I’ve recently visited a new client at their office and keeping in mind they require a dress code slightly more formal than what I’m used to these days, I had to find a pair of shoes to wear that weren’t flip flops. I have this one pair of shoes, I’m sure most people do, they’re really pretty and I really like them but I just don’t wear. Ever. They’re horribly uncomfortable.
But I put the shoes on, went to deliver a training and somehow survived. In fact, I didn’t even feel how uncomfortable the shoes were. You rarely do in the first couple of hours and luckily, I got to change into more comfortable footwear right after I delivered the training.
The moment I took the shoes off I realised just how much pain I was in. I’ll spare you the details but for the next two days I avoided walking as much as possible. And since I couldn’t do as much sightseeing as I wanted to, I ended up eating lots of pierogi and thinking. Mostly about how culture fit is a lot like uncomfortable shoes.
You see, it’s very difficult to tell if you fit in until you leave the company. My favourite researcher into culture, Fons Trompenaars, likens culture to water. “A fish only discovers its need for water when it is no longer in it” he said, and so we only really discover the culture we’re in by getting immersed in a different one. Especially when it’s one of our first experiences and we are just not aware of how certains aspects of our work could differ if we joined an organisation with a different culture.
Just like the rest of the working population, recruiters struggle with the notion of culture. They claim it can’t be described and even if it could, that it’s certainly not something you can express in numbers. At best, in their naivety, they point to some form of physical representation of a company culture (ping pong table anyone?) or just Friday drinks.
I started thinking about the easiest way to really see culture for what it is without having to dig into the theory behind organisational culture. Does talking to your candidates and employees and asking them why they work for you really help? Perhaps in some cases, but most of the content I’ve seen based on that information seems awfully generic. It’s the people, it’s the great atmosphere, it’s the benefits… that doesn’t really help you stand out in a competitive market.
Could it be easier to try and understand the culture you’re in by figuring out why people leave the company, rather than why they stay?
Perhaps, which could point to exit interviews being a better moment to get your answers than a job interview. Unfortunately, for some (if not most), the exit interview comes a little early. I’ve seen organisations treat it as a formality, I’ve seen employees discard it as a meeting that doesn’t add any value to their professional lives or the organisation they’re leaving. We make a point of explaining to people that they shouldn’t be sharing any negative information in a job interview or exit interview and even if they went against our own advice, this is still not the best time to ask them about it. Just like with a pair of uncomfortable shoes that you need to take off to really understand what hurts, maybe we need to leave an organisation to trully understand which aspects of it’s culture didn’t quite work for us.
Maybe we should try asking ex-employees for feedback after they’ve already left. Give them some time to familiarise themselves with their new workplace, but not too much. Six weeks to eight weeks maybe – that’s when the differences between our previous and new company are still fresh in our minds. Ask them about what they found surprising at the new place, what they miss, what they don’t miss at all.
There’s also an alternative, of course. Spend some time studying culture, how you can define and describe it. The very introduction to that subject takes a whole year to cover where I’ve studied, so that’s possibly harder to implement than giving a couple of people a call.
I’m curious if this has already been put in practice somewhere and if you think it could work – feel free to leave a comment below!