The cookie-cutter approach to company culture

Is your corporate culture a one-size-fits-all paradigm?

When I was 17, I went on a student exchange to Germany. I was living in a snowy little town in the depths of Bavaria, where I went to the local grammar school. One day a teacher approached me in the classroom.

“Vould you mind,” he asked, “if I could molest you for a moment?”

“I’m sorry,” I said politely. “I don’t understand.”

“Ach, so,” he said. “Vell, vould you miiiind, if I could molest you for jaaaast a moment?”

This was a man clad head-to-toe in beige, with large 80s-style glasses, a greasy comb-over and a beard with remnants of his breakfast. As physical characteristics go, he had all the hallmarks of a persistent sex pest.

As it happened, I did mind if he wanted to molest me.

“I’m sorry,” I said again. “That is a bad word in my language. Molest is a bad word.”

The problem was, he had recently acquired an electronic translation gadget (they were all the rage, in Bavaria in 1995, along with David Hasselhof singles and stonewashed denim) and he believed in the supremacy of this gadget’s linguistic judgment at all costs.

I quickly realised he wanted to say “can I trouble you for a moment” rather than extending an offer for underage naughty times, but this gadget was incorrectly manifesting whatever German verb he wanted to use as the English verb “molest”.

He refused to acknowledge that as a native speaker, I knew better than his gadget when it came to rude verbs. For the rest of my time there, he insisted on addressing me with this request for molestation whenever he wanted to interrupt me. (Eventually, I began to return the request, getting great joy out of asking if I might be able to molest him too.) His classroom culture simply did not allow for deviation from the norm. His approach was rigid, a one-size-fits-all paradigm to which all students had to conform. It was, essentially, a ‘fit in or @#$% off’ attitude.

I thought of this roving Bavarian sex pest recently when I watched a video of Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, in which he claimed employees had to fit the culture or face being fired.

“We’ve passed on a lot of smart and talented people who we know can make an immediate impact on our top and bottom line, but if they’re not good for our culture then we won’t hire them for that reason alone,” Hsieh says.

“And the reverse is true, too. Even if someone is great at their job, even if they’re a superstar at their job, if they’re bad for that culture, we’ll fire them for that reason alone.”

I have slightly mixed feelings about this. Sure, when you get a toxic employee – or a toxic boss, for that matter – getting rid of that one bad apple will do a lot to improve morale. One moth in the closet can destroy an entire rack of Lederhosen.

But having a ‘fit in or @#$% off’ attitude towards employees in a company smacks of a rigid, arrogant and heavy-handed management style.

Of course, Hsieh doesn’t necessarily specify what the company culture is. Is he talking ‘culture equals happy people who all love each other and get along’ or ‘culture equals back-slapping at Friday drinks and golf on the weekends’? Or something else entirely?

Moreover, is one type of person (Hsieh’s HR department runs ‘culture fit’ tests on prospective employees to make sure they ‘fit’) everywhere in your company the best way to get a good blend in your culture?

Take a look around you. Chances are you have some quiet people, some loud people, those who like to leave the building for lunch, those who eat al desko and work through it, those who stay for drinks, those who have to run out to pick up the kids, those who would rather work from home, those who have comb-overs … I could go on, but you get the picture. 

Chances are you have a million different individuals in your organisation, because that’s what humans are: individuals. Not cookie-cutter one-size-fits-all minions just waiting for you to ask if you can molest them.