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Culture Club - Redefining and Communicating an Organization’s Culture After a Major Change

Posted by Jesse Nunes  April 6, 2009 08:41 AM

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By Elaine Varelas

These tumultuous economic times have caused severe upheaval in many organizations. Some companies are closing their doors, others are laying off huge numbers of people, and many are merging with others just to survive. This type of disruption can stun a company and its employees. An organization is forever altered after a major change, and employees may be left wondering: What happened? Who are we now? Is my job safe? Do I even want to work for this “new” organization?

It can be torturous to be one of the “walking wounded,” those who survived the firing squad—at least this time around. Yes, they are the lucky ones who still receive a paycheck, but their workload may be doubled (or tripled), many of their friends and colleagues are gone, and they could even have a new boss or department. Adding to their anxiety is that they may be working for a different leadership team and may no longer have a clear understanding of what the company does, stands for, or is trying to accomplish.

One way HR managers can help an organization and its employees to recover more quickly from a recession-induced set-back is to focus on the organization’s culture. Oftentimes, company leaders are swift to re-set the direction of the organization. This can even happen as a result of the major change, if a company sheds a department or tightens its service offerings. As the business focus shifts, however, it is imperative that these changes be communicated to employees, and that the culture of the organization also be re-set to reflect the new workplace reality.

We know from experience that companies with strong cultures fare better in the business world. They enjoy a more cohesive workforce, and an employee base that shares similar goals and is working to fulfill an agreed-upon mission. After traumatic change, a company’s culture takes a hit. Worrying about the organization’s culture may seem like a luxury during a recession, when company leaders are just trying to stay in business—but those leaders who don’t focus on culture will find it difficult to survive.

When re-defining an organization’s culture, HR managers may want to take a few cues from more informal clubs. Whether it is a sporting organization, volunteer outfit, or book club, these groups are skilled at shoring up their memberships. Here are some ways HR managers can help their organization create a more effective culture:

Focus on (Re)recruitment - HR managers can re-recruit employees by getting them excited about the new direction of the organization. One way to do this is to solicit input from employees about how they want the company’s culture to look and feel. Ask employees, “What will it look like? What has changed? What will stay the same?” Employees will be more invested in the development and success of the organization because they are able to contribute on a grass-roots level. Most successful clubs regularly contact members to get their thoughts on what the club should offer, and how those offerings should be presented. Companies can benefit from taking a similar approach.

Engage Members (aka Employees) - People choose to join clubs because they share similar interests with other members. By involving employees from the start in defining the culture they will be more engaged. The ideas should come from the bottom up.

Foster a Strong Identity - Club members have a keen understanding of who they are and what they are trying to accomplish. When defining the culture, HR managers should look to hone the purpose, mission, and goals.

Communicate! - Once the culture’s identity is defined, it should be clear and articulated. Employees will be less apprehensive about the future of the organization, and better able to focus on their work, if they have a good understanding of the company’s new direction and purpose. The culture should be reinforced in all forms of communication - verbal, written, electronic, formal, and informal.

Follow the bylaws - Clubs often have a set of rules governing practices and behaviors - and members abide by those rules. Culture is not about a new logo, tote bags, and letterhead; it must infiltrate the organization. One way to do this is to lead by example. While the ideas for defining the culture should come from the bottom, leadership should lead the way in demonstrating the organization’s commitment to the cultural shift.

People are often excited to be a part of a club because they can work or play alongside others who share their interests, values, and goals. By involving employees in re-defining an organization’s culture, HR managers can help people to feel better connected to the place they choose to work. Creating a cohesive culture is better for business and can make an organization stronger and more competitive in any kind of economy.

Elaine Varelas is Managing Partner at Keystone Partners, a career management firm headquartered in Boston, and has over 20 years of career development and HR experience. She also serves on the board of directors for Career Partners International, the world's largest career management partnership. E-mail her at

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