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A Healthy Culture

January 18, 2022

We’ll start this blog about company culture with a couple of massive disclaimers. First, there’s no “silver bullet” for fixing your company culture. If you have a poor culture, this will be a slog to right the ship. You will notice changes more quickly if you have a “meh” company culture. The bottom line is that you’re dealing with the amount of trust your employees and coworkers place in the company. That takes time. 

Secondly, you cannot buy company culture. It’s going to take more than ice cream trucks on hot days and ping-pong tables in the crew room of your company to have a healthy culture. Not that those things are bad (I loved them at companies I worked for), but they aren’t a substitute for the current trust (or mistrust) that runs through your company. 

Signs of a Healthy Culture

There are some signs of healthy company culture for any industry. While not an exhaustive list, these are some significant components. If your company doesn’t see these signs, it means you have more work to do. 

Employee Retention is High

In Sales, there’s a truism that says, “The person most likely to do business with you is the person who is already doing business with you.” Basically, it’s easier to “upsell” current customers than to find new ones because you’ve already built trust with them. 

It’s the same way with your employees. In the long run, it’s easier for your business to keep the employees you’ve got than it is to spend time and money on recruiting and training new ones. There are exceptions to this (keep reading), but if you have productive, hard-working employees, do everything you can reasonably do to keep them happy. 

If you’ve got lots of people celebrating lengthy work anniversaries, that’s a great thing. You should do something to celebrate these milestones, starting at intervals. Celebrate the first year; then, you can probably work in five-year increments (fifth anniversary, tenth anniversary, etc.). 

Consider increasing the “rewards” for these years of service. One-year anniversaries can be as simple as a hand-written “Thank you” note and some cash. They need to get more and more valuable as time goes on. I worked in a company where, starting at 20 years of service, people received an extra week of vacation on those “milestone” anniversaries (every five years). It was an excellent way to say “Thanks!” to those who have been loyal for so long.

This is “table stakes” for any company in any industry today. You’ll face a retention problem if you’re not doing something to reward and celebrate the loyal employees. 

No Shortage of New Hire Candidates

One sign of a healthy culture is that you’re rarely scrounging for potential candidates. Importantly, businesses with highly engaged employees enjoyed 100% more job applications. When you have a healthy culture, people who work for you want to refer their friends and professional connections to your business. 

If we’re honest with ourselves, this principle is intuitive. You know when things are good, your team will refer their friends and neighbors to you. Just as intuitive but harder to confront, we understand what it means when they aren’t referring people to work with us. It means there’s a problem with our culture. 

I’ve seen lots of companies (of all sizes and industries) try to throw money at this problem, too. There are massive “referral bonuses” and “signing bonuses” floating around the marketplace. Just this week, I saw one at a fast-food franchise that offered a $500 sign-on bonus for new hires. 

Let me repeat this – you can’t buy your way out of a poor culture. When you’ve got a lack of candidates in your pipeline, you need to start asking yourself some hard questions, beginning with “Why don’t my people want to refer anyone?”

Employees Aren’t Afraid to Share

In Creating Magic, Lee Cockerell tells how employees at Disney resorts created a tool to help with the massive amounts of sheets they needed to launder daily. Some employees made their own “hook” to get the sheets out of a massive bin where they ended up. The alternative is that someone had to climb into this giant pit and throw them up to someone else. This hook was more efficient but occasionally snagged the sheets, so Disney management initially stopped the practice. 

What happened? Did they just go back to doing their jobs the “right way?” No. Another employee created a cap for the end of the hook that prevented snagging, and employees went back to using it. Instead, Disney eventually made this the standard practice for doing laundry due to the massive amount of time it saved. They were smart enough to see that their employees’ ideas helped the company run better. Their actions didn’t threaten leadership because it wasn’t “our idea.” 

I’ve worked in places where sharing your ideas is dangerous. You may have, too. In companies like this, one of two things happens. Either you end up getting punished/fired for speaking your mind, or someone steals your ideas and claims credit. Both scenarios cause people to either give up trying to improve things or start planning their exit. 

Trust is crucial to growth in your company. Creating space for employees to share is a sign of healthy culture. 

Team Members “Get” the Company’s Mission, and They Support It

When employees actively engage with your company, they will probably know the company values right off-hand. They don’t have to think too long or hard about what the company stands for, and they’re excited about it.

I worked in a place that wanted to encourage people to remember the company values, and they came up with a clever, low-tech solution: a ballot box. 

They let coworkers nominate each other when they displayed one of the company’s core values. You wrote their name on a slip of paper, told what value they embodied, and gave an example. They picked a name out of the box at the end of the month to select the winner. Each winner got to choose from a cash payout or an extra half-day of paid time off (PTO).

When your team is energized to come to work because they know what you do, and they believe in what you do, that’s a sign of a great culture. 

What Your Culture Should Look Like

Here’s a list of attributes of healthy company culture. Again, not an exhaustive list. But these characteristics are necessary if you’re going to slow employee turnover, keep great talent, and quit scrambling to hire. 

Communication

Aristotle said, “All communication must lead to change.” You must communicate with your team to accomplish your goal of having a healthy culture. I’ve laid out some ways below to share with your team for your culture to be sound. 

Training

I once worked with a salesperson who brought me a video of a landscape team on a commercial job site. They had two people in the back of a flatbed dump truck with a stake bed. These people were shoveling mulch into a line of wheelbarrows supplied by about 8-10 runners. They scooped into the wheelbarrows constantly, and the runners dumped the mulch around the beds, then returned for more mulch. It was a constant process. Once the bed had mulch piles everywhere, they all grabbed a rake and spread the mulch. 

This person was fascinated by this. They said, “Can you imagine how much commercial work we could get done if we did mulching like this?!?” I replied, “Wait…you mean we’re not doing it this way?” I was stunned. This was the only way I knew how to mulch on a job site!

Here’s the point: you have to train your people to execute exactly how you want things done. You can’t assume anything is common sense to people. Train them on where to park in the parking lot. (Seriously. I worked in a place that asked people to back in so they didn’t accidentally hit a truck returning to the yard at the end of the day.) Train people on how to tie down a tarp, how to trim shrubs (and when!), and how thick to spread mulch. 

From a safety perspective, this will help your insurance claims. But from a people perspective, this will demystify your expectations for your team. When they know what to expect, they’ll rise to the occasion. 

And – this is critical – document these processes. Do it in a way and place that are accessible to everyone. Written directions are better than nothing, but videos for procedures that have to be done correctly (hooking up a trailer, for example) are even better. 

Lose Annual Reviews

Mental Health America is the country’s oldest institution dedicated to mental health and well-being in the US. They’ve been advocating for reforms around mental health treatment and reducing the stigma associated with it since 1909. 

Every year they conduct a survey called “Mind the Workplace.” In the most recent survey, here are some things they discovered:

  • In 2020, less than half of employees (47%) agreed that “My supervisor checks in on me regularly.” 
  • At the same time, 83% reported feeling “emotionally drained” from work. Of that 83%, nearly 7 in 10 said that “stress from work was impacting their mental health” (71%). 
  • To clarify the math, that means that 59% of ALL respondents reported being “emotionally drained” and “stress from work was impacting their mental health” at the same time

When you don’t communicate regularly and frequently with your team, that’s stressful. It’s also a bit unfair to talk to team members about “goals” for each year only once, never reference them again, and then hammer them if and when they miss them. And let’s be honest – you don’t remember the goals you laid out for them either until about two hours before you walk into their review. 

A better option is quarterly goals and reviews. Set smaller goals that align with your company’s goals, and discuss them throughout the quarter. Show your team where they stand relative to that goal on a weekly or biweekly basis. They’ll be more motivated to hit goals they know they can achieve, and there are no surprises (for you or them) if you have to give a bad review. 

Ask for Feeback. Don’t Take it Personally.

Your team has opinions on how you’re doing as a leader. You should find out what they’re thinking. This is a tricky situation. To be effective and improve your culture, you have to get this feedback. But it’s so, so easy for egos to get bruised here. 

Get bruised. Don’t take feedback personally. Well, if they tell you that your face is stupid and your dog is ugly, okay, take that personally. 

If they tell you, “I have no idea what you expect from me,” you need to listen. Humbly. Maybe you’ll hear, “I’ve asked for this piece of equipment three times but not gotten it. That means a lot more manual labor, and that’s why my crew’s jobs are always over on man-hours,” Then you’ve got a concrete plan of action on how to fix the situation – either buy the equipment or put additional man-hours on these jobs. 

Listening to feedback doesn’t mean you have to “give in” to everything they say. It isn’t about the power structure within your company. It is about hearing what your team needs to get the job done, the job that you have set for them. And if that means you need to make some changes, you should be humble enough to be willing to do it. 

Systematize this feedback. When I’ve supervised teams, I scheduled time on my calendar for these one-on-one meetings to happen. If I didn’t, I knew I’d forget to do them. 

Make sure you’re asking for this feedback somewhere off-site, not at a job site in front of their coworkers, and not at the office where other people might overhear. Your team needs to have the freedom to speak candidly about your leadership. I often took my direct reports to lunch. 

Ask questions like “How am I doing as a boss?” and “Where can I improve?” Take notes. Listen more than you speak. Ask questions to clarify what they mean to ensure honest communication is happening. Take this time to review the department’s goals and reinforce their critical role. 

I once did this with a direct report, and he looked over the whole “dashboard” for the company. He saw that our sales numbers were low in our Maintenance division. He pointed at the figures on paper and asked, “Okay, how can I help impact that number? That’s what we need, right?” Your people will surprise you if you give them the respect of initiating these conversations. 

Lastly – make room for these conversations at every level of the organization. Paid, on-the-clock time for it. These conversations are critical to creating a healthy culture and helping your leaders learn how to become the people who take your company to the next level. 

People First

When you put your people first, they’ll know it and respond. Here are a few ways you can start to show trust with your team practically:

People Over Results

When your people know they’re a priority, you’ll build devotion. You need to look no further than this LinkedIn post from Emily Salvas to see the loyalty that treating people well makes. She closes this post talking about how she’s looking forward “to a career” with her company, all because of the way she was treated. 

Prioritize the health and well-being of your team. Whether it’s physical, mental, or emotional health, put them first. The work will be there when they get back. Give them the time and space they need to “get right” so they can bring 100% to your workplace.

Let Go of Tasks Your Team Can Do

When you give trust to your team, you’ll earn their trust in return. We all know this, but it’s hard for many managers and owners to “let go” and enable their team to run with something. However, you must do this if your company is going to grow. You only have a certain amount of capacity. Let your team show up and own some aspects of the business. Letting go of control is easier to do if you’ve communicated appropriately about your expectations and trained them well. 

When you’ve shown your team a) what you want to be done and b) how you want it done, let them do it. If your team comes back to you in those one-on-one conversations and asks for additional resources, support, or time, give it to them. Watch your employees flourish when they’re empowered with your trust and confidence. This is the trust you need to provide them to help your company scale. 

Ways Companies Break Trust

There are ways you can break trust with your team. Avoid these common pitfalls.

Not Listening

When you ask for feedback, you should act on reasonable feedback. If you can’t (time or budget constraints, for example), explain why you can’t to your direct report, and try to identify a timeline. 

If you ignore their reasonable requests outright with no explanation of “Here’s why we can’t do this right now,” you’re setting yourself up for churn. People will start to feel that these sessions are just lip service, and that’s almost worse than failing to ask in the first place.

Failure To Follow-Up

When your conversations require you to go find an answer (for example, giving them a solid timeline for when to expect a request to be answered), make sure to circle back and provide the solution. If you don’t, you’ll break trust.

I worked for a business owner who was truly exceptional at this. He’d come back with answers to questions I’d forgotten I had asked. He’d hit me in the hallway with, “Jay, I didn’t forget about that deadline. I haven’t had a chance to look at it yet, but I’ll have it to you by Friday.” Be that person. 

Not Asking Follow-Up Questions

When having one-on-one conversations, ask your direct reports questions about their responses. Do not assume you knew what they meant. Ask questions to clarify and make sure you both understand the feedback. 

This practice does two things for you. First, it signals to the person you’re talking with that you’re listening and that you want to understand. Secondly, it gives you greater clarity on their intentions and how you can help them. Some people are brilliant but poor communicators. Get clarity by asking additional questions about their statements.

I have a family member like this; she’s very smart but doesn’t communicate well on the first go-round. If I leave it there, I’m likely to misinterpret her intentions and become frustrated. If I stop and ask a few clarifying questions, I am often delighted with the conversation’s direction.

Make sure actual communication is happening by asking questions. This ensures you both understand what’s being said AND what’s being received.

Tolerating Toxic People

It doesn’t matter how much they “produce” for the company (in Sales or actual work produced in the field). If you have someone whose behavior is antithetical to your company’s Core Values, you must terminate them. Perhaps especially if they’re a top producer, as this will send a message to your team that your values, the mission they’re energized about, is more important than any single person. This is one of the fastest ways to break trust with your team, and you should avoid it at all costs. 

Don’t believe me? I’ve been in many work environments and watched people leave. These are people I had a great working relationship with, many of whom I stay in contact with to this day. I’ve lost track of the number of times I had someone tell me, “I blasted such-and-such a person during my Exit Interview. They’re such a big part of the reason I left.”

I promise, your people notice when you prioritize the “big producers” at the expense of your values. Know this: they will leave because of it.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)

This is something you should be doing – giving back as a company. And critically, you should be talking about it. Corporate social responsibility or CSR is this: the business gives back to the community and talks about it. CSR isn’t meant as a “humblebrag.” It’s letting others in the community know that you’re a good neighbor because you’re invested in where you are working. 

There are dozens of examples of this from all industries. Subaru donates cash to a charity of the buyer’s choice with each purchase. Toms’ shoe brand presents a pair of shoes to someone in need for every pair purchased. Online eyeglass retailer Warby Parker does the same – donates pair-for-pair. Hanes has donated millions of pairs of socks to homeless shelters. Newman’s Own brand salad dressings donate all the profits to charity. 

I have seen this at a local level, too. I am a runner (not a very fast runner, but I run nonetheless). When I was looking for a pair of running shoes, I found a store about an hour and a half from my house, and I chose to go there. (It was near an Ikea my wife wanted to visit, so I figured “two birds with one stone” and all.) This store donates a portion of all sales (not profits, sales) to local charities. 

I get pushback on this from owners all the time. There are good, valid reasons for it, too. They don’t want to appear boastful, or they have religious objections. I agree with all of those.

I will tell you to talk about your charitable efforts anyway, and I also have some excellent reasons for this.

Keeps Your Team “On Mission”

Part of what is attractive about working for your company is the Core Values you hold. (If you don’t know how to do that, check out this article from Inc. Magazine.) These values tell people – clients, current employees, potential new hires – what are the values for which your company stands? What is it exactly is your stance on social issues? The environment? Being a good neighbor? Your Core Values will guide your company’s answers to these questions. 

Now, when you talk about the initiatives you’re working on in your local community (giving back to the high school marching band, working in a homeless shelter, donating time and materials to a Habitat for Humanity project, etc.), you energize your team! So many of them want to give back and are excited to be a part of a company that actively does these things. Talking about it at company meetings and on social media gives people a sense of pride about where they work, and it keeps people rowing in the same direction. 

It Helps With Sales

For the record, this also really, really helps with sales. According to Forbes, “A study by Cone Communications found, for example, that nine out of 10 Millennials would switch brands to support a particular cause and 87 percent would purchase a product with a social or environmental benefit.” That’s a major incentive alone.

It Helps With Recruiting AND Retention

Besides the fact that community involvement is the right thing to do, you boost recruiting and retention by having a strong CSR program. People want to feel good about their work. They want to have a sense of pride in the place where they get their paycheck. So give them that opportunity to feel good about themselves and be proud of where they work. 

A good CSR program helps attract top talent from your labor pool. It also allows you to retain your existing workforce. One study found that companies with a strong CSR program reduced employee turnover by 50%.

Do you want to spend less time recruiting and get better candidates in the door? Stop being afraid of being viewed as arrogant and start talking about how you’re invested in your community. 

Recognition

We won’t linger for very long on this particular topic, but let me say this: if you don’t recognize the contributions your team is making every day, someone will. And that someone may be your competitor. 

You must recognize top performers. You must identify the good things your lower-performing team members do, so you encourage the behaviors you want them to repeat. Training your C-suite, board, managers, supervisors, and crew leaders to do this is essential. 

Everyone on your team needs to feel that their contributions are significant and that they are personally valued. If not, as I said, someone else will. And you’ll be stuck in a vicious circle of losing top talent and scrambling to replace them. 

These don’t even need to be grand gestures. I had a boss (in the Green Industry, no less) who sent out THOUSANDS of hand-written “Thank you” notes every year. He was a master at gratitude, making people feel valued and recognizing their contributions. It got to the point where my wife and I joked that I had received another “love note” from him each time we opened the mail and saw the tell-tale white envelope with his cursive script on it. 

On the other hand, I worked for a company where the board had to give the owner an ultimatum: spend more time talking to the workforce and telling them you appreciate what they’re doing. The situation had gotten so bad that turnover was an issue in hard-to-replace positions, and they had to make this one of his goals. Like, they physically documented this on paper. 

It could be bonuses, recognizing them publicly for embodying the Core Values at a company meeting, t-shirts that have something related corny like “I’m a top performer at Jim’s Landscaping” on them, or extra paid time off. It really Whatever you choose to do, you must do it consistently and often. 

Conclusion

A healthy culture must be carefully cultivated and diligently monitored. It requires a TON of humility from the top down and a ton of grace for yourself and others as you learn to be better. But the fruit of that labor will be increased retention and less aggravation when you’re recruiting – I promise.

Go back to Recruit & Retain – Part 2: Give Them Purpose.

Read the next installment in Recruit & Retain – Part 4: Employees Have Lives.

Download the FREE Recruiting & Retention GuideAll six blogs condensed to help keep your staffing efforts on track this year!