It's More Than a Job Title: The Role of HR in Organizational Culture

November 29, 2018

It's More Than a Job Title: The Role of HR in Organizational Culture

What does it mean when “culture” is a part of your job title or role description? Can one person (or even a whole functional area) alone be totally in charge of and wield its power? 

Culture is not about amenities, employee appreciation days, company picnics, or community service events. It is “a construct reflected in all things that have the power to influence behaviors, interactions, and perception within a socially defined entity or institution… [delineating] the boundaries of what is acceptable and not acceptable. [It] is manifested in how people behave, interact, react, and perceive reality. Culture is created, reinforced, and experienced by people.” Because it’s shared, no one can control culture, and yet it is accessible enough that a single person can make a difference. 

There are a number of roles for HR to play when it comes to culture: 

Educator. The topic of culture can be intimidating to some because they don’t understand it. This might lead them to push it aside or ignore it when they really shouldn’t. Who will enlighten them? If this describes HR, corrective action is needed if they truly want to be the conscience of the organization. The educator must first be educated, and there’s nothing like having to learn something in order to teach it. As attributed to William Glasser, we learn 95 percent of what we teach others. People have to learn the importance of culture, how it impacts behaviors (such as decision-making), and influences outcomes (for better or worse). Leaders have to understand that culture is more than a liability—it can also be a business asset. 

Facilitator. Culture change gets that extra boost and attention as a designated initiative, but it must also be continually managed as part of “business as usual.” In either scenario, the CEO should be the ultimate culture champion. In partnership with or in the absence of that leadership, HR must step up to make it happen. Either empower others, or lead yourself. 

Evangelist. When it comes to culture, be visible, communicate frequently, and consistently demonstrate by example. Recruit other evangelists across the organization regardless of role, level, background, or responsibilities. Make culture the backbone of how your company operates and integrate awareness of culture into daily work life. Compel people to take active roles in supporting and experiencing a healthy culture. You’ll know how successful you are based on how well the aspirational culture sticks. 

Sponsor. A sponsor doesn’t just endorse. Sponsorship means you are willing to stick your neck out for it and be an active advocate. If you believe in the aspirational culture the company is promoting, there should be no hesitation. I don’t mean that you sacrifice yourself for the cause (without champions of culture, things will be worse off). Influence as much as you can for the intended outcomes.

Connector. Should you and your HR function assume these other roles, you become a nexus point in the organization, one that knows what’s going on, who’s who, and what’s to come. This enables you to connect people and create the platform where new connections uncover possibilities and catalyze results. 

Notice advisor is not on this list. That’s because assuming this role could lead to the misconception that you “own culture,” which isn’t true and won’t help your cause. Advising also promotes a certain emotional distance and separates you from being a part of the shared community. Leave advising to the external consultants. Remember that within the company, culture is accessible to all as “consumers of the work experience,” and “everyone is prequalified to contribute.” Avoid being known as the culture advisor. 

HR is by no means restricted to these roles, and there are certainly connection points and overlaps. Resist the temptation to see these as a checklist—instead, treat it as a collective state of mind that influences actions on a perpetual basis. If fulfilled, HR will have an amazing impact when it comes to culture, for it creates a virtuous cycle of positivity when done well. Healthy culture = trusted HR function. 

Where to start? First, there are things you can do right away in your of daily life. Look for and pay attention to culture and how it is revealed day-to-day—in meetings, interactions, written communications, decisions, etc. Ask yourself: How is our culture influencing our perceptions or actions? What anomalies or individual circumstances might create an undesirable long-term impact on the culture? Are we reinforcing a desirable or undesirable pattern or norm? Are we building up our culture or eroding it? Do our words match our actions? What are the cultural consequences of my behaviors as a leader?

Adopt language that indicates your understanding and priorities when it comes to culture. Point out what you are paying attention to and observing. This reminds people of culture’s pervasive influence and encourage others to follow suit. 

Make employee engagement a priority--not just in task or operationally--but strategically. Start with a deep dive into the current state to uncover and understand its complexities and mechanisms. Answer: Do values, brand, and intentions match lived experience? Are cultural norms intentional and positive? Are other experiences compromising the integrity of the culture? What strengths enhance the organization? Where are the unmet needs when it comes to culture? 

With that knowledge, the excuse of ignorance is no longer valid. That’s a good thing, because now you can take informed action. Design of work experience can guide your organization through the process of understanding your current state, designing for change, implementing for the future, and sustaining it. Don’t wait to leverage culture for the better, because you could be heading off a brewing firestorm without even knowing it. A better, stronger future awaits.  

All quotes from the book Culture Your Culture: Innovating Experiences @Work

The Authors: 

Karen Jaw-Madson is principal of Co.-Design of Work Experience.