A strong corporate culture is defined by shared values and the clear identification of employees who thrive in it, according to Ben Schneider, Ph.D., who is considered the founder of modern organizational-culture research.
Managers and employees are entrusted to develop a workplace culture that is not only suitable, but also clearly indicates who belongs and will succeed there.
"The hallmarks of a great culture start with shared values and opportunities to find those most likely to uphold those values," said Alexander Alonso, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, chief knowledge officer for the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).
But, as identified in SHRM's 2019 report, The High Cost of a Toxic Workplace Culture, things fall apart quickly when those factors are not in place. For instance, 1 in 3 U.S. workers said their managers cannot lead a team, and nearly 1 in 6 said their co-workers contribute to toxicity in the workplace.
Organizations can counteract toxicity by relying on their values and showing employees how their work aligns with those values. The culture at SHRM is founded on and shaped by five Guiding Principles, which were created after extensive discussions between SHRM President and Chief Executive Officer Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, and the SHRM senior executive team. SHRM works diligently to define and uphold its Guiding Principles, ensure employees see how the principles shape their work, and then assess how the principles play a role in engaging the team. The Guiding Principles are:
- Bold Purpose
- Excellence and Accountability
- Flexibility and Agility
- Smart and Curious
- Collaborative Openness
"The Guiding Principles have been a driver of culture, employee engagement and work experience," said SHRM CHRO Sean T. Sullivan, SHRM-SCP. "People have real clarity on what we value. There is incredible alignment and credibility that organizations spend years finding their way to."
The Guiding Principles are part of the interviewing process for SHRM job candidates, the onboarding process for new hires and performance reviews for employees.
"How you do your job is really important," Sullivan said. "In the process of getting results and making contributions to the organization, are you able to do that in a way that models the Guiding Principles? They are an active part of the conversation when [Taylor] meets with the executive team and in our review. We focus on them very significantly."
Recently, SHRM fielded an employee engagement survey, which included several questions about culture and the Guiding Principles. The survey was delivered at the end of March—just two weeks after the coronavirus national emergency had been declared, states were shut down and almost the entire SHRM staff was working from home. Some may think that was not an auspicious time to ask employees how they felt about their work and the workplace.
However, 96 percent of SHRM's more than 400 employees responded to the survey—an off-the-charts response rate according to the survey administration giant Qualtrics.
"What that tells me is that people feel really strongly about their connection to the organization and their work," said Sullivan. "And that's what we are looking for: How do employees connect to work, their team, the organization and a broader purpose?"
Respondents said they feel they belong to a team (92 percent), believe in SHRM's Guiding Principles (96 percent) and that their work is aligned with them (88 percent), and work in an inclusive environment (91 percent).
Respondents also answered overwhelmingly in favor of the following statements:
- "Overall, I am extremely satisfied with SHRM as a place to work." (83 percent)
- "I would gladly recommend SHRM as a place to work to people I know and respect." (80 percent)
- "I am proud to work for SHRM." (88 percent)
- "My immediate supervisor does a great job at managing the work." (80 percent)
- "My immediate supervisor does a great job at people management." (79 percent)
Areas where employees indicated SHRM could improve, Sullivan said, include cross-organization collaboration and two-way communication between employees and managers.
Some of the different ways management communicates to workers at SHRM are through the new CHRO blog Sullivan created; Slack, a messaging platform that allows for multiple cross-organizational channels and discussions, both formal and informal; and bimonthly all-staff meetings. During one of the first all-staff meetings conducted entirely remotely because of the coronavirus pandemic, SHRM had pizza delivered to each employee's home around the U.S. and to employees in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates and India.
"We wanted to acknowledge that this is hard; we can't break bread together, but we can buy you and your family lunch and still have some kind of a shared experience," Sullivan said.
Other SHRM workplace-culture innovations include:
- Inviting senior staff to explain and share examples of the Guiding Principles in action during all-staff meetings.
- Implementing recruitment incentives for employee referrals that fit well with SHRM's culture.
- Offering ways for team members to share their best and worst encounters at work via blogs and crowd-sourced recognition for cultural alignment.
SHRM's Culture Club is an example of the third innovation.
Taylor launched the Culture Club shortly after he arrived at SHRM in December 2017. He has an open-door policy, and anyone who works at SHRM can visit him at any time. But, knowing that some employees aren't comfortable talking about difficult topics or giving criticism directly to the CEO, he established a group of SHRM staffers to serve as a conduit between employees and the executive team.
The Culture Club is made up of eight SHRM staffers—a racially diverse mix of long-tenured and new employees—who are not at the senior level of leadership. They represent groups across the organization, and membership changes annually. Other SHRM staffers ask the club members to bring questions—anonymously or not—to Taylor, who will answer them, or the group will brainstorm and present solutions. Group members keep all questions and discussions strictly confidential and bring answers back to their colleagues who posed the questions.
"The Guiding Principles are part of our mission," said Laurie McIntosh, SHRM-SCP, a senior specialist in learning and development and a Culture Club member. "We are always thinking about those five. They are at the core of what we try to do in the Culture Club and in our day-to-day work. If we see, for example, colleagues practicing Collaborative Openness, [Taylor] wants to hear those things."
A good example of the Guiding Principle of Flexibility and Agility was SHRM's pivot to hold the 2020 Talent conference virtually instead of in person, due to the pandemic. Omar Scott, another Culture Club member and a specialist in SHRM advertising sales, said, "Having attended that conference for the last several years, I know that is one that attendees greatly benefit from. I took part in several sessions and was very excited at how the conferences team was able to pull together such a strong event in such a short period of time. By creating a virtual platform for attendees, we were able to deliver a high-quality experience that attendees seemed to enjoy."
The Culture Club was a sounding board for Taylor as SHRM developed its response to the coronavirus pandemic, Sullivan said. The executive team got the group's feedback on "what employees were thinking about how to stay connected, what employees' concerns were about coming to the office and what information people were looking for," Sullivan said.
Because the Culture Club maintains such strict confidentiality, its members can't share examples of questions staff members have asked. "We are building trust and respect in the organization, and the confidentiality is a big part of it," McIntosh said. "We are not 'yes' people. We bring up some very challenging questions."
"Organizations need fair criticism," Scott said. The Culture Club helps get that criticism out of a closed bubble of colleagues so "we can see if there's something larger. The Culture Club gives context to those complaints" to see if there is a companywide issue that should be addressed.
"We have a challenge culture," Taylor told employees in an all-staff meeting held July 13. "Challenge is welcome. I encourage people to disagree and offer differing opinions. But once a decision is made, we are one SHRM, and we move forward together."
Though the club's discussions aren't public, its work is tangible. When remote employees and employees who travel frequently said they'd like better access to fitness centers wherever they were working, the Culture Club brought the issue to a meeting. After researching solutions, SHRM worked with its health insurance provider CIGNA to offer all employees a monthly subscription service that allows them to exercise at the gym of their choice or online with videos or livestream services. The club also negotiated a change in employees' parking rates, with employees who earn higher salaries paying higher parking fees than those who earn less.
"Folks are a lot more comfortable coming to peers than they are to superiors and saying, 'This isn't working,' or 'It would be great if this could change,' " said Darlene Howard Holt, a paralegal and executive assistant in SHRM's legal department.
Serving on the Culture Club gives members an inside look at how SHRM leadership operates, Scott said. "You get a window into what Johnny and the executive team are thinking."
"The interaction with everyone, including Johnny, is very open and constructive," added lead senior accountant and Culture Club member Solomon Michael.
The group meets with Taylor monthly and sends him questions and e-mail between meetings. There's no agenda for the meetings, and members are free to bring up any concerns they have.
"I've had a number of people contact me directly with an idea or concern," said Bill Schaefer, an advisor in the HR Knowledge Center. "It's nice to take that info into a room where it's confidential, but we can talk about it deeply."
"Being part of creating solutions that help our SHRM family feel better in the workplace has been very rewarding," added Michelle Abanez, a senior specialist in the marketing department.
SHRM is proud of its culture but realizes that the work to improve it will never stop. Strengthening workplace culture at SHRM is an ongoing process.
"We know we have work to do, but it's a phenomenal foundation to work from," Sullivan said.