People tend to think of culture and compliance as completely different

The wrong culture move can have dire consequences. Kristina D.C. Hoeppner Flickr Creative Commons
The wrong culture move can have dire consequences.
Kristina D.C. Hoeppner Flickr Creative Commons

animals. To some, culture is the fun part of an organization, how you work and play together, who you are as people. Compliance is rules, regulations, and legal risks. Boring constraints. But if you’re professional about your culture, what it really reflects is the process you’ve put in place for people to work together, contributing their diverse skills and talents to making your product or service great. It’s not just about the leader’s personality or preferences. And when it is, that’s often where culture and compliance clash.

Let’s say you have a small company and the culture is very non-confrontational because you’re non-confrontational. You hired your first support person a couple of years back because they had 15 years’ experience and you thought that would help you get up and running. The person was learning your business as they went, constantly in the trenches and did steady work. They weren’t stellar, but you didn’t realize that until you hired a couple of other support people who are absolute rock stars. They’ve increased your customer retention and their service has actually been the reason more customers have joined your company. They create process, they get along great with everyone and they’re constantly learning and improving. Meanwhile that first employee is slogging along, basically dialing it in.

You know you need to sit that employee down and say “Hey, I know the bar was here, but now it’s here and I need you to step it up in the following ways…..” But you really don’t want to. Up to now you’ve been ignoring it. They have tenure and institutional knowledge. Besides, based on the few times you have made an effort to address this person’s lackluster performance you know the conversation won’t go well. The employee will argue and then be unpleasant for days or weeks afterward. Your energy will be drained and nothing will get accomplished.  So you let the situation drift along. You hide from your bad hire. Unfortunately, that’s not unusual.  That’s the culture part.

Now comes the compliance part.  Eventually, something’s gotta give. The other employees will get raises or bonuses that the “meh” employee won’t. Or you’ll start losing A-players because they don’t want to work in a company where C performance is allowed. Or someone will do the math and figure out what a drain this person is on the company. In the meantime, the “barely getting by “employee figures out the newer employees are paid more.  You may now have a lawsuit on your hands. How?  Here’s how it looks from an outsider’s view. You’ve got an employee who has been working for you for five years, has 20 cumulative years in the business and is getting paid less–or getting fired–in favor of two relatively inexperienced people. And you have no history of complaining about their performance.

Your culture of non confrontation just clashed with compliance and you may be the loser.

Here’s another example: You want an energetic, fun, hard-working, hard-playing environment ‘cuz that how you roll yourself so, you hire a bunch of Twinkies. You all are the same age, same color, dress the same, drink the same beer and love ping pong.  I’ve written about this before. You don’t mean to be discriminatory. But when someone comes who dresses differently from you, has more or fewer gray hairs, uses a vernacular that’s different from yours, your internal “NOT A GOOD CULTURE FIT” light goes on and you reject the person without even really analyzing why. The problem is that the culture is based on your perception of culture, not a clear assessment of how you want people to approach work, deadlines, customers and one another. You’re not looking at the person as someone who can or can’t contribute to the organization so much as someone you’d want to hang out with on the weekends. Now you don’t want to hire a jerk for the sake of diversity. If the person was rude to the receptionist you can, of course, say “Don’t want to work with this person, period.” But hiring people without establishing what work culture really is, without creating a process whereby different perspectives can contribute to making a product or service better, is consigning your business to functioning in a particular narrow groove and serving only the customers who look and sound like you. It’s also a really good way to set yourself up for a discrimination suit.

Compliance rules are there because a lot of human beings don’t really want to think that hard about how to create a culture that’s fair, non-discriminatory and functional. They want their companies to work the way they work and they’re fine with their companies having the same dysfunctions they have. That’s why compliance exists. It’s not always easy to see where your own personality is casting a negative shadow on your organization. If you want outside help from someone who’s seen this happen thousands of times and knows how to fix it, call us.

We work with companies on a project basis or on retainer, providing a custom level of HR help designed for your business, with offices in Austin, San Antonio, Dallas and Houston. Contact me at Caroline@valentinehr.com or call (512) 420-8267.

We work with companies on a project basis or on retainer, providing a custom level of HR help designed for your business, with offices in Austin, San Antonio, Dallas and Houston. Contact me at Caroline@valentinehr.com or call (512) 420-8267.