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Culture Isn’t Just an Employee Issue

Todd Richardson Foresight, Foresight Contributors Leave a Comment

I’ve been on a bit of a crusade lately to spread the word about the importance of workplace culture. More and more people are talking about culture in the business world these days. And that’s a good start. But, I’ve noticed that the conversation is pretty one-sided. It’s all about the employees—how employees influence culture, what employees can do to change it, and how businesses should use employees to build better workplace environments.

The importance of employees in the cultural equation is undeniable. However, it’s time to take a step back and change the way we think about culture at a higher level. It’s about a lot more than employees.  Consider the impact outside partners have when it comes to forming and nurturing workplace cultures.

Companies spend countless hours recruiting and evaluating job candidates, trying to ensure each new recruit is a good “culture fit.” Screening tools, interviews, and personality assessments are just a few of the methods used to decide if a candidate will fit in and contribute to company culture in a positive way. Companies like Zappos and Pardot have this process down to a science. If one interviewer vetoes a candidate in the culture category, it’s over. No offer letter. Period. The end.

And it makes sense. We’ve all seen the impact of a positive or negative cultural fit on the broader work environment. Get it right, and you’ll see higher employee engagement, job satisfaction, and business results. Hire a bad egg, and you’re in for a very rocky ride.

Now, consider how much time we spend screening our outside partners for culture fit… Yeah. You’re not alone.

Most companies completely bypass any cultural assessment for outside influencers—which is troublesome. From third-party vendors to contractors, advisors to Board members, these ‘outsiders’ can have a profound impact on workplace cultures—as much as (or more than, in some cases) actual employees.

I think back to the outside parties who had significant exposure to my business and employees.  These include benefits and wellness partners, real estate brokers, and others. Every interaction between my outside partners and our employees impacted our culture in some way – positively or negatively. So, why don’t more companies screen outside partners for culture fit?

Outside parties are oftentimes referred to as “agents” of the company. But, the reality is that, to the outside world, agents are your company. Other employees, customers, and the general public don’t differentiate between the legal designation of employee and non-employee.  All people see is someone associated with your company, who is therefore assumed to be acting on the company’s behalf.

Perception is reality.

Here are five tips to ensure your outside parties are the right culture fits:

  1. Identify and understand the type and level of interactions your outside parties will have with employees, customers, and the general public. You’ll be surprised how much influence and access they have.
  2. Identify a key point-of-contact(s) from each outside partner who will interact with your stakeholders and meet with them before you sign on the dotted line. It is not enough to like your partner’s leadership team. Make sure the ‘feet on the street’ align with your core values and culture.
  3. Interview outside parties in the same manner that you would a potential job candidate. Have face-to-face meetings. Learn about how they would interact with your employees, customers, and prospects. Be thorough, and get multiple opinions from your team before making a decision.
  4. Check references. If a potential partner can’t supply a list of references who vouch for their integrity, professionalism, and commitment, that’s a red flag.
  5. Quickly eject any outside partner (existing or potential) who are cultural misfits. Like employees, one cultural bad apple can ruin the bunch. No person, regardless of resume, is worth risking the culture you’ve built.

Outside partners can be a huge value-add and are often a business necessity. The key is to enter into those relationships with your eyes wide open. Your partners will influence your culture—the only question is ‘How?’

It’s time we all placed the same emphasis on outside partner culture fit as we do on employee culture fit. Start with your own company, then spread the word. I won’t be satisfied until we fundamentally shift the culture conversation.

Todd Richardson

Todd Richardson

Todd is the former Executive Vice President of Administration for Salesforce.com (previously ExactTarget before Salesforce.com acquired ExactTarget in 2013)
Todd Richardson

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