Advertising company culture

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I wrote recently about Twitter advertising that job applicants should like to drink beer. I still think this advert was poorly judged, but after some reflection I wonder if I reacted too hastily. One of the reasons that Twitter’s advert stood out to me was that few job adverts bother to say anything about the company culture. It seems to me like maybe Twitter is on to something here.

Culture varies a lot between companies, and getting the right cultural fit between employee and employer is a big part of making the relationship a successful and long-lasting one. So why do we so often leave culture until the last stage of the interview, usually in the “so, do you have any questions for us?” phase? Why are we content that organisational culture is so often judged by simple stereotypes: “They are a start-up! They can’t be bureaucratic!”

I suspect one reason is that the people writing the job descriptions and running the interviews lack the skill to effectively communicate about non-technical aspects of the job. Sure, we all know words like “dynamic” and “entrepreneurial”, but these are hackneyed to the point of being useless, like the proverbial “good team player” that every applicant describes themselves as. Another sticking point might be the difficulty of communicating about the culture on behalf of the whole company. I can describe the technical aspects of a role pretty objectively, but in describing the subjective aspects there’s a much higher chance that I’ll say the wrong thing and get myself in trouble.

Another issue, and I suspect a significant one, is that any statement about culture necessarily dissuades some people. This is simple information theory: if a description doesn’t put some people off, then it isn’t conveying any information. Descriptions that appeal to everyone will (unless they are simply and objectively disprovable) be slapped on every job advert. Although companies are usually interested in finding people who are a good fit, in markets where qualified employees are in short supply (as in software at the moment), there’s a great deal of resistance to cutting down the field of prospective candidates in any way.

A better way to go about this might be to identify some qualities for comparison that are deliberately divisive. These would form axes where neither extreme was right or wrong. If we can come up with some kind of de facto standardisation of this, then companies need not lose out by being honest—indeed over the longer term they would lose out more by pretending to be something they aren’t. Eventually, it might reach the point where companies look like they have something to hide if they don’t publish these details.

In Cultures and Organisations: Software for the Mind, Geert Hofstede identifies a number of statistically significant variations between organisation cultures, which I’ll loosely summarise:

  • Process-oriented vs. results-oriented: In a process-oriented culture people follow their job description, while in a results-oriented culture they do what’s necessary for the end result. If this sounds like the former is obviously “wrong”, consider safety-critical work where performing to a consistent standard is more desirable than performing better with occasional lapses.
  • Employee-oriented vs. job-oriented: In an employee-oriented culture the company takes more interest in an employee’s life outside work, including any personal problems that may affect their work. On the negative side, some people find this overbearing.
  • Parochial vs. professional: In the former model, employees identify more strongly with the organisation they are a part of, while in the latter case their strongest identity is with their type of job.
  • Open systems vs. closed systems: Open companies are very open to outsiders joining the company, and new people quickly feel “at home”. Closed companies are less open to outsiders, but once people become accepted by the team they can enjoy stronger and more stable relationships.
  • Loose control vs. tight control: Looser companies have fewer rules (explicit and implicit) about standard of dress, behaviour etc., and tend to have less punctual meetings and more irreverent talk about the company.
  • Pragmatic vs. normative: Pragmatic cultures respond to the needs of the market, while normative cultures tend to follow rules or structures that are viewed as unchangeable.

In my experience, software companies tend to cluster at the same general places on each of these axes, so perhaps these aren’t the ideal ways of judging. Even so, there’s some room for information to be conveyed: just because I like an organisation that’s pragmatic and results-oriented doesn’t mean that I want an organisation that’s jammed right up against the far extremes on these axes. Choosing between a company that’s 60% pragmatic versus one that is 75% pragmatic may feel like small potatoes, but the consequences of employment decisions play out over many years, so I think we can afford to be picky.

1 thought on “Advertising company culture

  1. Jack V

    Hm, I thought both points were good. The cultural variations you described do seem very apt, and I’d not thought of it in those terms, but I would expect to find a company that mathces my expectations (although, as you say, I’d expect most software companies to be similar).

    I guess it’s partly, how big a pool of candidates you’re drawing from. If it’s extremely restricted, then you probably need to hire whoever is best, even if you need to hire someone else to run around acting as interpreter. If it’s broad enough that you have some wiggle room, it’s probably worth looking for the proportion of acceptably good candidates who will fit in and not leave in disgust in six months.

    But I think you were right last week too, that “likes beer”, while (in a useful way) a code for a certain sort of culture, it’s also (in an illegally and immorally discriminatory sort of way) code for “young boys club only”.


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