Monthly Archives: November 2013

What’s Your Corporate Culture? 15 Questions that Reveal Who You Really Are

Successful start-ups like and overtly emphasize their corporate culture and are driving companies worldwide to examine who they are, too. 

So what exactly is a corporate culture?  It’s the way you conduct business.  It’s the way you treat employees.  It’s your work environment—everything from office space to coffee makers.  It all swims around your company’s values.  So you’ll need to know what those are first.  These 15 questions are engineered to assist you in rising from the dark waters of an old-timey workplace and lifting you toward becoming a fresh and dynamic culture-driven company. Answering them should give you a better grasp on who you are and what it’s really like to work at your company. 

What are your company’s origins?  What did the founders have in mind?  What were their reasons for starting the company, and what did they value? 

Though your company might have evolved since its beginnings, its original intent remains.  “Unspoken rules,” the strongest rules of all, are typically born from the company’s origins.  Even if your company’s been acquired by another, the remnants of its source linger.  The values—good and bad—persevere. 

What traditions and policies continue no matter who’s in charge? 

Traditions—illogical or not—are the ties that bind.  Consider what activities and practices carry on despite the change and upheaval around them. What policies have survived over time?   

What sorts of social events do you hold? 

Do you have grandiose company picnics, or do you typically meet for drinks every Friday?  Do you have sporty events?  Run marathons?  Do you enjoy football pools or group lottery picks?  Are charitable events important?  How your company injects fun and teamwork into the workplace is an important culture indicator. 

Who has longevity? 

Look around and determine who sticks it out.  Is it the company leaders?  Is it the middle managers?  Is it your front-line employees?  Who lasts the longest and why?  If someone has been with the company for a decade or more, analyze their characteristics to determine why they are a good fit.  Simply put, these people are the company and should reveal more about the culture than almost anything else. 

Who gets promoted?  Is it based on seniority or merit (a meritocracy)?

This is important to note.  If you value seniority, employees have a clear understanding of what they need to do to get ahead, as well as hope for the future.  There’s less favoritism or the perception of favoritism.  The other type of promotion is based on performance, or the company decides to hire from the outside.  In a successful meritocracy, innovation and profits flourish, and leaders already have skills in place. 

Which causes more involuntary separations?  Performance or behavior issues? 

This reveals the tolerance level for unprofessional behavior or whether employees are nervous about making mistakes or not making quotas.  On the other hand, multiple firings due to bad behavior might be an indication of poor leadership or muddy expectations.  And if people are primarily being fired for poor performance, the culture might be one of high expectations with a good reputation to maintain.   

Who is more successful—employees with high IQs or EQs?

You might value intellect, or you might value those who can work easily with all sorts of people.  Look at who’s been promoted and held up as a paradigm for excellence.  Also, who do people sincerely admire?   

Are projects completed by groups or committees?  Or do people work independently?  And if you do both, which is more successful? 

You’re basically asking yourself how work gets down.  Some companies structure themselves with “one-man bands.”  Others hire specialists with the aim of creating teams of varying experts.   Sometimes, the company fails to understand the independent nature of its employees and forces them to collaborate and work on committees even though they work better alone.  And occasionally the employee who’d rather collaborate and brainstorm is forced to work alone.  Consider what your company does and who it really is by asking yourself what the fastest method of completing projects is in your company. 

What are your meetings like? 

Are meetings long and punctuated with food, personal stories, and relationship building, or are they short with clear agendas? 

How would you describe your real estate?

Do you have cubicles, or an open plan?  Do you have individual offices?  Do you have cozy break rooms where employees gather, or do people leave the building to eat or relax?  Is your space modern?  If not, what era is it from?  How is it decorated?  What is the first impression someone has when walking into the work space? Do you have pictures hanging up of employees? Professional art?  Inspirational posters about common workplace values?  Do you have a smoking area?  Do you have vending machines or bowls of fruit? Coffee machines or tea kettles?  Soda or mineral water?      

During exit interviews, what do people say was the most enjoyable thing about working at your company? What do they say was the worst?

Exit interviews can be dated if the data isn’t used to forward a company’s culture, but they’re an excellent tool in figuring out who you really are. 

How is information communicated to employees?

Do you have town hall meetings?  Or do you use email, memos, social media, or newsletters?  Do employees find things out primarily through gossip? 

How are decisions made?

Are they made after gathering data and feedback from employees?  Is it committee based?  Or are they made by only one or two people? 

What do employees wear, and what’s considered an acceptable image? 

Uniforms aside, how do people present themselves? Do they dress comfortably?  Or do they “dress to impress”?  Is image linked to your hierarchy?  For example, are the leaders in suits and ties? Are people groomed to appear neutral, or is it acceptable to have tattoos and stylish clothing? Or, do your employees appear dated, wearing hair and make-up from another decade?

What qualities must new hires possess to really fit in? 

You’ve heard employees speak about new hires, about how so and so “just doesn’t fit in.”  They’ve identified a cultural misfit, and cultural misfits generally lack key qualities your company values.  What are these qualities?  Answering this question will uncover one of the most important components of your corporate culture. 

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Crucial Conversations: Recommending Change

If you’ve an idea for change, you’ll first need buy-in from decision makers or stockholders.  For a conversation like this, research, groundwork, and preparation are elemental in your strategy.

  1. First identify why you want to make this change.  Use sound business reasons like profit, efficiency, modernization, or workforce needs.
  2. Plot the benefits, costs, process, and communication to those the change will affect.
  3. Forecast obstacles.  Play the devil’s advocate with yourself and request feedback from an analytical neutral party.
  4. Commit to following through.  If you request a change and fail to implement it once approved, you’ll have difficulty getting approval in the future.
  5. Schedule a meeting to present your idea.  Avoid springing it on the decision makers in a meeting about something else.
  6. Start by explaining the reasons a change needs to be made.  And then launch into your idea layering the details with the benefits, costs, process, and communication.
  7. At this stage, the decision maker will ask questions regarding the viability.  You should be able to answer these with information you gathered in step three.

If you follow the instructions above and don’t get approval, you have at the very least presented yourself as a forward-thinking professional and will be relied on to spearhead change in the future. crucial conversations

Crucial Conversations: Involuntary Separations

Donald Trump makes it look easy.  He blurts out “You’re fired,” and the person slinks out of the room.  But as some of you know, telling someone they no longer have a job is never easy, nor should it be.  After all, this isn’t reality television.  This is real life.  And losing one’s job is a life-changing event.  Still, as a leader, you’ll need to master this conversation.

So here are some of the most important things to remember when tasked with letting someone go.  Note that simply saying “you’re fired” and banging your fist on the desk isn’t on the list.

  1. Make sure you have concrete reasons for termination and documentation to back up these reasons.  Even if you are an at-will employer, giving a reason for separation is always the best way forward to avoid grievances and to make this conversation easier for the employee and for you.
  2. When the employee arrives to your office for the separation meeting, avoid starting the conversation with “How are you?”  The employee typically knows he or she is about to be fired, so you’re setting yourself up for a negative result by asking questions like this.
  3. Have a separation process in place.  Hopefully, your HR Department has this handled.  It generally involves a separation letter stating the reason, COBRA information, 401K information, a final paycheck, and Unemployment Benefits information.  Your local EDD can give you free booklets.
  4. As soon as the employee is settled into his or her seat, let the employee know the reason you called the meeting.  Be kind, sincere, and above all clear:  “John, unfortunately, we’re meeting today because we / I have to separate you from our company.”
  5. Once that’s out of the way, hand the information you prepared to the employee, and state the reason:  “I’m separating you because we have issued you five written warnings about your attendance, and you called off again from work last Friday.  You violated our attendance policy, and to maintain the integrity of that policy, I must separate you.”   Now, you don’t have to use the word “separate.”  You can use whatever euphemism you prefer or no euphemism at all.  Notice how I am saying I or We.  I am not using passive voice.  If I said, “You are being separated from the company,” it implies no one is taking responsibility for making the decision.  And this causes the employee to believe it’s not his or her fault and that the termination might be unjust—which could then lead to costly grievances.
  6. At this stage in the conversation, the employee might attempt to argue the reason for separation.  Allow the employee to speak, and do not contradict or defend.  Simply reiterate the reason for separation as many times as necessary and that you wish the employee the best.  It’s important to remember you are separating the employee and no longer need to coach them toward success.  At this point, detailing their failures in order to win an argument is futile.
  7. Finally, explain to the employee the logistics of what happens next, how they’ll get COBRA information, how they can access their 401K, etc.  Explain to them that Unemployment Benefits are entirely up to the state in which they live and how the employer does not get to make a decision regarding these benefits.
  8. No matter the reason for termination, stay calm, professional, polite, and kind.  Ask the employee if he or she has additional questions regarding the logistics and wish them the best again.  Sometimes they want to shake hands—sometimes they don’t.  Let them take the lead on this gesture.
  9. Above all else, keep your conversation brief.  If the employee decides to file a grievance, it’s imperative you say nothing that could be used against the employer later.



The Downside of Being an Agent of Change

I keep reading cover letters from Agents of Change.  And I’m getting the impression that these change agents are everywhere.  Maybe they’re lurking in your garden and will replace your radishes with carrots in the middle of the night. Maybe they’ll swap out your car while you’re at lunch.  Maybe you’ll come home to a whole new family.  A shorter husband. Three kids instead of two. And cats instead of dogs.  Where’s my chair? You’ll ask politely.  Oh, that’s been replaced, too.  And that favorite coffee mug of yours? Well, don’t even ask.  You’re drinking tea now, sister. 

Managing change is tricky, and I appreciate the attention it’s getting.  Back in the day, someone just made a decision, slapped a memo on the door, and that was that.  Sometimes the change stuck.  Sometimes it didn’t.  Nowadays, we get buy in.  Plus, there’s loads of communication and follow through.  But sometimes it seems new leaders are sort of “change happy” and feel they’re not doing their jobs right if they don’t shake and bake the status quo.  I’m the first to fix broken and dated systems, but I know enough to leave well enough alone. 

What I mean is that I make changes that are important to running a business. I don’t make changes to methods and processes just because it’s a trend, or I want to put my own personal stamp on the company.  And if I do make changes, I strive to change one thing at a time, rather than upending the cart and spilling my employees everywhere. 

So, yes, continue honing your agent-of-change skills.  I applaud you.  But do ask yourself whether your changes are necessary, cost effective, or damaging to your esprit de corps.  And try not to change everything at once.  I really liked that chair.     


How to Avoid Bad Customer Service with Good Seasonal Employees

With Black Friday in a few days, you’ve likely already hired your seasonal workers.  If you haven’t, you’re in a panic and have simplified your job requirements down to one line about having a pulse.   Do you have a pulse?  Great.  Welcome aboard! 

My first bit of advice is obvious—hire sooner.  Start recruiting as early as September.  Early recruitment allows you to not only select the best people; it also gives you time to thoroughly train them. 

I’ve discovered that the following groups make the best and most committed seasonal workers.

  1. Parents whose spouses work full time.  Parents are always keen to make extra money near the holidays.  Plus, they are generally responsible.
  2. Newly retired people who enjoy the social aspect of work but have another income.
  3. College / University students.

The above groups suit temporary positions because a temporary position is all they’re interested in.  This is definitely true for students, as they will be heading back to class come January.  A mistake some hiring managers make is holding out the carrot of permanent employment to their seasonal workers.  If you are unable to permanently employ more than one or two workers, you’re holding out a cartoon carrot.  Teasing them with fictional realities will transform your seasonal employees into disgruntled, disengaged, and non-committed staff.  And it’s this group of workers who will be tasked to provide premium customer service to long lines of exhausted shoppers. 

Given that it’s perhaps the busiest time of year for your business, always remember that “seasonal worker” isn’t a synonym for “body.”  You need more than bodies.  You need fast, well-trained and friendly staff who can multi-task and diffuse situations.  They’ve got to have thick skin so as not to flinch when a customer goes berserk over not being able to find Christmas Barbie.  The solution is mandatory customer service training for all seasonal staff.  Because these workers are temporary, some companies don’t want to invest in their training.  By not investing, they will lose customers and revenue. 

Lastly, make sure to keep track of your best seasonal workers.  Keep their files, and call them next year.  To solidify the relationship, send them periodic cards, emails, or newsletters.  They may not work for you year round, but they will be committed to your company. 


How I Used my Transferable Skills to Change Careers

Friends who haven’t seen me for years probably wonder how I ended up in Human Resources.  And I do have a short version.  It goes like this—I was an adjunct professor traveling from campus to campus teaching theatre and writing and ended up accepting a corporate training position.  My current career in Human Resources progressed from there.

That’s the short version.  The long version is more complex and worth mulling over.  How I transferred all my skills into my current profession as a Human Resources Director might be helpful to those tentative to shift careers fearing they don’t have the experience.  My story is stranger than most, but somehow everything I did in my life led to now. 

Armed with a degree in English literature, I decided in my early twenties to become a poet.  I won several academic contests, published in important journals and magazines, and am the author of a full-length book of poems.  Incidentally, I still publish poems under my maiden name. 

Surprisingly, my skills as a poet and writer are transferable to my career now in Human Resources.  Being detail oriented is the first skill.  And, obviously, having studied English and being able to write helps me communicate effectively and promotes my reputation as a professional.  But the most important transferable skill poetry gave me was an understanding and insatiable curiosity about human nature. Poets exhaustively explore and attempt to understand what makes people tick.  Poetry also implanted a fixed need for concision and form—business skills some lack.    

At the end of my twenties, I became a schoolteacher.  I taught 5th grade, 2nd grade, high school English, American History, and Theatre.  I became chair of the English department and was tasked with hiring, supervising, and mentoring teachers while developing the K-12 English curriculum at a school for gifted children and earning WASC accreditation.  I also taught ESL at a summer international school, founded and operated a children’s theatre company, and continued publishing poetry and now plays.  What does any of this have to do with Human Resources?  The skills I developed through teaching students and involving their parents are directly transferable.  I had to get buy in. I had to have difficult conversations.  I expelled and suspended.  I accepted.  I determined who would get a scholarship.  I evaluated and found solutions.  I directly assisted many into acceptance to the best universities in the country.  One of my former students is currently a neurosurgeon with a medical degree from Johns Hopkins and a PhD from Harvard in neuroscience.  So, yes, I developed people—an HR skill that’s a must. 

During this time, I acquired business acumen from running my own business—I oversaw my budget and marketed productions.  I made a profit off an arts program—almost unheard of.  Also, my skills in recruiting began with my theatre company.  I had to cast eight productions a year and find the best actors for the right parts.    

I went on to attend graduate school, earning an MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts.  I wrote three novels, loads of poems, short stories, essays, and more plays.  I ended up as a lecturer of theatre at a University and spearheaded programs that used drama to initiate social change.  I started another theatre group that worked with disenfranchised youth, which lead to work within the community non-profit arts programs.  I also began to teach theatre and Shakespeare at other colleges and art schools and created multiple acting exercises and wrote scripts for students to perform.   I remember one summer program in which we walked all over the city interviewing and writing about the workers—barbers, pastry makers, lawyers, the city inspector, garbage men, plumbers, cooks, dishwashers, even the lady giving parking tickets.  This isn’t on my resume, but it was important to me.  I loved it. I love working.  I love the dynamic of work.  I love how people describe their work and wonder and care about their work environments. 

So what other skills are transferable from this part of my life?  Theatre is the study of human behavior in conflict.  I have that skill down pact.  But that’s a soft skill.  What hard skills did I learn?  I managed multiple worksites and led hundreds of people of all ages and ethnic groups.  I negotiated contracts and recruited talent.  I created and sold my own brand to get more work and sought and got buy in on projects that seemed odd but brought the community together.  I managed difficult students and coached people toward success.  I also learned to be profoundly resourceful. Meanwhile, I started writing middle-grade fiction and currently have an agent.  Getting up every single day at 4am so I can write before going into work is simply my self-discipline kicking in, a transferable skill I picked up in my thirties.   

So here I am now, a Human Resources Director who loves every aspect about Human Resources and works to learn more every minute of every day.  There’s another transferable skill I learned—never settle for mediocrity. 

I encourage you to look at your own transferable skills and apply them to what you think you can do or be.  Personally, I’m always interested in hiring someone who hasn’t been grown in a petri dish in his or her field.  We HR folks love fresh perspectives.  So go make a list of your transferable skills and find ways to highlight them on your resume or CV.  You are probably more valuable than you think.        



Managing Change Icebreaker

If you’re facilitating training on how to manage change, you’re likely addressing these three needs: 

  1. Change needs acceptance & buy in
  2. Change needs emotional intelligence to recognize and address resistance
  3. Change needs teamwork and organization

This activity allows for participants to experience and manage change in real time and infuses the room with energy.


  1. Once participants are settled and comfortable, the facilitator requests that everyone stand up and move themselves and their materials three chairs to the left. 
  2. Once this is done, the facilitator thanks the group and requests they stand again and organize their seating based on skillsets or a pre-decided category.  For example, you might divide by department or position.  You might use years of service with the company. 
  3. After they have resettled into new seats, the facilitator asks them to move again. This time, request that the person sitting next to them choose their seat. 
  4. Read the room and either allow participants to remain in these final seats or go back to their original seats. 

Now you’re ready to discuss the three “needs” above.  Use these questions to expand the discussion:    

  • How did they feel during the activity? 
  • What was it like to move from a comfortable seat? 
  • Did they mind?
  • Were they prepared?
  • Which move was the easiest? 


Space Odyssey Icebreaker

Consider your office is a space ship, and your team is operating the ship.  Which tasks would you take on and execute?  Tangible and intangible.  Listed below are the tasks.  Presume you have aeronautics knowledge and underline the five jobs for which you would be responsible.


  • Minute by minute flight procedure
  • Data analysis
  • Data collection & scientific observation
  • Writing reports based on data analysis, collection, & observation
  • Creating & implementing social events to keep team motivated / blocking “cabin fever”
  • Training team on processes
  • Boosting team morale & keeping attitudes positive
  • Mediating disputes
  • Reporting back to base on accomplishments
  • Food preparation
  • Cleaning
  • Convincing base the mission is valuable
  • Planning for future missions, building upon what is learned
  • Entertaining crew
  • Building additional pods
  • Checking pods for safety breaches
  • Making certain the pods conform to set standards
  • Noticing problems
  • Fixing problems
  • Report back to earth & public the positive details of mission
  • Creating & building relationships with fellow international crews


Say the ship’s suddenly in crisis mode, the panels peeling away, a black hole looming, that sort of thing. Out of the following, underline three tasks you would take on.


  • Diving into a dangerous life-threatening zone on the ship to fix the problem
  • Reporting back to base the details of the problem
  • Contacting & comforting family members, convincing them of positive outcomes
  • Writing detailed reports on possible outcomes, negative & positive, to determine best path forward
  • Suggesting possible solutions
  • Making decisions about which solution might be best
  • Comforting fellow team members
  • Keeping everyone on task
  • Keeping everyone calm
  • Curling up in a corner and copiously weeping
  • Writing out soppy goodbye letters to your family members



This is a good icebreaker that leads to an interesting discussion of what each of your employees brings to the table. Moreover, it can be a great method to notice gaps in your workforce. Perhaps you’re missing a person who can “convince everyone the mission’s valuable.”  Whatever the result, it’s an indirect and safe way to discuss performance.  Plus, it can bring a couple of laughs, as the most literal and honest in the room will certainly choose “curling up in a corner and copiously weeping.”

The Art of Crucial Conversations: Asking for a Raise

This can be one of the toughest conversations to have, especially if your company has tightened its belt in recent years.  Still, if you think you deserve more money, you need to ask.  It’s interesting how many employees would rather seek out a new job at a different company than ask for more money.   On the surface, this doesn’t make sense because you would think that enduring the interviewing process would be harder than simply asking for a raise.  The truth, though, is that many find interviewing easier.  If you don’t get the job, it’s not as personal as not getting a raise from someone who’s observed your performance.

But it’s not personal—at least it shouldn’t be.  And if you think you are not being compensated enough for the work you do, you need to have this crucial conversation.  Here’s how:

  1. Do your research.  Survey other businesses of a similar size with corresponding positions to uncover their salary structures
  2. Create a list of accomplishments from the past six months.  Have you saved the company money?  Have you made the company money?  Have you developed and implemented new systems?  Have you spearheaded and completed projects?  Ask yourself this simple question:  In what ways am I instrumental to the success of my company?
  3. Prepare your request with the above information and set up a meeting with the decision maker
  4. At the meeting, begin by saying in a professional voice that you’d like an increase and then detail everything from step 2.  Lastly, ask for a specific amount based on your salary surveys.  If you let them know you came up with the amount based on research and facts, you’re much more likely to get an increase.  The biggest mistake people make is asking for a raise and using need as a qualifier.  If you say you need a raise to afford the commute, pay your mortgage, or stay at the company, you are not giving the decision makers any sound business reasons to give you more money.  In fact, you’re probably making them feel bad and putting them in a negative state of mind, which is the opposite of what you want to achieve.

So if you deserve an increase, don’t be afraid to have this conversation.  If, for whatever reason, you don’t get the answer you want, at least you’ve made your boss aware of all you’ve accomplished.  Plus, you’ve shown your assertive and professional nature—all positives.  It’s likely that they might not be able to give you an increase now but will remember the conversation, and you’ll get your raise at a later date.



The Art of Crucial Conversations: Discussing Performance Issues with an Employee

As a leader, this is a competency you cannot forsake.   Performance management is crucial to your success.  Yet, often enough, leaders want to avoid performance issues, crossing their fingers and hoping the employee magically improves.  When this happens, productivity and profits dip, and the employee with the performance issues either causes others to quit or ends up without a job.

The biggest mistake leaders make when attempting to address performance issues is not having a conversation with the individual employee.  Instead, they try to address the issues with the group or with a reactive policy.  This only demoralizes employees who are performing well, and the offending employee will likely ignore it because typically poor performing employees don’t view themselves as problems.

So, the best thing you can do is have a conversation with the individual employee.  Here are 10 steps to take in order to make this crucial conversation count:

  1. Don’t put it off for too long, but make certain you are not in a state of anger or irritation.  If you have to wait a day or two to calm down, do so.  Having a conversation when you are heated and unprepared puts you at a disadvantage and results in a negative outcome
  2. Prepare specifics.  Analyze the employee’s work history and choose instances that support the performance issues at hand.  If possible, detail positive performance too.  Let them know the result of both good and bad performance and—if possible—use data
  3. Do not talk to the employee from a place of judgment.  Put yourself in their shoes, explaining that you, yourself, have made improvements throughout your career.  Explain how you continually work on improving your areas of weakness
  4. Inform the employee how unfair it would be to him or her if you ignored the performance issues
  5. Describe your expectations and standards
  6. Detail the employee’s positive aspects and accomplishments
  7. With accuracy and clarity, explain the performance deficiencies
  8. Show the employee a better way forward and be specific.  Prepare strategies for improvement and relay these to the employee
  9. Ask the employee for his or her own strategies for improvement
  10. Let the employee know that you sincerely expect and anticipate a positive outcome and set a date for follow up to your discussion