Company Culture: Yes, Appearance Matters

Company Culture: Yes, Appearance Matters

I don’t know about you, but one of the first things I do when I arrive at a new business is take note of the atmosphere. I’ve found that, in just a small amount of time, I can learn quite a bit about the true culture of the organization with my five senses alone. Yes, the culture! Forget what’s printed on the company website or talked about in new employee orientation, I have found that there are subtle (and not so subtle) clues that can tell you everything you need to know about the fundamental value system of an organization — key information if you’re considering employment or doing business with them. I’ll give you three examples from my personal experience.

Example 1: Things Are Not Always As they Seem

My husband and I used to own and run a home care company for seniors. We were responsible for hiring companions to help our clients with shopping, cleaning, cooking, providing medication reminders, etc. so that they could maintain their independence and remain in their own home for as long as possible. When clients reached a point where they needed more hands on care, we would often work with their families to find an assisted living or nursing home to meet their needs. We proactively visited facilities so that we could establish working relationships with them and easily match clients to the best environment, so when we learned that a new assisted living facility opened nearby, we made an appointment to visit and tour.

What's behind curtain #1?

Tip #1: Pay close attention to what’s going on behind the scenes.

During our visit to one facility we were stunned by the accommodations. Not only was the facility on the water with a private dock and a boat for the residents to enjoy, but it was decked out with gorgeous furnishings, a movie theater, several restaurants, and more. The residents rooms were on par with the finest hotels and the activities and entertainment made me want to visit for a vacation! Alas, as we were rounding the corner, we noticed that the door to the employee lounge was open. When I looked inside, I was again stunned. Unlike the rest of the impeccably designed facility, this room was less than beautiful. In fact it was dark, dingy and included a fold-out card table and metal, fold-out chairs. A stark difference, indeed! All of the beauty of that facility immediately melted away.

If a company is willing to invest so much energy and money into making their facility beautiful and to attract high-end clients, then you’d think they would ensure their employees were incredibly happy and well taken care of, too. Especially in an assisted living or nursing home, where the work can be challenging and both physically and emotionally draining. The fact that the employee lounge seemed to be almost an afterthought, demonstrated their lack of commitment to their employees and turned me off from recommending them to my clients for good.

Example 2: Get Your Priorities Straight

Reserved Parking

Tip #2: Know who the key stakeholders are.

Not too long ago, I visited a hospital that had faced some pretty ugly circumstances that eventually led to a significant change in leadership and direction. Once in place, the new leadership had very publicly communicated the change in strategy and the establishment of a corporate culture that put the clients first. Knowing this, I was incredibly optimistic and looking forward to seeing just how apparent these changes were.

As I drove into the parking garage, my excitement quickly dissipated as I took note of the number of reserved parking spots. I don’t know about you, but at my local hospital the reserved spots (prime parking closest to the entrance) are for women in labor, blood donors, cancer patients coming in for their treatment and the volunteer of the month. But here, the reserved spots were reserved for board members.  Board members! A small group of individuals who maybe visit the hospital once a month to attend a board meeting. I was flabbergasted.

Before I even walked through the front door, I knew that all of the messaging and publicity of a commitment to change the culture was just talk. My impression was that the the talk was simply to impress the “stakeholders,” which were the board members and not the clients.

Example 3: What’s That Smell?

Overflowing Garbage Can

Tip #3: If they can’t take care of themselves, they won’t take care of you.

I was once asked to consult for a start-up that needed some technology advice and oversight. What they’d described to me over the phone was a pretty cool environment full of young go getter types trying to make it big.  Having worked primarily with large corporations, I was pretty excited about their product and was looking forward to seeing what they were all about.

During my first visit, I met their current CTO and was impressed immediately. Although he was pretty young, he was sharp and had established the foundation for a solid solution. Unfortunately for the start-up, he had been wooed away to Silicon Valley, hence the reason they were talking to me. As I spent time talking to him, I learned quite a bit about how they were leveraging things like Google Docs and DropBox to run their business  and about applications and programs of which I’d never even heard. But there was one thing that was really bothering me. There was a faint and not-so-pleasant stench in the air. Was that rotting food? A stale garbage can? And what was up with the stacks upon stacks of books and papers and boxes in one corner of the room? Beyond the garbage and clutter, the bathroom was also deplorable.

What I later learned was that this was a company that had once been on top of their market, but had slowly declined as competitors zoomed on by. As they tried to reinvent themselves as a start-up in a now over-crowded market, there was (to me) a sense that they’d given up. The clutter, filth and disarray presented an atmosphere of depression and, no matter how exciting the new idea, the stench of failure continued to linger in the air. Maybe I’m wrong, but I certainly don’t think I could be motivated to work in or with a company that didn’t care enough to take out the garbage.


Many organizations invest a considerable amount of time and thought into how to establish a positive and productive culture at work. From team building events to handing each employee laminated cards with the company’s vision statements, the approaches to instilling a corporate culture are endless. And while there are companies that extend this process to the work space through design and decor (think of the creative work space at Google or the mahogany furniture and rows of book cases at just about every law office ever created), there are many that just don’t get it. I’m not saying you have to hire Google’s interior decorator and I’m definitely not saying that there aren’t fabulous employees or teams at these organizations that are dedicated, passionate and fabulous.  It’s just been my experience that no matter how fabulous the team or intention is, if the company’s leadership doesn’t fully embrace the culture they promise (and even have laminated), then you’d be wise to think twice about working there or doing business with them.

So tell me, what does your environment say about your company culture?

Editor’s note: This post is the first in a series of articles discussing corporate culture from a variety of view points. I would appreciate your insights and experiences as I continue to explore this important topic.

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