Chameleon is a specialist HR consultancy set up to assist
organisations with their change programmes

Organisational culture

We all discuss organisational culture as if it was a precise subject about which HR had all the answers. Straight question - straight answer! We seem to treat it as a mega - big subject matter and surround it with bland, nebulous and seriously top drawer HR language!

Gosh, how we love our language in HR! And if we don’t have a term to use, we invent them. Don’t forget we devised integrated competency frameworks, investors in people, and talent management! I’ll put money on it – we invented the ‘people are our most important asset’ phrase too that exists in just about every annual report I have ever read.

It is a fact that 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, 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 (if there is such a thing now!), more pens, more posters, more credit card summaries, more straplines on payslips than I can shake the proverbial stick at.

And yet I have read more about these matters in annual reports than I can mention. In all those cases, I bet that the employer will declare that they 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 KPI’s look like in terms of culture!

Credible that these tiddly matters are, they do diddly squat to change a culture but cost millions and keep people like me earning good fees. So please keep the values driven programmes coming – I love them!

So why then am I criticising the hand that feeds me. And when we talk about culture, what exactly do we mean? And what is my approach?

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 amongst 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 matters all of which fall under the umbrella of organisational culture. Let me give you a couple of examples?

I have had a dispute with a well known parking company. The one that manages your station car park. 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 was ticked off and rang the company. I got through to their customer services. Now how is that anyone in Customer Services can tell a customer to ‘fuck off’ is beyond me! I did get the ticket waived by the way.

How is it that for a director level post in one of London’s main organisations during the last 12 months, applicants do not get acknowledgements after spending hours slaving over the application. All in the name that they were too busy to respond so if the applicant had not heard within 28 days, they were advised to assume that the application was unsuccessful. Actually, if you did hear and in this case over 100 people didn’t, you were subjected to a basic telephone screening. I think that warranted a parking customer service response.

Or when I first joined the Met, and I dared to claim 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 actually claimed a few pounds less than it should. And they lost my receipts. And it is a long time since I have had papers returned to me with red ink all over them basically telling me to try harder!  Outcome – 8 months later. I got the money but my mind was by the bureaucratic and bombastic nature of the accounts payable section.  

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

So in addition to a parking company that espouses one thing about its values but doesn’t quite live up to them, what do the present top organisational stories say. Let’s look at Carillion.

  • Carillion say that ‘we care about the work that we do and the families we serve. We provide a professional service in all that we do’.
  • Or what about 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.
  • Or Oxfam. I don’t want to beat them up too much for their aims are good hearted, well intended and compassionate but I would remove, pretty darn quickly, from their website a list of organisational goals that claims that they ‘help people to a better life’ and ‘champion equal rights for women’. Whether that is true or not, those statements pile on reputational damage beyond that the Daily Mail is giving them at the moment. 

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 HRD’s, think again please about culture and your approach to it. Most definitely it is not a nebulous subject and is something that 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 exist that is more important than addressing how your organisations operate and reflect the image that you want them to.

As it says in recent research carried out by Leathwaites ‘culture is king’. Not only does it inform how you deal with a matter, it is the thing upon which organisations are adjudged – witness those in the last few days whose rhetoric about such matters may be noble and well intended no doubt but it is not backed by the behaviours, controls and systems that dictate that culture.

Martin Tiplady
27 February 2018

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