ACCA - The global body for professional accountants

Corporate culture – ‘the way we do things around here’ – gives each organisation its unique identity. Iwona Tokc-Wilde explains why both employers and employees must find the right ‘fit’

fit-in


Company culture the shared values, beliefs and behaviours of everyone involved in the business tends to be shaped by the senior leaders' vision and behaviour, by the industry, the business environment and the national culture. All companies want to have a culture where their employees are engaged, committed and loyal, and one way of doing this is to provide an environment where people actually want to be at work.

Take Google, for example. Its employees (they call themselves Googlers) get free food and haircuts, on-site gyms, ping-pong tables and rooms full of Lego to get their creative juices going. But people want to work at places like Google for reasons besides these perks. Googlers also have a say on issues ranging from how the company is run to the design of their company-provided bicycles.

Of course, not all companies can provide what Google does. Also, while this type of company culture suits creative industries, it probably would not work in financial services. Professional services firms tend to put greater emphasis on shared values and practices that involve the way that these firms vow to serve clients, treat colleagues and uphold professional standards.


‘Good place to work’

Regardless of the industry, however, most companies aim to create a ‘good place to work’ or a culture where employees are treated well, where they are free to use their judgment and discretion to improve business outcomes, and where ethical business behaviour is promoted and valued. Such organisations are also committed to developing and incentivising their people, says Nicholas Kirk, senior managing director at Page Personnel Finance. ‘For ACCA students, in particular, a "good place to work" is a supportive environment where you are provided with the resources and knowledge needed to complete your studies,’ he adds.

Because people are their greatest asset, a culture of support is characteristic of many accountancy firms.

‘Our firm is very open to secondments and transfers to other departments to enable you to gain a broad range of knowledge and push your career forward,’ says Rhys Linnel, associate at Grant Thornton UK LLP. At Grant Thornton, the line managers’ doors are always open too.

‘They can be seen as facilitators helping you drive your progress, while also ensuring that you have a good work/life balance, which is something the firm prides itself on,’ says Linnel.


The right fit

When searching or applying for a new job, salary, bonuses and fringe benefits are only seemingly the most important factors. Many of us pursue a job opportunity or accept an offer with only a hazy view of how the organisation operates and without giving a second’s thought to if or how we would ‘fit in’. In reality, it is this cultural employee-employer ‘fit’ that can make all the difference between job and career success and failure.

But how can you tell whether a particular company culture would suit you?

‘You must understand what is important to you in a job and in an organisation (but reassess this every now and then as life has a habit of changing our values!) and whether the organisation’s values are a reasonable fit with your own,’ says Cathy Brown, spokesperson for Engage for Success, a movement committed to building a better way to work.

Also, consider what kind of business environment you would like to work in, as well as your personality and working style.

‘Strictly "corporate" cultures are formal, with clear processes, structure and hierarchy, and so they suit people who like structure and rules, and who want a clear and well-defined career path,’ says John McLachlan, accountant and career coach at Monkey Puzzle Training.

‘An "entrepreneurial" culture, on the other hand, with its risk-taking, "can-do, let's try it out" attitude, tends to attract more free-thinking, creative people. In a "small business" culture, the lines of responsibility and hierarchy are less rigidly drawn working in this environment can be very rewarding, although it’s likely not to have the same energy as an entrepreneurial culture or the career progression as a corporate culture,’ says McLachlan.

Nicholas Kirk recommends that you browse the company’s website for ‘cultural’ clues.

‘Many companies have pages dedicated to what it's like to be a part of their team, or what their values are,’ he says. Also search the web for current and past news about the company, and don’t forget LinkedIn.

‘You can perform an advanced people search on employees in the company you are targeting and inspect their profiles for further clues,’ says Kirk. In the case of longstanding employees, their LinkedIn profiles should tell you a story of their career progression within the organisation. Does what you see match what the company says about their values if they professes that people are their greatest asset? For example, did the company invest in these people by providing them with professional training and by promoting them?

Another good source of free inside information is Glassdoor.com, where current and past employees and job seekers post anonymously salary details, company reviews and even interview questions.

‘At the job interview itself, ask how decisions are made, whether they emphasise working in teams, if they organise team building and social events and what the dress code is,’ advises Kirk.

However, bear in mind that, just as you are checking out the company’s culture, the interviewers are checking out if you would fit in.

‘The people who tend to "fit" with Grant Thornton have lives outside of the office, which enrich the work they do within the firm: they could be leading a sports team or playing the guitar in a band, or perhaps they helped built a school in Africa during a gap year,’ says Linnel. ‘These people are likely to be confident in dealing with clients, comfortable contributing in a team and driven to forge a career.’


Navigating culture

Even so, it is fair to say that no-one will know for sure if you are the right fit until you have started working at the company. Use the first few weeks to learn the rules.

‘Learn what you need to do and how you need to do it to be accepted and appreciated,’ recommends McLachlan. ‘Also, identify and make use of a mentor (you need a sounding board), watch the politics and watch out for the politicians.’

Unfortunately, sometimes your expectations and the real culture as you find it will not match. ‘The "apparent democracy" culture is one where a lot of surface effort is made around employee engagement, staff forums and consultations, yet this is no more than window dressing because decisions have already been made and the "right route" already chosen and the whole process is just to get people’s buy-in,’ says McLachlan. In some ways, this could be a now outmoded ‘blind obedience’ culture and management style in disguise, where the boss says jump and everyone else asks ‘how high’.

‘Bullying and harassment are another two outmoded management models, although many of today’s leaders gained their leadership experience in the "bad old days" and may therefore default to these behaviours, especially when under pressure,’ says Cathy Brown. ‘A culture that allows this can lead to you feeling stressed, defensive, unappreciated and disengaged. Don’t be afraid to move on if the culture and you are not a fit.’

Last updated: 4 Jan 2014