What is the Culture in your Organization

As Hamilton management awaits the arbitrators decision, 21 public works employees remain off the payroll. This is an interesting and extensive case that falls under the banner of time theft and breach of trust.

But how does a work environment get to the point where such large scale discipline is required? There must have been obvious signs in the case of Hamilton where 25 workers were disciplined of which 21 were fired in 2013. This was not a low key event either as reports state that the extensive city investigation included GPS information and video surveillance.

The union has not taken this sitting down either. Extensive documentation has been submitted and the city has spent almost $500,000 in defending the grievances since 2013. Add testimony from a total to 30 witnesses and you have a case of international interest. Or not. As significant as this event may be for those of us in the public works world, this is just a blip in the lives of everyday citizens. But public works professionals should take this event very seriously indeed.

This is not an isolated or unique event either as was the case in Vaughan where a city works employee defrauded the city of over $2.4 million over 13 years through fraudulent purchases to shell companies.  So whether its stealing time or stealing money the end result does not bode well for the perpetrators or the municipalities.

What is the root cause of these events? Is it our society, bad management, human nature, misplaced trust? When looking at the world of work, I would say that the cause of these types of events starts with the culture. This applies to any sector of the business world as these types of events are not unique to public works.

Lets start by taking a look at a typical public school class room. You can look at any class across the country and you will find students who display tendencies towards characteristics such as:

  • leadership
  • discipline
  • responsibility
  • trustworthiness
  • creativity
  • intelligence
  • accountability

And you are just a likely to find those that tend towards behaviours such as:

  • untruthfulness
  • meanness
  • self entitlement
  • superiority
  • theft
  • etc.

Kids will be kids and for the most part rooted personality characteristics do not necessarily change over time, but we learn to fit into society especially if we want to function within society.

But some people don't change. I recall an incident in first year university siting with a group during the first month of school. There was one fellow in our program who was interesting and on this day he came by our table and offered a kit of drafting instruments for sale. He had clearly taken them from someone else in the class. We were stunned by the action and rejected his offer.  This event was interesting from a number of perspectives. It was clear at least with this group that we were not going to support that kind of behaviour. We also cautioned others of this individuals tendencies and avoided interaction of any kind. I think he was out of the program within the second month. In this case the culture was not tolerant of this kind of behaviour.

Bring this same situation into the modern workforce.

As employees it is well known that for the most part people want to be a valued contributor to the work they do and support their organizations. Of course, there are risks in assuming that all employees will behave this way so policies, management structures, accountability and disciplinary processes are created to encourage desired behaviours.

But what if that fellow I met in university happens to get a job at my work place? What if I notice unusual behaviour? What actions will I take?
 Culture Starts With You
I would suspect that the Hamilton case is more prevalent than we care to admit. I know in my time dealing with performance or behavioural challenges the same themes seem to come up over and over again with comments such as:

  • I just wanted to fit in
  • I'm the new guy, I can't do anything to change it
  • I thought this behaviour was acceptable because everyone else does it
  • Others will shun me if I try and do what is right or do it differently
  • The corporation doesn't care about me anyway

Don't think that this just applies to the front line, this applies to all levels of the organization.
Five ways to Improve Culture
1. Clearly state how you want your culture to be
Now we all know that stating your culture does not make it instantly happen. But if you have no idea on what you want your organizational culture to be then you can't even get out of the gate. This is important organizationally just as much as it is departmentally.

There is great value in having clear cultural behaviours at the organizational level (and just as important that senior management live by those ideals). This kind of leadership goes a long way to reducing silo behaviour and builds better collaboration across the entire organization.

There is also value in defining a departmental culture. Of course this will take guidance from the corporate direction as alignment is critical, but that is not to say that complimentary cultural traits cannot be adopted to meet specific departmental needs.

But keep in mind that you can't mandate culture or just tell people to follow the culture. Culture is what happens in between the spaces of our work. It's something that has to be nurtured, supported, cultivated and rewarded. The following are a great way to start that process.
2. Communicate clearly and openly
You have to talk about your culture every day. Tell the team what is important to the department, share ideas on how these behaviours support the environment and be transparent on all aspects of behaviour.

Just as importantly though is to talk about the things that don't support the culture. How do we know if we are swimming against the stream if nobody reminds us. Of course you can only swim upstream for so long.
3. Address problems and concerns
The best way management can support the desired culture is to address problems that are undermining those desirable behaviours. Although this is always assumed to be the responsibility of management, everyone has a role to play.

And even if you don't hear about something directly, often if you suspect something isn't right, chances are you will be right. This is the most important job of management and often it is the one that gets the least attention.

You are better off addressing the little problems as they arise rather than assume that things will sort themselves out. Hamilton is a case in point. When the problem becomes large it can be very difficult and costly to bring the ship back on course.
4. Hire the right people
Every new hire comes with a certain amount of unpredictability. We are human after all. Regardless, we attempt to find the cream through technical and situational questions, maybe a test or on the job questioning. Don't get me wrong, hiring is a tough process both for the organization and the applicant. Its a huge commitment for both parties.

So how do you get it right? There is no single guaranteed method but in my experience you need to always step back from the interview and just look at the person. I have been in interview situations where the HR approved questions identified the wrong candidate, not because they could not do the job, but because the interview questions did not allow for valuation of broader personality and attitudinal skills.

In fact in my experience, I was being interviewed for a position in which the questions where simply at the wrong level for the duties required by the job. Half way through the interview I stopped the panel questions and stated to the interviewers that if they were looking for an engineer with simply technical skills that I was not interested in the position, however if they were looking for someone to lead the department forward in delivering the priorities of the municipality then I would be interested. That was the end of the interview...and I got the job.
5. Do what you say
Walking the talk is the only way to bring change to your culture. This is something that can be demonstrated all day. It is often the little things that make the most difference and your role is to take the actions that support the desired direction.

This also means being consistent and predictable. As a manager your role isn't to be everyone's friend, your role is to lead your organization. Being human however is a vital part of that behaviour and combined with consistency, creates an extremely effective leader.

But leadership isn't just for management. Every employee can exhibit the same supportive behaviours. This will of course take time if you have cultural challenges, but persistence is key. Leadership is guided by the top but propagated by everyone.

In the end these efforts will bring change to your culture. They of course may not fix everything, buy they will bring your organization a long way forward. Diligence will reduce the risk of bad behaviour that often feeds on bad culture.

What can you do to create a better culture at your work?
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