How important is organizational culture?

Culture not just something that’s important to HR

Brian Kreissl

By Brian Kreissl

I used to scoff at the notion of organizational culture.

While I understood the concept, I sometimes questioned whether it was something HR exaggerated the importance of in an attempt to protect its turf and cover for its inadequacies with respect to knowledge of the business.

Coming from an agency recruiting background, it sometimes felt like we worked hard to find candidates with the right technical skills only to have them shot down by our HR clients (we didn't have the same issues dealing directly with hiring managers). Sometimes the feedback we got was simply the candidate “didn't fit in with our corporate culture.”

While I didn't really start to appreciate the importance of organizational culture until I moved into an in-house HR role, I believed HR often resides in an ivory tower when it comes to culture. By this I mean HR practitioners have a perception of their culture that sometimes doesn't jive with reality.

Of course, a valid argument is HR may be fully aware their visions of the company's culture are somewhat idealistic, but they may be using recruitment as a tool to drive organizational change and bring people with the desired behaviours, competencies and attitudes on board. However, that focus on culture generally didn’t seem to be part of any initiative designed to transform the organization's culture.

I also believed another issue was some HR professionals elevate organizational culture and other “soft” considerations to compensate for the fact they don't really understand the functional or technical aspects of the business or the roles they were recruiting. HR practitioners sometimes overlooked a strong candidate from a different industry or because she displayed certain mannerisms that really didn’t impact her ability to do the job.

Recent convert to organizational culture

In spite of the above opinions — which I still support to a certain extent — I'm a fairly recent convert to the notion of organizational culture for a number of reasons. One of which is I now realize I was seeing things too much from an agency recruiter’s perspective.

Let's face it: The goal of agency recruiters (especially in a contingency search, as opposed to a retained search where the search firm basically gets paid no matter what) is essentially to try to “sell” candidates to their clients. With some exceptions, in-house recruiters are generally more focused on screening and hiring candidates who are the right fit.

No matter how hard agency recruiters try to understand the client's culture, they probably aren't going to have quite the same understanding an in-house person would have of what it’s like to work there. Agencies can also be pretty expensive, often charging a placement fee of up to 25 per cent of a candidate’s annual salary. 

Because of these factors, agency candidates sometimes have to practically walk on water in order to get hired — especially where agencies are essentially working in competition with an organization's in-house recruitment staff. Therefore, it's hardly surprising organizational culture becomes so important to the recruitment process in such situations.

It’s also true cultural fit can make or break an employee’s ability to perform on the job — especially at the more senior levels. I once heard that people are generally hired for their technical skills but fired for their lack of soft skills.

Working at Carswell

I also began to see just how much of an impact organizational culture can have when I started working at Carswell, which has a very different culture from my last employer — a large financial institution. The unique culture at Carswell is actually one of the things that make working here so attractive.

For one thing, it’s one of the few companies I’ve come across that doesn’t just pay lip service to the whole notion of work-life balance. With a few exceptions, people usually leave on time. And most people here have Friday afternoons off.

That’s very different from what I was used to previously, where even as a non-manager I worked a lot of unpaid overtime.

People who work here are generally pretty highly engaged. Most employees feel very strongly about the company. They like the work itself, the hours and nice little perks like ice cream day, company sports teams, massage days and movie days.

We really do things a bit differently around here. And I believe that’s generally a good thing.

Brian Kreissl is the managing editor of Consult Carswell. He can be reached at [email protected]. For more information, visit  

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