Culture is More Than Foosball Tables and Kegs on Friday

Company culture is more than foosball tables and Beer Fridays.

As my friend Scott (not his real name), who was let go from his job at one of the big players in the email marketing world, can attest: being cared for and treated as a human with dignity and respect matters infinitely more than catered lunches, and kegs flowing at noon on Fridays, and ping-pong tables in the foyer.

When my buddy was being let go due to a departmental “restructuring,” those fun things, which we synonym-ize with the great startup culture, didn’t make a lick of difference in the way he viewed his mistreatment. They were non-factors when the true character of a company is being exposed. It’s like a body builder pointing to his or her physique as evidence of strong character and moral fiber. Sure, these things may be correlated but certainly not causal.

[Note, I'm not opining on the validity or invalidity of my friend being let go. Each organization will have to let people go at some point for various reasons, I get this. This is about how they went about it, not the fact that they did.]

These physical 'things' like cool workspace and fun programming were no consolation for the disparity between what the company professed to be its values and to what was actually being lived out.

In that moment when one of the key elements of his life—his work—was under fire, it mattered more that the leaders acted consistent with the professed corporate values and consistent with what they had implicitly (and explicitly) promised him when they hired him away from other opportunities less than a year earlier.

It’s our leaders — it is us as leaders! — who are charged with serving our companies and organizations and communities by seeking the highest good of those it serves (both customers and employees). The true tell of our culture goes beyond amazing space and fun employee programming. Sure those things are cool, but without a leadership foundation committed to seeking to live consistently to the agreed upon corporate values and letting those values cost us something, no amount of company softball games and $1000 stand-up desks will do. The “things” (they are just “things after all”) quickly become trite clichés and are exposed as a facade for a lack of substance and corporate backbone.

The lesson here is to not be distracted by “great culture” parading itself as simply cool work space. We must be intentional to contribute to building a strong foundation first, hire for character next...then tapping the kegs.