On "Culture" - “You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means”.

How many job adverts currently advertise a "great culture", "a start-up culture" or a "Google-like culture"?  

It seems as though the only company not shouting about how Google-like their culture is are Google themselves.  It's a particular bugbear of mine at the moment because it's not only a trite cliché it's also meaningless.

"Culture" as it is currently being used in job adverts has come to mean little more than a perk.  "Salary, Bonus, Life Insurance, Great Culture".  

Whilst this doesn't make the top ten in my all time annoyances with how jobs are advertised it does make the mistake of entirely missing the point.  If the "culture" is a differentiator why wouldn't you tell a prospective candidate about it in lavish detail?  I think the issue here might be one of misunderstanding of the term.

So what is culture?  Broadly defined the culture of a company is the ideas, customs and social behaviour of a particular group or society.  These are the building blocks, the elemental stage of what we collectively called culture.  Without description of these ideas, customs and behaviours and why they are good bad or of no interest to a candidate mentioning it is redundant.

So what isn't culture?  Another facet of a lack of description in a job advert is a description of the wrong things a quick scan of well intentioned descriptions lists "beers in the office", "foosball" and "free food".  These things are not culture.  Just like empty pyramids and papyrus scrolls are not the sum total of Ancient Egypt any more so than the Parthenon and Feta cheese are the whole of Greece.  Whilst these things are of cultural significance as parts of a job description without more insight they are little more than window dressing, set up to be dismissed by all but the most earnest of job hunters.  Whilst a recruiter may think that they are choosing the most attractive attributes of a compensation package they must also ask themselves do they really want to attract the candidate who favours a free lunch over a technology choice or a chance for progression?

I think the answer lies in a system of first and second order signifiers when talking about culture.  Those elements you call attention to first should be the most pertinent to your audience.  In the case of a Developer role for example I think we should assume that a candidate would want to know what technologies are involved, how the company writes code, how the teams are organised etc.  I'd hope a great candidate would want to know all of this before hearing about the details of a benefits package...even if they include "onsite barber" and "free laundry".  These first order signifiers should be discovered when a recruiter qualifies a requisition.  This is the true insider knowledge and where the true indicators of culture lie, for example when saying the company has a flat-structure give the signifiers of this - small functional teams, 360 review process, accessibility to senior management.  If you say a company is innovative, tell the candidate how this is manifest - hackathons, internal discussion forum, cross functional collaboration etc.  Don't just say those Ancient Egyptians were "Good builders" tell me about the pyramids!  If you don't you're missing the best opportunity.  Make the sell of the role more compelling through authenticity, not just spewing the benefits package verbatim - don't be a perk-ulator.

Those second order signifiers are those items that apply to the general population of an organisation i.e. not role specific but company specific.  These are best used to reinforce the company's values, attitudes and beliefs.  If possible these should be coupled with assumptions that let the reader know about the thought behind them.  Google's "20% time" (despite it's rumoured death) and Zappo's "$2000 to quit" are great examples of this and offer a great stepping off point for later discussion with candidates.

Remember, the ideal job advert is not only attractive to those people you want to hire but also screens out those you do not.  If you write a generic job advertisement you will get a generic response.  A correctly worded ad to the right audience is a great first filter.  Candidates are not stupid, they will self select if they feel the role suits them and that is what should happen.  If you write a job description that everyone likes, everyone will apply but then of course you don't want to hire everyone...

Views: 295

Tags: Advertising, Agency Recruiting, Corporate Recruiting, Culture

Comment by Keith D. Halperin on March 19, 2014 at 8:34pm

Thank you, Matt. This is a fine posting.

"When I hear the word culture, I reach for my revolver":

In my particular interpretation of the above (infamous) quote, when I hear it, I think "culture" REALLY means:

**** ***! We want to hire people JUST LIKE US!

**** ***! We want you physically around so much IT REALLY MATTERS that you're just like us!

**** ***! We're a wannabe "corp-cult" and DEMAND you "drink the Kool-aid," ************!

Happy Humpday,

Keith

:)

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