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Sep 22, 2015

Workplace culture: The jury is still out

Amazon's culture can't be transplanted here, so that means good HR gets to rule the day

By Todd Humber

Workplace cultures are a fascinating thing. Every office, every factory, every single job site has one — whether you want one or not, you have one.

Some evolve by accident, others are created by very purposeful design. Some seem downright creepy and cult-like to outsiders. A good culture can elevate the entire organization, improving productivity and morale. A bad culture has the potential to completely destroy an organization.

That’s one of the reasons news editor Liz Bernier tackled the topic of the “cult of culture” in one of the cover stories for the next issue of Canadian HR Reporter. Culture is so important, and yet there is no handy blueprint to follow to ensure you have a strong one. There’s not even agreement among experts about what makes a good culture.

The recent problems at Amazon — where evidence of a so-called “bruising” culture emerged with a story in the New York Times  that detailed things like 85 hour workweeks and employees sabotaging each other with management’s blessing — show both the importance of the culture and how the debate over what’s good isn’t settled.

Some in the HR community blasted Amazon for this ham-handed approach. Others praised it, and wondered if more companies shouldn’t be following suit. Toronto-based employment lawyer Howard Levitt, writing in the Financial Post, pointed out the advantages of such a culture — where employees who perform are rewarded and those who don’t are quickly shown the door.

Demand excellence, reward those who provide it far beyond your competitors and in myriad forms,” wrote Levitt. “But once you realize an employee cannot be better than merely above average, cull them from your ranks, then advertise your approach to your clients and potential clients.

But Levitt was also quick to point out a practical reality — that, on this side of the border, such a strategy would quickly be mired in exorbitant dismissal costs. With no at-will employment, severance packages could soon bankrupt any company that took such an approach.

So barring a sea change in common law — and we all know that’s not going to happen — Canadian firms won’t be able to import this American-style cutthroat business culture. That just means we have to be more creative when it comes to culture. We have to be more picky in the hiring process and more demanding when it comes to performance management. Underperforming staff need to be weeded out quickly, within the first year of employment.

Some say regulatory red tape like this makes it harder for Canadian companies to compete on the global stage. I’d argue it’s a chance to show how the best HR practices, when implemented by competent professionals and followed to a T, can set the stage for any organization to thrive in any environment.

The old saying you can’t argue with success has a place here — Amazon has grown into a retail giant. But the unanswered question is whether it has done so because of the culture or in spite of it.

Set your conference budgets now

As I write this, I’m in Ottawa attending the annual conference of the Canadian Society for Safety Engineering. I always find conferences a little inspiring — it’s always good to get out of the office to network, to talk to professionals face to face and to hear first-hand some of the real world challenges they’re facing.

It’s not only an interesting exercise, it also helps define the subjects we want to cover in the pages of Canadian HR Reporter, Canadian Occupational Safety, Canadian Employment Law Today and the many other publications published by Thomson Reuters under the Carswell Media banner.

In my role, I’ve had the opportunity to attend numerous HR and OHS courses over the years. And while HR and health and safety have a lot in common, there are also some interesting differences — and one of them really rears its head at conferences like this one.

Health and safety professionals are good at sharing best practices. Really good. Maybe that’s not a surprise, but it’s gratifying to see. Unlike other professions — including HR — where best practices are often viewed as closely guarded competitive advantages, the OHS world openly shares its secrets. The fiercest business rivals will readily and openly share what worked, and what didn’t work, when it comes to ensuring every worker goes home safe at the end of the day.

When you’re setting your budgets for 2016, an exercise many of us are going through now, try to ensure your professional development bucket doesn’t get too many holes poked in it. It’s worth attending your local provincial conference, or larger national ones. I guarantee you’ll learn a lot and won’t regret spending a penny of that budget.

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