The ugly side of brand, culture, and flexibility in the workplace

The ugly side of brand, culture, and flexibility in the workplace
If this story weren’t true, perhaps it would be funny.

What follows is the story of a colleague’s employment experience that is worth sharing. If not only to assist candidates in the job market to see the signs of potentially dubious company cultures, but to ‘wake up’ those companies whose HR, culture and employment practices belong in another period of history altogether, and are doing damage to their brand, reputation, and long-term ability to compete for talented employees.

My colleague took a senior role in an industry in which she had deep experience. The recruitment process was straightforward enough with the recruiter, but she began questioning things when she met senior management of the company for whom she’d be working.

She’s interested in organisational culture and whilst she found the interview panel to be rather old fashioned, they talked the talk about innovation, reward and recognition, training and development, how they are working towards being an employer of choice, and had a stable team, so she progressed through the process and eventually secured the role.

Then the cultural oddities began

On day one she received the tools of trade including mobile phone, laptop, and iPad and told this was to enable her to work from home.

She received no induction, but when shown how to log into the servers and system, was told by IT to ensure she was in the office and logged in by 9am each day, as a daily logon report was sent to the Directors who questioned those who weren’t ‘putting in the hours’.

The cultural oddities continued when:
  • She caught up with HR at end of week one and was asked whether she was returning the following week because the last person in her role lasted only 2 days.
  • A high performing member of her team resigned, citing lack of flexibility and unwillingness over a protracted period of time by the business to accommodate her childcare and family commitments.
  • A member of her team with a child in day care needed to pick up a sick child at short notice. She had no babysitter so was asked work from home. My colleague was then berated by her manager for offering her team member the option from working from home, versus her filling in a carers leave form.
  • She went away for a weekend and missed a call from her manager and didn’t return the call until late on Sunday afternoon. Not only was she was berated for not answering the call; she was told that calls were always to be returned with 2 hours. When she explained her battery was flat, she was told it was unacceptable that her battery went flat.
  • Having spent an afternoon in hospital with her partner, she called her manager the following morning to say she wouldn’t be coming in as her partner was still a little shaky, but acknowledging a large project was due to release, could readily work from home. She was surprised to see an email from her manager to HR asking them to process a sick leave form for her. When she confronted him with her surprise at having a day’s sick leave taken when she was working, his response was that management were expected to work when they were sick, and that they still had to complete a leave form.
The straw that broke the camel’s back

In an executive team meeting where new company strategies were discussed and workshopped, the ‘people’ pillar stated an objective of providing a high performance culture achieved through, amongst other things, training and further education. When asking HR about her team training budget, she was told there wasn’t one. When she raised it with her manager, he responded by asking why the company should pay for an employee to learn? What would the employee give back to the company? Why should the company have to pay and that he expected staff would want this to happen in work time, so how would they ever work their hours!

Fine tuning your company culture radar

If she’s honest, it was an educated risk to join this company. Her interview was unorthodox with questions asked that raised her eyebrow (eg, Are you married? Are you intending to have children and if so, when?)

No company culture is perfect, but some are definitely more advanced than others. However she’s come to realise that cultural fit, above all else for her, is critical in her employment situation.

She asked questions during the interview process and probed colleagues and friends in the industry about the company’s reputation. While a few people had heard ‘stories’ about the business, none of what she heard was enough to make her believe the role and organisation wasn’t for her. As she shared with me, “sometimes you just don’t know until you get there”.

Thankfully she rapidly moved out of the business and is now engaged in a senior management role in a highly respected organisation.

Unfortunately, what was on paper failed to align with the reality of the employment experience. Her psychological contract with the company was severely compromised.

Most unfortunately for the business she left, it seems unlikely they’ll ever reach employer of choice status, they’ll spend $000’s maintaining their 25% staff churn, the disengaged staff will stay and the best and brightest will come and go, and their reputation as an employer won’t improve.

Unacceptable, unbelievable (or both)?

In today’s market where candidates are savvier and employer brands are scrutinised like never before, it’s astounding to think company cultures like the one I’ve shared exist.

It’s unacceptable that employees can be subject to such draconian management styles and unbelievable that the company described here thinks its OK.

You’ll find, however, that company culture comes from the very top of the organisation. So when researching your next potential employer, it can’t hurt to find out who’s at the top leading the organisation, see where they’ve been prior, and start to form a view of what the company culture might be like. And if you can, speak to employees in the organisation for an insiders view.

Use the info to form a view and then test it during interview. You’ll soon know whether you’re backing a thoroughbred or trying to race a donkey.

More reading:

Where did the human go in ‘human resources’
Cultural fit: How to match your skills and personality to a job

3 great questions to ask in a job interview
A guide to resignation etiquette


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Award-winning Australian recruitment agency, Firebrand Talent, ignites the careers of digital, marketing, creative, communications, advertising, & media talent. If you are looking for your next career move, check out the jobs we currently have on in Sydney & Melbourne.


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