The Written Rules that Define Culture

I joined a company early in my career that sold itself to me as an ‘up or out’ place where high performance is rewarded by big salaries and quick promotion – the corollary being that you would be invited to leave if your performance was not up to par.  This seemed reasonable to me at the time based, perhaps, on a rosy view of my own capacities. The role I took on was accountable for career development and succession planning, so it put me right at the heart of this apparently well-defined employee value proposition.

The reality I soon uncovered did not entirely live up the espoused EVP. In fact, there was one very big road block in the way. The superannuation scheme rules dictated that you received only a small fraction above your own contributions if you left the company within ten years and a very big nest egg if you hung in longer. So, predictably, people hung onto their jobs hard and fast and managers were loath to overcome the inertia generated by these golden ‘handcuffs.’

Culture is rightly thought of as the unwritten rules that govern the collective behaviour of an organisation. It is distinct, for example, from the HR policies of an organisation. Nevertheless, those policies can have a profound impact on the way we work. Think of a soldier operating far from home putting his or her life on the line for their country. How engaged would that soldier be if they thought their family would be left homeless and wanting in the event of their demise?

I use this confronting example to make the point that HR policies should not be thought of simply as part of the woodwork. The superannuation scheme rule to which I referred earlier demonstrably undermined the performance-orientation my manager and others were seeking to drive.

HR policies are voluminous to begin with, and they just keep growing in number and in page length. How then do you keep a watching brief over them to ensure they don’t undermine the very work culture they are intended to nurture and preserve?  One thing I’ve learned is that good policy doesn’t need verbiage. Less is more. Get the statement of intent right and most sensible line managers won’t have a problem with implementation. If they do, perhaps the super rules need to change to hasten their departure!