Part III: Industry corporate culture's role in attracting and holding people

Building culture is a process, not a project

PART III: This is the third in a three-part series dealing with attracting and holding onto quality employees. Part III focuses on questions oil industry executives must resolve to keep quality employees.

For managers more at home with spreadsheets and bottom lines, the tendency is to think of corporate culture building as an inoculation. A prevalent expectation is that there's some kind of wonder drug cure-all that takes care of such things permanently with one shot. Not so.

Building a corporate culture is a continuum - a seamless loop of action, reaction, and renewal. It's a process, not a project.

Building the culture you want in your company begins with research. Though some human factors are universal, there are always concerns unique to a specific company environment. These must be identified and analyzed before an effective plan of action can be strategized. Ask your employees what the problems are. Ask them what the solutions are. Ask them openly, and be open to honest answers, even if they hurt. The very fact that you care enough to ask for their participation gives employees a boost, a sense of respect from you.

With the research in hand, construct a cultural development plan custom-designed for your company's environment and circumstances. Plan for the long haul. A one-year plan should be the minimum start. Better yet, look ahead five years, at least in terms of your commitment to the culture-building process. Keep in mind that the poorer the shape of your firm's culture, the longer it takes to change it for the better.

Once you ignite the process, stay with it. Kindle and reinforce it regularly. Do follow-up research periodically to see how you're doing: what's working and what isn't? Make adjustments as needed to renew the spirit.

Converting skeptics

In many companies, especially in the offshore industry, employees are skeptics and cynics by nature. They'll humor you by tolerating the first wave of culture-building activity, expecting that when it's over, you'll forget all about it, and that'll be the end of it. They've seen it many times before, the lack of follow-through with many other management initiatives that were shooting stars - a brief streak into oblivion ("been there, done that").

They will only become convinced of your real commitment to changing your culture for the better when you reinforce the process constantly and consistently.

From day one

Typically a corporation has literally hundreds of "touch" points in the process of acquiring new employees. Each of these connections is an opportunity. To plant the seed of your vision, communicate your goals and aspirations, and infuse the prospective employee with the behavior you desire for your culture. If you capitalize on all of them, a new employee will come into your organization firmly pointed in the right direction from the first day.

Job fairs can be more than just a platform to tell prospective employees about your benefits package. Build into them a theme that conveys what kind of company you run. Include presentations that give jobseekers a sense of the personality of your company as well as the hard facts. Make certain that the tone and language of presentations, along with the decor and other amenities are strategically positioned to deliver a clear message of what kind of person is likely to do well in your company. This applies to other events, too, like community meetings and speeches by company officials.

Culture 'impressions'

Do you have a jobs hotline? What kind of impression does it convey to callers? Plan and craft telephone contacts with employee prospects as carefully as you would those with an investor. After all, you're asking them to invest a major portion of their waking lives to your enterprise. Their experience on the phone with your company speaks volumes about your company.

The environment jobseekers encounter along the route to becoming new hires establishes a first impression. Is the room where they fill out an application shabby, noisy, and cramped, or is it spacious, businesslike, and pleasant? Use the decor to frame a positive cultural message. Decorate with posters that communicate the theme of your vision. Include take-me displays of brochures and handouts that talk about your vision and your culture. Pay attention to colors, cleanliness, noise levels, and especially the behavior of your interviewers and hosts.

The media you use to communicate job opportunities and requirements should reflect the culture of your organization as well as the factual necessities. Your application forms, website, signage, recruiting brochures and videos, advertising - in fact, everywhere you speak to the public - should reinforce your cultural stance and expectations. This serves a dual role of pre-conditioning new employees and influencing those whose outlook may not be compatible with yours to self-select out of the hiring process.

Now, follow-up

Once you've hired an employee, there are many, many more touch points to reinforce your cultural communication. The notification of hiring is an important milestone. It should send a positive message. The employee orientation and all the new hire materials like handbooks should confirm the employee's belief that he or she is one of the luckiest people in town to have this job. The hiring process is your once-in-a-relationship opportunity to bend the twig the way you want the tree to grow. It's far easier to set it straight from the root, than to unbend it later.

Once you get them on board, keep the message coming. Earn credibility by really delivering what you promise. That's the key to tapping into the grassroots power of an organization. Keep your eye on the ball and follow through.

It takes more than money and benefits to hold on to good employees. Those are important motivators, but not necessarily the sole or even primary reason employees stay or leave. A strong corporate culture is by far the most powerful magnet that holds employees firmly in place.


Rob Sanders is a principal of New Orleans-based Discovery Group, Ltd. a company specializing in employee attitude and opinion research ( Ray Knight is a freelance business writer.

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