6 Signs Your Company's Culture Stinks

Are your manager's hands too clean?

Work-health index and industry surveys (like this and this) that put ‘culture’ at the core of why talent is attracted to or repelled from organizations abound. But you can't miss what you don't have—and for most startups, the beliefs and behaviors that create "culture" are being formed on day one, often without conscious effort.

When you scan the landscape, there are certain sweethearts that stand out for great culture: Google with its free time, Zappos with its customer service, Fab with its office design. So why do Microsoft and Yahoo! get bad raps? They have the same perks and spend comparatively equal or more money on employees and their services. Why are some startups bubbling to the top in the mix as best places to work, while others flounder despite their equivalent time, energy, and effort?

Rather than look at best practices, my leadership team and I assembled some practices to avoid from our experiences at large and small companies—including Microsoft, Google, Deloitte, GoDaddy, Active Network, Thriva, Expedia, and more—all notoriously ranking at very different points on the culture scale. In short, in order to establish the right culture for our new company, we decided to first figure out why some company cultures stink. Namely:

1. You've got gossips in your ranks.

No one likes jerks. But almost as detrimental to being jerky is being a gossip queen. This is the antithesis of transparency and collaboration. Even if it is not malicious, it erodes an organization’s culture and energy over time. Cliques form and employees find comfort in their connection to each other through trash-talking—instead of building relationships based on accomplishments and goals.

2. Your leadership team has bad habits.

Culture is a normative inheritance, much like child rearing. Kids look and act like their parents despite how hard they try to do otherwise. The same holds true in your organization. Your leadership is the best indicator of the entire organization and so employees' bad tempers, sloppiness, lack of collaboration, and general attitude provide valuable insight into the health of the company.

3. Your managers' hands are too clean.

When managers are not willing to get their hands dirty with the troops or do hard work, there's no number of free lunches that can help your company. There are severe culture consequences when managers are disengaged from the front lines and, by extension, your customers.

4. Your employees are competing—with each other.

Competition is great. It’s imperative. I believe that you should compete with yourself. What is not necessary is competing internally. You know you have a rotten culture when employees spend more time competing with each other than with external forces.

5. You don't play together.

McKinsey coined the airport interview test–-If you were stuck in an airport with a candidate, would you enjoy it? You have to work a lot together in a startup, often pushing through tough situations. These can actually shore up relationships, but only if they exist already. Companies that don’t make time for team building or relationship building outside the office inherently face talent retention risks.

6. You lack school spirit.

Employees should come to work every day more excited than the last. Their attitude is powered by shared beliefs of the organization—employees should have a unified understanding of the key value drivers applied to decision-making. There needs to be a deep care and belief in what the mission of the company is in order to delight customers, develop raving fans and repeat the cycle. The moment an employee stops believing in the company and taking pride in their job significance, your castle will fall.

Culture is conscious state of mind. Make it unacceptable to stink.

Matt Ehrlichman is the CEO and cofounder of Porch, the only marketplace that connects homeowners with the right service professionals through who neighbors have used, project and cost history, and endorsements by friends. Follow him on Twitter at @mattehrlichman.

[Image: Flickr user Kevin Dooley]

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  • Anuj Bhatia

    Very nice article! My understanding from this and some other reading. Don't ever let these negativity creators seep into your organization! Don't let personal ambitions and conflicts disturb the fine balance between advice and interference. Don't let abrupt, half-baked prejudices come into the professional environment. Build an environment of trust and teamwork. Allow experimentation and calculated risk taking.

  • arsepolitico

    okay, dude made up the last two of these or pulled them out of a management guide, didn't he?

  • Einelorelei

    Or you have a boss who deliberately plays people off of each other and actually puts out a memo that strong friendships are forbidden.

  • guest

    You know, you can't take an article called "why your high school stinks" and just change the title...

  • Nathan E. Baker

    "you don't play together" I do not see work as a social outlet. They don't mean anything to me outside of work. I won't waste time outside of work with any of them. This is silly and I would never work at a company that wanted to "assimilate me" in off-the-clock activities. Team building on company time is fine.

  • njguy54

    I agree.  Many people feel strongly about the need to keep their work and social lives separate, and that should be respected.  Plus, outside activities have a funny way of becoming mandatory and ultimately uncomfortable.  Some of us have family and friends (freaky, I know!) who we want to see after work hours.  Others are just tired and want to go home.  If we want to play, we'll go to an amusement park...

  • Ronnie Castro

    #3 is my favorite. I try to live my life with the philosophy of "be the change." As a manager, sometimes it's hard to ask people to do the less sexy, tactical stuff. If I'm already doing some of that, it's much easier to ask, and people are more likely to see the big picture if a leader is participating.

  • Altafjasnaik

    What, other than the usual resistance from within the team, should be signs to look out for if say one were to tackle and alleviate each of these 6 challenges? 

  • Aileen Gronewold

    This list is spot on. A sense of shared investment and a little bit of fun go a long way toward making work a place you want to be.

  • Anthony Reardon

    I like "You don't play together" too.

    Aside from what not to do though, how about inviting them to dinner at your house? There's almost nothing that you can do better to establish a personal connection with employees and lead the culture. In your case, I would think that homes and entertaining neighbors for instance highly relevant. After all, isn't that where most discussions come up about who did this for you, how you liked them, how much it costs?

    Best, Anthony

  • Patrick Mullarkey

    Great piece! Love the airport test - been there myself, luckily have tended to be more enjoyable circumstances than not : )