The first time I took my daughter to Take Your Daughter to Work Day over 20 years ago, she was most impressed with the bathrooms. There were mirrors on both sides, and when we went in she exclaimed, “Look, Mom! We go on forever,” commenting on the infinity effect of having the mirror on one side of the room reflect the mirror on the other side. Her comment stopped me in my tracks. I went in and out of this restroom daily and I never noticed the effect. Perhaps when I first started working there, I had casually observed but had quickly gotten use to the effect and concentrated on more important items such as hair out of place or mascara that had smeared. So it is with much that surrounds us everyday. We quickly adapt to our circumstances and we cease to notice much less care. And that is dangerous.
Studies have shown that it takes fewer than six months for new employees to absorb the unspoken culture of their new workplaces. Often those tasked with culture change initiatives are long-term employees of an organization who are the least likely to notice the complex, deeply entangled cultural roots that are the most resistant. When I was hiring new employees, one technique I used was to task them to keep a “Why” list for their first 90 days. Anytime they came across something that made them ask, “Why do you do that, or Why don’t you do this,” I would tell them to write it down. At the end of their first 90 days, we would go over their lists. Some items I could explain the solid reasoning for why we did or didn’t do something, but for others, my only response was, “I’m not sure. We’ve just always done it that way.” These items are ripe for further examination and change. They frequently surface in culture audits, a process that allows leaders to discover and close the gaps between the existing culture and the desired culture.
A mentor once told me if you want to know what an organization values, look at their budget. What do they pay for; what don’t they? For example, look at what a company subsidizes for their employees. Do they subsidize parking but not elder or childcare? Do they offer wellness programs/incentives but not tuition reimbursement? Every organization has limited resources and has to choose how to invest them to attract and retain the best talent. It’s important that these investments are intentionally made with an HR strategy in mind.