Culture is a vital and unique part of every organization. It’s what makes people decide to join a team and is the biggest reason employees choose to stay or leave. It’s the key to gaining (and maintaining) a true competitive edge—one that makes work a place people want to be.
But company culture can be very difficult to define. Unlike pay, perks, and promotions, culture is a rather elusive quality that stands in a class all its own.
Although culture can’t be copied, it helps to learn by example. With our ultimate guide, you have two options to do just that:
Option 1: Grab a cup of coffee and settle in. We recommend setting aside at least an hour to read the entire guide.
Option 2: Bookmark this page so you can come back and read it a chapter at a time. Plan on devoting about half an hour each day until you’ve worked your way through the every chapter.
Whichever option you choose, don’t skip around. It’s important to put company culture examples into context so that you can lay a strong foundation within your own organization.
Chapter 1: What Makes a Company’s Culture Great?
Before we dive into detailed examples, it’s important to know what makes for an outstanding culture—the kind that results in lasting, bottom-line benefits like creativity, innovation, and productivity.
While the subject of organizational culture is largely open to interpretation, strong company cultures tend to share several common attributes:
#1. Autonomy: Successful organizations understand that one of the greatest drivers of productivity is pride of ownership in one’s work. Their employees are empowered to innovate and work autonomously, without micro-managing or hand-holding.
#2. Performance: High-performing companies place a high value on output (the quality of work produced) rather than input (the number of hours logged). Achievements are regularly celebrated in the presence of peers, who are also encouraged to recognize one another for reaching important milestones.
#3. Passion: Employees who are part of a strong culture tend to be united by a common path to purpose—not profits. When the goals of each individual align with the objectives of the organization, true transformation happens.
But while these characteristics are consistently present, the shapes they take are rarely uniform. Author and employee engagement expert William E. Schneider defines four core categories of company culture—control, competence, cultivation, and collaboration—that can prevail based on the inherent strengths of an organization and its employees. One Emplify employee described it this way:
“I fit best in collaborative and cultivative cultures, but terribly in control and competence cultures. Two jobs ago, I was in a competence culture and I experienced it as a daily brawl, with everyone conflicting with each other. But some of my colleagues who are still there did well in that kind of environment. Some people thrive in environments where other people don’t.”
Bottom line: There’s no magic formula to take your company’s culture from good to great. The culture that works well for one organization might not be what works for another, and an employee who struggles with one style of corporate culture may fit really well elsewhere.
Not done learning about what makes a company’s culture great? Check out these additional resources:
What Is Organizational Culture? And Why Should We Care? | HBR
What Is Culture? | SHRM
What Is Company Culture, and How Do You Change It? | Forbes
The Reengineering Alternative: A Plan for Making Your Current Culture Work | William E. Schneider
Company Policies Should Align with Culture | Emplify
Chapter 2: How Employee Engagement Impacts Company Culture
Science has consistently shown that the secret to high performance is not money—it’s intrinsic motivation.
And the key to unlocking intrinsic motivation lies in engagement.
(More on this in our guide to Developing a Strong Company Culture.)
Employee engagement is your barometer of current culture. A strong company culture will be evidenced by highly engaged employees, while a negative culture can drive employees to disengagement. An unmanaged or poorly defined culture can lead them to disengagement.
But while culture and engagement go hand-in-hand, surveys show that 22% of organizations either have poor programs to measure and improve engagement or no program at all.
Once you start to focus on creating a culture of engagement, great things can happen. A large and growing body of research shows that organizations focused on creating cultures defined by meaningful work, deep employee engagement, and organizational fit are both outperforming peers and experiencing dramatic bottom-line benefits.
To see what I mean, check out these links:
Proof That Positive Work Cultures Are More Productive | HBR
Employee Engagement and Culture | Deloitte
The Power of Employee Engagement | SHRM
Organizational Culture | Wikipedia
But you may be wondering:
What, exactly, is employee engagement? (Hint: it’s not the same thing as “job satisfaction.”) These Emplify resources provide expert insights:
What Is Employee Engagement? | Emplify
Job Satisfaction and Employee Engagement: Understanding the Difference | Emplify
Chapter 3: Company Culture Examples to Emulate
When you look at companies known for innovation, you will rarely see individual superstars emerge within teams. Why? Because these are cultures where everyone matters. Each individual employee has a voice; all teams are united around a common vision.
While the culture that works for one company might not work for another, you can learn a lot from the companies that are “getting it right.” The following links provide great insights into actionable steps that corporations like Zappos and Southwest Airlines have taken to create fantastic cultures:
10 Examples of Companies With Fantastic Cultures | Entrepreneur
Tony Hsieh, Zappos, and the Art of Great Company Culture | Kissmetrics
Southwest Airlines Puts Employees First | Business Insider
Company Policies Should Align with Culture (examples from Patagonia and Netflix) | Emplify
For deeper insights, check out these outstanding examples:
What You Can Learn from Southwest Airlines’ Culture | The Washington Post
Netflix Has No Rules Because They Hire Great People | Forbes
Is Facebook One of the Best U.S. Companies? | USA Today
What it’s REALLY Like to Work at Bain | Business Insider
The Happiness Culture: Zappos Isn’t a Company – It’s a Mission | Fast Company
Patagonia: A Company that Profits as it Pampers Workers | The Washington Post
Southwest Airlines: A Case Study in Employee Engagement | Entreprenuer
Inside Google’s Culture of Success and Employee Happiness | Kissmetrics
But what about organizations you haven’t heard of? It’s not just the Patagonias and “Netflixes” of the work world that are worth emulating.
In fact, organizations that fly under the radar—often because they’re so focused on building truly fantastic cultures and avoiding vanity metrics—can be some of your best sources of inspiration.
Here are three lesser known—but no less ingenious—influential examples:
1. At ExactTarget, a unique “Orange” culture became such a competitive advantage that it was recognized in ExactTarget’s S1 filing—the first time culture has been cited as a differentiator in any IPO filing.
2. Employee ownership and employee voice are the building blocks of an exceptional culture at Steel Encounters, where a strong sense of purpose has been demonstrated through engagement surveys.
3. With so many culture conversations revolving around companies like Google, it’s important to remember the example set by Semco Partners. In direct contrast to many common practices in today’s workplaces, Semco employees aren’t bound to organizational charts, five-year plans or a values statement. Instead, subordinates hire and review their supervisors. And if an employee reaches a weekly goal of selling 57 widgets by Wednesday, he’s encouraged to “go to the beach and start again on Monday.”
You can learn more about these company culture examples at the following links:
To Create a Happy, Family-Like Business Culture, Go “Orange” | Fast Company
An Inspiring Example of Employee Ownership (Interview with Steel Encounters) | Emplify
Agile Engagement: How to Drive Lasting Results by Cultivating a Flexible, Responsive, and Collaborative Culture | Santiago Jaramillo and Todd Richardson
Chapter 4: Company Culture Examples to Avoid
Once, a particularly poor manager made headlines when he pulled employees into the conference room for a morale-boosting session—and then proceeded to tell an HR staff member that she “brings nothing” to the table.
It only sounds like a scene from “The Office.” This true story was one of many recounted to The Washington Post for a feature on dysfunctional workplace cultures.
Examples of excellent company cultures abound, and so do terrible ones.
Just as it’s helpful to review models of exceptional company cultures, you should also familiarize yourself with what not to do. Here are two resources that will send shivers down your spine—but in a constructive way:
10 Worst Companies To Work For 2016 | Huffington Post
Think Amazon’s Bad? Here are 6 Companies with Worse Culture | TheStreet
For our ultimate guide, we also asked the culture and engagement experts at Emplify for some real-life examples of what not to do. Here’s what several of them had to say:
“Government is a notoriously bad ‘beige wasteland’ where leadership is scared to spend money on culture initiatives. The result is a lot of busy work, slow processes, and incentives like college loan repayments that lead to unengaged employees who are just there for a payout.”
“My previous company actually told recruiters to aim for very ‘middle of the road talent’ because if they hired anyone better or with more drive, they would leave the company too soon.”
“Sometimes, in an effort to be known as a fun place to work, companies can go overboard when it comes to perks and socializing. I’ve seen leadership put so much emphasis on ‘play’ that they become unaware of the need to investigate or measure true engagement.”
Having a poor culture is a situation you want to avoid at all costs. You can hire talented people, but without strong leadership even your most motivated employees will never reach their full potentials or drive the company forward.
Chapter 5: How to Know if Your Culture Is Suffering
This is arguably the most mission-critical chapter of this guide. After all, you can’t improve what you don’t know needs correcting.
The following resources will get you started with some warning signs to watch for:
5 Signs Your Corporate Culture is Doomed | Entrepreneur
Why Your Workplace Culture Sucks And How To Fix It | Fast Company
10 Signs That a Company Has a Serious Culture Problem | Forbes
After reading these, you’ll still be at the tip of an iceberg.
As great as the advice in these articles is, it’s still based largely on instinct and observation.
If you really want to know where things stand with your company’s current culture, you’ll need quantifiable insights. Without data, you’re just trusting your gut—which increases the risk that your attempts to develop a culture of engagement will fail.
To see what I mean, take a moment to read these:
To Engage Employees, Quit Relying On Your Gut | Emplify
How to Use Employee Feedback to Build a Truly Positive Workplace Culture | Emplify
Employee feedback is the key to identifying which company culture examples are the best models for your organization. Gathering clear insights from employees themselves will empower you to recreate or improve your culture with confidence.
Which type of culture is prevailing at your organization? Is it working well for your employees? Or are there certain aspects that are doing more harm than good? You won’t know until you ask!
If you’re eager to transform your organization into a future example of excellent company culture, it’s time to download our free guide for additional insights you can begin acting on today: Developing a Strong Company Culture.
If you have any questions along the way, get in touch!
What other recommendations do you have? What are your favorite examples of exceptional company culture? Tell us on Twitter or LinkedIn!