startup culture

Jonathan Richards, CEO and founder of breatheHR, on whether your technology startup’s culture needs a sanity check.

It is clear culture is at the heart of many successful fast-growing companies. Being known as a business with a positive culture helps to retain and attract employees (and often clients in the service industry). A recent study by EDHEC Business School identified that 80% of young people research the company culture before considering a job and 78% believe that the company culture influences whether or not they apply.

Company culture is also used as a barometer for a number of high-profile ‘best places to work’ accolades. It’s therefore unsurprising that companies want to protect that culture during their hiring process – as fitting into a company’s culture is one now of the top considerations for employers when choosing a new hire.

But, what happens when your culture takes on a life of its own?

Poor workplace cultures have major knock-on effects for businesses, in fact, research reveals a third of Brits (34%) who quit their job, did so because of company culture. And one example of how toxic cultures can manifest is cliques forming. This can make employees feel left out and ultimately leave. Sadly, a report from CareerBuilder revealed that 43% of workers admitted that their office was populated by cliques.

As a business owner, how can you nip this in the bud, ensuring that your company culture does not alienate certain groups?

First and foremost, you need to have a clear and accurate view of what’s actually – not what you think is – happening in your company.

By spotting patterns or identifying where your company culture is potentially going wrong, you can jump in quickly and get it fixed.

This can be easily achieved by:

  • Regularly examine your employee data: This information should be at your fingertips in the form of employee absences, retention and turnover. High-staff turnover and regular bouts of sickness should set off alarm bells – it’s a clear indicator of potential issues. Taking a deep dive into the data you have will also enable you to spot the gaps in the data you might be missing such as employee engagement or satisfaction levels.
  • Introduce an employee engagement/satisfaction survey: An anonymous survey is a sure-fire way of understanding what is happening in your company. It gives employees an opportunity to speak up on issues they may not feel comfortable discussing in an open forum, or even in a one-to-one meeting situation. But it is crucial to think about diversity – don’t forget to capture the experience of different employee segments such as age, disability, ethnicity and gender.
  • Spend time in the office: There’s no better way than being present in the office and on the ground with the team – on a frequent basis – to experience the true company culture.
  • Get to know your team: Regular one-to-one meetings are also essential here, they build trust and you will eventually hear any issues straight from the horse’s mouth. As an entrepreneur, you will now need to map out your own time. Within a small company, it will be easier to spend some time with everyone; however, as your firm scales-up, the more important it will be to spread your time fairly across the teams.
  • Offboard employees as you would onboard them: Be it on good terms or bad, it’s important that each departing employee has their say. You may not like what you hear but take time to listen to their point of view and experience.

The next step is to act. I’ve heard from people that after flagging an issue in an exit interview, nothing has been done about it. This could be because businesses are worried about upsetting others or hoping it’s just a phase that will pass. But if you spot cliquey groups or hear from people that there may be concerns, there are a couple of things that can be done to improve this subtly.

Forming cross-team relationships can have a positive impact on your business as a whole and break up any cliques. Take for example the #randomcoffee initiative at Hootsuite. Team members who signed up were paired with someone from a different part of the company, introduced over email and encouraged to meet for a coffee. This was designed to be a random encounter with someone they otherwise wouldn’t have met. It encouraged connections on more than a superficial level and lead to conversations that were beneficial for the business, such as bringing a fresh perspective to a problem.

Another example is shifting team members around the office to help split up cliques and allow team members to spend time with individuals they don’t normally speak to.

Ultimately, when you start a business, no one gives you a manual of what to do or pointers for how to create a great culture, so by default, it becomes an extension of who you are as an individual.

As a founder, taking the reins of and designing company culture is a terrifying responsibility that shouldn’t be taken lightly.

But if you get this piece right, it can be the most rewarding thing of all. This is why entrepreneurs mustn’t view culture as a one-off box-ticking exercise, it’s very much an ongoing integral part of the job if you want your people to stay for the long-haul, be inspired and be motivated.