Why Employees And Management Have Such Different Ideas About Company Culture

A new survey illustrates the wide gap between the opinions of workers and management on what’s important to creating a great culture.

Why Employees And Management Have Such Different Ideas About Company Culture
[Photo: Flickr user Daria Nepriakhina]

Culture. Although the word is as battered as a corporate buzzword can be, at its core, workplace culture can actually make or break a business. Case in point: An expose of the Volkswagen emissions scandal suggested that the company’s culture, which was influenced by its history and challenging leadership styles, may have encouraged employees to cheat. Sales plummeted as a result.


On the flip side, Netflix’s culture, which is based on trust and autonomy, is propelling the video service’s revenues to new heights, even as it shifts into a new business model.

Yet while most agree that culture is integral to success, a new survey reveals that there’s a big difference of opinions in what drives it. The latest installment of the Employee Engagement Lifecycle Series titled “Who’s the Boss of Workplace Culture?” from the Workforce Institute at Kronos and WorkplaceTrends, shows that human resources professionals, managers, and employees aren’t in agreement over who drives culture, what’s important to creating a great one, and what can destroy it.

This isn’t too surprising, given that a previous study from Workplace Trends revealed a startling disparity between what managers and workers think about work-life balance. (Hint: Management thinks everyone has work-life balance, but employees want more flexibility.)

To get these latest results, more than 1,800 U.S. adults were given an online questionnaire on various aspects of workplace culture and employee engagement. Among them, one-third were HR professionals, another third were people managers, and the final third were full-time, non-managing employees.

Who Is Defining Culture?

The first area the three groups disagreed on was who was in charge of defining a company’s culture. HR considered themselves at the helm, with about one-third of HR professionals weighing in favor of their department setting the culture. Only 10% of managers and 3% of employees agreed with HR.

Instead, 26% of managers tended to believe that culture was defined by the executive team, while 29% of employees said they were in charge of defining culture. The latter opinion was most prevalent among millennial workers, 40% of whom felt that employees define the culture. Another 28% of employees (of all ages) believe that no one defines workplace culture.


This is an indication of an evolving view of workplace culture where employees feel they have more power, the analysts say. Dan Schawbel, founder of WorkplaceTrends, says, “Each generation changes the workplace as they rise up the ranks, and millennials are making it clear that they believe the power to impact workplace culture lies predominantly with the people who do the work.”

What’s Most Important?

The disparity may be due to the fact that employees are at odds with managers and HR about the most important attributes of culture. Fifty percent of staff said that compensation was a key ingredient to company culture. Forty-two percent replied that “coworkers who respect and support one another” were crucial to culture, and 40% cited work-life balance.

HR professionals didn’t share these views at all, guessing instead that the top three culture attributes that matter most to employees were “managers and executives leading by example,” “employee benefits,” and “a shared mission and values.” Managers cited “managers and executives leading by example,” “a shared mission and values,” and “emphasis on taking care of our customers” as top factors for employees. Only a quarter of HR professionals and 29% of managers thought pay would be a top concern for how employees view workplace culture.

Joyce Maroney, director of the Workforce Institute at Kronos, tells Fast Company it’s “frankly alarming” to see such a wide gap between how employees view and experience workplace culture versus their managers and HR professionals. But she’s hard-pressed to explain why HR and managers can be so far off base regarding what matters most to employees.

“Nearly every survey about why people quit identifies pay and the manager-employee relationship as top reasons for leaving a company,” she explains. “Competitive pay and solid benefits are table stakes to win in today’s battle for talent.” Maroney says HR and senior leaders should know this. Indeed, a recent report from Glassdoor found that 68% of workers said salary and compensation were top of mind when considering a new job. Still, she contends that’s why they are more focused on cultivating employee-manager relationships and rallying workers around a common mission to drive engagement. 

“Throw in coworkers who respect and support each other as another top great culture ingredient, and it boils down to one simple question for employees: Am I being treated fairly at work?” says Maroney.


Fair, Supportive, and Less Stressful

As Maroney notes, employees rank being treated fairly in a supportive environment as a culture booster–but a lack of that is a killer. Staff respondents reported that “not having enough staff to support goals,” “unhappy/disengaged workers who poison the well,” and “poor employee/manager relationships” were major stumbling blocks to maintaining a positive workplace culture.

For HR and managers, stress and company growth had the most negative impact on culture. Although they aren’t in agreement with staff needs, the survey’s analysts recommend that the two can work together. “These findings indicate that HR and managers might be able to reduce the perceived stress their work environment causes by focusing on hiring the right people, appropriately staffing, and ensuring managers have the proper management training to help their teams thrive,” they write.


About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.