Culture Versus Perk – One of These Things is Not Like the Other

CultureA few weeks ago I sat near an executive chatting on his mobile, clearly trying to sell a candidate on his company. The conversation – at least the half I could hear – turned to people. He used words like “talented and “collaborative” and talked about how he constantly challenged himself to find new ways to inspire his team. I was intrigued.

Then he lost me.

It was a simple sentence that did him in; “Yeah, our culture is great. We have free food, a game room, on-site haircuts and massages, and there’s beer. We just installed an IPad controlled keg.”

He started off correctly positioning the culture in regards to his team. But quickly went to the extrinsic rewards – perks. Perks, even cool ones, do not define a culture. Culture centers on a compelling vision and company values- the intrinsic rewards that make us get out of bed, even on the worst morning. It’s a shared accountability for delivering results. When combined with a killer business strategy, culture drives an organization’s performance and impacts the bottom line. A Ping-Pong ball table can’t do that.

I’m troubled by how start-up “culture” is portrayed in terms of free dry-cleaning and bringing your dog to work. An authentic culture helps people push beyond their perceived limits and perform exceptionally. It can foster an environment where your team feel and think like entrepreneurs, so they’re dedicated to the company in much deeper way.

Don’t get me wrong, perks are valuable for recruiting and ancillary support in retaining top talent, especially in the competitive labor market I see on both coasts.

Companies like EventBrite, TripAdvisor keep their refrigerator stocked with food and beer. edX provides free lunch. Imprivata has a house band. Ubersense treats its employees to regular sports outings and rounds of golf. Dig well below the surface of these perks and you’ll likely discover a management team that recognizes “to give is to get”. These perks make their employees lives easier, help them to stay focused and create a sense of community where thinking is elevated and teamwork is central to developing the next great product. That’s culture.

When there is a chance to tell your companies story can your employees articulate what your company culture is? As an executive, can you? I’ve worked with quite a few organizations that struggle with that. One person may describe it in one way while someone on another team may see it another way. It’s a problem when there is discrepancy with views. Culture is what brings people together- not beer or Ping-Pong.

While perks are beneficial, especially when competing with companies paying a higher salary, at the end of the day what’s most important is that your employee feels valued and you feel confident in your team’s ability to work hard and be successful. Culture can engage hearts and minds, and perks help to reinforce how much you value your team. I built a culture based on accountability. My people feel integral to our operations and our clients. And when a team member embraces and consistently demonstrates that value, the perk is an all-expense paid trip to an exotic location. Hello Cabo, St. Thomas, Grand Cayman, here we come Aruba.

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