it added up right and I had claimed a few pounds less than I should. And they had lost my receipts. Outcome – eight months later I got the money but all I remember is the bureaucratic and bombastic nature of the accounts payable section.

Recently I heard that, for a director level post in one of London’s main organisations during the last 12 months, applicants did not get an acknowledgement of their application as the recruiters were too busy to respond. If the applicant had not heard within 28 days, they were advised to assume their application was unsuccessful. In this case, more than 100 directors did not hear back. For those that did, they were subjected to basic telephone screening. 

These examples are meant to illustrate that our view of an organisation is wholly informed by such experiences, rightly or wrongly. It takes years to build a reputation and one small inept action to take it all away.

Sometimes, however, the actions are not small. Let's consider some of the organisation statements made by three companies currently in the UK news.

  • Collapsed outsourcing giant Carillion declared on its website that: "We care about the work that we do and the families we serve. We provide a professional service in all that we do."
  • Fellow outsourcer Capita: "We have four main areas of capability which work together to shape and deliver the right solutions and outcomes. Each of these capabilities is made up of ‘professions’ teams of experts whom we develop and invest in to match their skills." Umm, not according to some of their ‘professions’ staff last week.
  • Global charity Oxfam. I don’t want to beat it up too much for its aims are good- hearted, well-intended and compassionate but I would remove, pretty darn quickly, from its website a list of organisational goals that claim that it "helps people to a better life’ and ‘champions equal rights for women". 

I say this, for organisational culture can only be successfully altered by a bottom up review and by addressing the things that affect us as individuals.

My own approach to culture change is to look at the things that determine culture. The way that we recruit, the way that we retain and motivate, the means by which we promote, the means by which we appraise, the means by which we fire or end someone’s employment, the way we manage sickness, the way that we deal with expenses and, externally, the relationship we have with suppliers – the way by which we process bills, our customer interface, our accessibility, the content and style of our communiques to customers and to each other.

In other words, the things that drive our businesses and the systems and processes that we operate and how functional and easy they may be. And out of all that, any statement about our approach, values and behaviours come alive and actually affect the bottom line in terms of quality and profit.

So dear HRDs, think again please about culture and your approach to it. It is not a nebulous subject and is something I believe you should be spending oodles of your time on in an informed way. And be in no doubt. This is about strategic HR because of the statement it makes about what you stand up for. Nothing exists that is more important than addressing how your organisations operate and reflect the image that you want them to.

Recent research carried out by human captial firm Leathwaites reiterates that ‘culture is king’. Not only does it inform how you deal with a matter, it is the thing upon which organisations are judged. Just witness those in the last few days whose rhetoric about such matters may be noble and well intended, but not backed by the behaviours, controls and systems that dictate that culture.


I have seen more mouse mats, pens, posters, credit card summaries and straplines on payslips than I can shake the proverbial stick at. Organisational culture can only be successfully altered by a bottom up review and by addressing the things that affect us as individuals

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