I’m in the middle, well probably the beginning, of a long-term organization project. I’ve accumulated a lot of stuff over the years, particularly since moving into a larger apartment seven years ago. If I want to live a more mobile life, I need to downsize somewhat. In this process, I came across a plaque I received from my former corporate job, including a note from the company’s CEO thanking me for five years of service.
(I never made it to ten; I quit that job to focus on my own business full-time.)
Do plaques and service awards help employees feel wanted and needed within a large company? Or is competitive compensation enough to keep workers satisfied? You can have one without the other — does recognition matter if you’re underpaid, or if you are meeting your income goals, do you need non-monetary tokens of appreciation? Do any of these things show that a company cares about you?
Does a company have the capability to care? And for that matter, does a company have the capability to do anything? I guess that all depends on what it means to be a “company.” Here in the United States, the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that a corporation is lawfully a person, and in this way, protects people who act in groups from being denied rights afforded to people who act alone. A company does not feel, think, or act, but the people who comprise that company do. A company or corporation is nothing more than a group of people feeling, thinking, or acting mostly together.
You can look at a state the same way. A state is a conglomeration of the towns, cities, and other arrangements of people who live within the borders of that state. You can give attributes to that state as a shorthand for the people who live within. For example, New Jersey is a “blue state,” meaning the citizens within tend to vote in favor of the Democratic Party in national politics. But New Jersey is not a person and has no vote in itself. It’s ephemeral, an idea, a non-entity. It’s an arbitrary construct.
And it’s the same with a company. A corporation doesn’t often pay taxes. Its owners or shareholders have that burden. Bank accounts can be titled with the name of a corporation, corporations can own things, but only on paper. Everything traces back to an individual or a group of individuals.
When you say that you feel that your corporate employer cares about you, what you’re really saying is that the management enacts policies that meet the emotional needs of the employees or promotes a culture of empathy among its employees. When the opposite is true, when you feel neglected or ignored by your employer, you may feel like the corporation doesn’t care or is a bad place to work.
Executive management often finds itself between a rock and a hard place. Executives answer to shareholders or owners. They are the people who stand to benefit from the company’s performance, and are thus interested in maximizing profit and reducing expenses. Executives feel that pressure, while still having to deal with what can be a company’s biggest expense on paper, its employees. It’s those executives, not the shareholders, who set the tone for company culture, though.
This is illustrated in small groups best. It’s no surprise to readers that I’ve been involved in marching bands in high school and college, and studied music education, and have worked with a variety of musical groups. The group culture, the tone for behavior and performance, is set at once by the people in charge. In this example, the band director treats everyone a certain way, including other staff members down to the newest freshman. Other staff members pick up this culture of behavior and mimic it, and the members mimic the staff members.
This is how a corporate culture is transmitted. So even though the shareholders have the largest stake in the culture of a company, it’s the day-to-day management that transmits a model for attitudes and generates a company’s culture. Where culture is transmitted well, and that culture is seen as favorable by employees, those employees are ready to believe their company is a great place to work. Where there is no well-defined culture or a culture that isn’t respectful of employees, they take to online forums to denigrate their employer publicly (and presumably anonymously).
Most business owners I know have smaller businesses. They are not managing century-old corporations like the one where I worked previously. Most understand how to transmit a positive culture among people who work for them. But something happens, usually, as those organizations grow. More people are brought into management, more people to lead others. And it’s at that point that a positive culture can break or be diluted. When a successful start-up expands, and the founder realizes he or she doesn’t have the skills to manage a quickly-growing company, the owners often decide to bring in a more experienced executive, someone with the experience of taking small companies to the next level.
But if there isn’t a good cultural match between the founder and the new CEO, the fabric of the company can break.
And as that company grows, more employees come on board with different expectations. A start-up business with fewer than ten people at the core of operations can create a culture that calls for excellence at all times, no need for work/life balance, and personal dedication to the mission. But as the company grows with more employees, different expectations arise, like vacation time, health insurance benefits, and competitive compensation. This can be a gradual transition, or it can be quick, but it can be difficult for management to navigate this while maintaining the same corporate culture.
People want different things from their employer to demonstrate they and their work are appreciated. And as a company grows, it’s harder to keep track of what each employee needs. Thus, I can understand when a large corporation can’t quite figure out how to keep all its people happy. There are some pretty simple, but not always easy, solutions to this problem, but the bigger problem is that for most corporations, paying attention to culture isn’t as urgent as paying attention to the bottom line. Especially for publicly-traded companies, whose management has been trained to care more about their quarterly results than just about anything else, particularly anything long-term.
Keep in mind a “company” doesn’t care, but it’s the executives, those who manage and lead the business, who set the cultural tone. That’s who you need to communicate with if you want to improve the way you are treated as an employee. Of course, it starts with you. You can’t control anyone else, but you can, to a certain extent, control how you react to your situation.
It’s common for leaders, if they aren’t very good, to be unaware of how their employees feel, so resolving a toxic culture starts with communication with those who have the ability to make cultural changes. While a shift can come from bottom of the corporate ladder, it will find resistance along the way. Change must come from the top downward, because people are inclined to take on the attributes of those they would like to most resemble.
What would it take for you to feel appreciated by your company or by your corporate executives? Have you ever felt that corporate appreciate was just a show? Something for making a good impression on the outside while missing substance?
I’m probably going to throw out that plaque. Working for more than five years for that corporation means nothing to me except the one or two friends I’ve continued to have since working there, some experience gained working well in a corporate environment, and my opportunity to earn a master’s degree on someone else’s dime. Some of the top executives knew who I was, but I’m sure I’ve made no lasting difference in their lives. If I had run into the CEO in the office’s elevator, I’m sure he wouldn’t recognize me or know who I was, even I had received that plaque the same day. But at the same time, the company offered decent but declining benefits, a competitive salary, and well, a job when I needed one.
Updated January 17, 2018 and originally published July 24, 2014.