Editor's Note

Dimensions of the workplace culture

Tue, 2017-05-30 11:14

We hope this issue will help you reflect on the idea of a workplace culture and how to improve it. But first, we need to understand the idea of what a culture is. When I was growing up, to be cultured meant that you attended operas and art openings, and knew which fork to use in formal settings. But then the Beatles and Andy Warhol got big, so we had pop culture. And then it became a euphemism for anything ethnic or foreign — i.e., anything non-WASP — such as bagels, tortillas or sushi. “Tell me about your culture” roughly translated into “Tell me about your food, music and exotic holidays.”

Once, I attended a meeting of elders at the Minneapolis headquarters of the American Indian Movement. One older Native American woman said, “People keep asking me about my culture. I don’t know what culture is. I just live my life.” Hmmm. Could it be that simple?

When I am in a quandary about ideas, I look up the root of the word. ‘Culture’ comes from two prehistoic root words that meant ‘to cut’ and ‘to turn.’ The combination meant to cut and turn the soil — cultivation. That’s where we get agriculture and horticulture. Perhaps the primal sense of the word is still useful when it comes to a company culture. Here is how we grow and thrive. Here is how we live. Perhaps the Native elder had it right after all.

Instead of speaking of hiring decisions as finding the right person to sit in the right seat on the bus, we ought to switch metaphors and think of getting the right seed in the right soil in the right climate. Come to think of it, we feature two women in this issue who are raised on farms. One now runs an organic chicken business and the other founded a staffing agency.

People who know about these things say every workplace has a culture whether you’ve thought about it or not. Its system of values, behaviors and rituals would interest any anthropologist, and so it might help to examine your employees using ethnographic tools to understand them; you may find that retention increases in a healthy environment, and it can help your bottom line to encourage a growth mindset in them. The challenge is to understand your employees as well as you understand your business.

And while you’re at it, try understanding robots, too. Every industry is facing a talent shortage, which increases every time a Boomer retires. But what if it’s not a skills gap, but an outreach gap? Companies can be more agressive in recruiting people of color and immigrants. Besides, that demographic will soon be the majority, the biggest fish in the labor pool. It’s counterproductive to tell them to get out of our country. And that brings up the question of how do we understand a multicultural environment unless we first understand culture?

It comes down to treating employees like people. And then who knows? They might vote you in as one of the 100 Best!