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Cultural differences

Potential workplace may sound good on paper, but dig deeper before signing up

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Yes, you've seen them; those job ads that say, "Your search is over!" Did you read any further? If you did, you might find statements such as, "the city of Toronto strives to be a model of public service excellence. We are looking for people who share our values, our stewardship and our commitment." Or, in the private sector, you might see statements espousing their corporate values, such as trust, integrity, respect, thought leadership, innovation, inspiration and/or adaptability.

The purpose of these descriptions is to attract potential candidates to the organization. It is an attempt to describe what the organization believes to be its values, shared attitudes, customs and behaviour as well as the expectations and the philosophy that directs people how to act within the organization. In other words, these statements are describing the organizational culture.

Corporate culture is essentially a set of intangible, unspoken rules created by the leaders within the organization. You can see it, sense it and feel it when you enter an organization. Culture is also very unique to every organization, but no matter what, it informally dictates how an organization goes about its business and how it treats employees and customers. Culture helps employees understand how to fit in, how to interact with others, how to get things done and how to manoeuvre through organizational politics. Culture also impacts how decisions are made, how new ideas are brought about and how committed employees are toward the organization.

However, you can apply all the creative, nice-sounding value descriptors in your advertising materials and you can have all the right policies and procedures in place, but it is still the behaviour of the leadership that shapes the organization culture, impacts the public image and impacts the employees they lead.

Frankly, I can only imagine the turmoil Toronto employees must be experiencing. On one hand, its human-resource department is striving to recruit highly qualified candidates by describing itself as a model of public service. On the other hand, its current self-serving mayor is destroying every word with his ridiculous, dangerous, uncouth behaviour and arrogant attitude. With this scenario at play, my bet is employee turnover in the mayor's office is extremely high and I would go further to suggest no one would want to even risk working there. Thankfully, with the City of Toronto being so large, perhaps the mayor's behaviour does not permeate as deep into the organization as it would in other, smaller companies.

However, we know for a fact when leadership violates their own corporate code of ethics, there is indeed an impact. For instance, when you learn ethical misconduct or fraudulent activity in the workplace is well-known yet nothing is done about it, what does it say about the culture of the organization? When there are policies in place but no process to anonymously report unethical conduct, what does it say about the organizational culture? And finally, when contracts are untendered without justification and vendors are not offered fair access to tender information, what does it say about the culture of the organization?

Unfortunately for candidates, it's difficult to really understand the organizational culture of a potential employer until you are actually working there. However, at the very least, you can do research, listen and read the latest news and make careful inquiries. Some of the elements of your research should include the following:

Define your own values -- First of all, you need to define your own values and beliefs so you can measure them against your potential new employer. What is important to you in your next workplace? What behaviours do you appreciate and value versus what would be detrimental and impact your job satisfaction?

Review the public image -- These days, everyone has a website. Review the site and observe how the different elements are integrated to create their corporate image. Do the words match the photos in the site? For instance, if the site talks about the importance of their people, yet fails to show photos of their employees at work, then there is a slight disconnect that might suggest a different image.

Review annual reports -- Most large organizations publish annual reports as well as various audits. Find them and read them, preferably two to three years worth. Look for areas of concern and how they were being addressed. Look for consistency and the integration of values with their results. Create an image for yourself as to how the organization feels; listen to your intuition.

Research the organization -- Thankfully, with the Internet there is plenty of information to be gleaned about your potential employer. Check out legal and human-rights websites to determine potential problems. Should you read about unethical or fraudulent practices, try to determine what steps were taken to overcome the situation. Were new leaders brought in to restructure the organization and put it back on the right path? This signals a change in culture and a dedication to the values they espouse.

Make discreet inquiries -- Identify a current and/or former employee and inquire about what attracted them to the employer, why they left and/or what they like about their current employment. Ask them to describe the leadership, the culture and how things work. Ask them how the organization contributes to job satisfaction and assess whether these match your own motivators.

Ask questions of the interviewers -- Have your interviewers describe their perception of the organization culture and how employees are valued. Inquire about support for educational and training opportunities as well as social activities. Inquire about personal growth and career opportunities, the organization's social responsibility, volunteerism activities and their vision of the future. Determine what their responses mean to you... does it feel like a good fit?

Organizational culture is created by leaders, and so it is critically important each candidate assess their fit with their potential new employer. That's because organizational culture is so strong it can make or break an organization and make or break an individual. Culture always wins! And I can guarantee when leaders are engaged in unethical conduct and there is little or no consistency between what leaders say and what leaders do, the resulting organizational culture will be one of distrust and fear. Unfortunately, this in turn will lead to low employee morale, poor productivity, poor customer service and high turnover.

So, in spite of the fact a potential job may appear to be a superb opportunity, if the signals suggest the organizational culture is not the best, my advice is to stay away. Don't let organization culture be a career breaker.


Barbara J. Bowes, FCHRP, CMC, CCP. M.Ed is president of Legacy Bowes Group and Career Partners international - Manitoba. She can be reached at

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 29, 2014 H1


Updated on Monday, March 31, 2014 at 4:45 PM CDT: Corrects typo.

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