CEOs today are finding it takes more than jeans Fridays and annual picnics to create a positive culture that attracts talent. Here are ways for HR to help them build an employee experience like no other.

The War for Talent

”It’s an exciting time to be in HR,” said Jeff Mike in a 2016 blog for Bersin by Deloitte, the research-based firm that analyzes corporate behavior in the United States and the world. Mike was referring to a chain of events prompted by falling unemployment rates that have shifted power away from employers and toward job seekers.

Feeling they have the upper hand in the job market, prospective employees are choosier than ever about where they want to work. And topping their wish list is a positive workplace culture.

No, they all won’t land positions at culture icons on par with Google and Twitter. But many are holding out for a company brand rated high on Glassdoor. Essentially, that means a company holding fast to the idea that it takes an engaged work force to drive performance.

We at wanted to know how companies plan to take the lead in the war for talent. So, we asked experts how HR departments can help build a culture where managing is less about following rules and more about helping people succeed.

Know What Talent is Hungry For

Culture might be the most popular barometer of corporate success out there. But that hasn’t made it a less fuzzy concept. An aerospace engineer in Silicon Valley and a literary agent in Manhattan aren’t likely to agree on what type of culture makes a great place to work.

But Judith Lindenberger, president of The Lindenberger Group, has no problem spotting a great culture when she sees one. ”Everyone knows what their role is,” Lindenberger said, ”what their goals are and how they are doing.”

To Lindenberger, a great culture is one where:

  • ”employees are asked for their input,
  • there is agreement on goals,
  • managers communicate frequently and honestly,
  • employees are engaged,
  • there is a high level of trust,
  • people collaborate with one another,
  • conflict is managed effectively, and
  • morale and productivity are high.”
woman talking at table

Such a culture, she said, comes from the top down, as leaders hold the power to define it. And that is exactly what has CEOs everywhere scratching their heads.

This problem was touched on in Deloitte’s 2016 report on HR trends around the globe. Survey results showed that 82 percent of business leaders consider culture to be very important, but only 28 percent believe they understand it.

How, then, does a company climb to Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For if its leaders don’t know what it takes to get there?

Embrace HR’s (New) Role

That’s where HR steps in, assuming a new role that partners with executives to support a company’s cultural vision.

It’s a role where HR teams do more than collect time sheets and screen job applicants. Lori Baronian, Director of Human Resources at Marsh & McLennan Agency’s New England region, a Marsh & McLennan Company (MMC), understands it well.

”The war for talent is real,” Baronian told us recently. ”Attracting the right people, followed by engaging them to achieve great results personally and professionally are key ingredients to growing a successful business.”

For Baronian, HR teams help by showing that leaders are serious about improving culture — as long as they do it the right way. ”It’s not enough to embrace an open-door policy,” she said. ”My door could be physically open, but it’s my non-verbal cues that create the vibe.”

Creating the vibe also means that HR people reach out and meet employees on their turf. ”Walk the floor where employees are working,” Baronian said, ”prompting ‘drive by’ interactions that tell employees you want to engage.”

What’s the takeaway from this type of HR outreach? Employees can’t help but see that your culture is one where leaders engage them each day, not just during an hour of new-hire orientation.

HR Walking the Floor

Become a Change Agent

Just as you can’t fake a positive culture, you also can’t hide a bad one. Instead, you’ll have to change it. And that’s exactly what companies intend to do when they retain change management consultant Kim Adams.

Adams told us she starts the overhaul process by observing behavior in action. ”You are looking for patterns of behavior that are not aligned to the values and beliefs of the organization.”

As she analyzes a business culture in action, Adams takes nothing for granted – not even the organization’s stated values and beliefs.

”Keep in mind,” said Adams, ”those values and beliefs may be part of the problem.” She recommends that HR professionals look for barriers that ”prevent the alignment.”

One such barrier is employees feeling that they can’t speak up. It’s a barrier that HR has to tear down, Adams said. ”In unhealthy cultures, creating a safe environment for people to talk is critical to obtain the right information.”

The information she’s referring to helps HR evaluate alignment to key business metrics. ”If an organization is missing its benchmarks over and over again, there are often behaviors that are creating a culture that makes the goals unachievable.”

Finally, Adams said that getting HR ”a seat at the table” is no longer nice to have, it’s a must-have if HR is to drive results. When HR managers observe how leaders and staff interact at meetings, they’re better able to diagnose the problem. ”Often times, leaders at all levels are not aware of their behavior or the impact they are having on their staff and peers.”

Coach Executives Toward a Positive Leadership Style

Culture might be created in the board room, but it’s the HR department that CEOs turn to for maintaining it.

That’s especially true when a CEO has adopted, knowingly or not, a passive-aggressive approach, a particularly toxic leadership style.

So, how does an HR professional react when a passive-aggressive CEO needs help transforming to a more positive style?

Team of HR

We put the hypothetical to Jennifer Turner, the Regional Human Resources Director of Marsh & McLennan Agency Northeast. Turner said it comes down to helping the leader articulate the objective. ”An HR professional can coach the individual to focus on what that person wants to accomplish. Drill it down and focus on the individual’s goal and then work together to find an open and more positive method of achieving it.”

Turner’s advice underscores leadership training at many businesses. HR teams often coach managers to assess their leadership styles by asking themselves these questions:

  • Do my employees understand how their work contributes to the enterprise’s goals?
  • Does my team believe I genuinely appreciate their contributions?
  • Do people on my staff demonstrate a sense of ownership about their work?
  • Do I have the sense that employees trust me?
  • Do my employees trust that I’ll help them adapt to new workplace circumstances?

Forging a New Experience

Deloitte opened its 2017 report on organizational cultures worldwide by proclaiming that ”a new contract between employer and employee” has emerged. The contract redefines employee engagement as ”the total employee experience,” with companies integrating positive cultural practices throughout the enterprise.

Should HR teams buy into this? You bet, said Turner.

”Employee experience is king,” she told us. ”And it starts from the minute an HR professional picks up the phone to call a job candidate in for an interview. You want that candidate to immediately feel your company offers an employee experience they want to be part of.”

It’s that kind of total employee experience that gives companies a competitive edge in today’s high-stakes job market. No doubt, it’s a tall order to fill.

We’ve learned that culture can’t be captured in a mission statement on a corporate website. An organization can tell employees what principles it stands for, but its culture is something they must feel.

Turner acknowledges that the bar for today’s HR professional has never been higher if the total employee experience is your goal: ”You must drive initiatives to make employees feel valued: value to the team, to the enterprise. That’s what culture is about.”

By Michele Vrouvas
August 2017