Company Culture and the 401k Consultant

One method to observe company culture is to look at the decorations in employee spaces. A space full of family photos and community awards might indicate a company driven to act as a leader in its industry and could signal a willingness to be more innovative in its approach to benefits.

What makes one company the friendliest to work for and another the best place to work for Millenials? Elements of company culture might be measurable by the analysts at Fortune and JD Power for your use in finding a great job, but company culture can also be studied for other reasons. Understanding company culture can be helpful in learning how to shape information for leaders of your clients. For example, imagine the Department of Labor made a new rulemaking on protecting private financial information of your client’s employees. That rulemaking might require leadership decisions on changing databases, or employee roles in Human Resources, or even just a shift in priorities in upgrading a retirement dashboard. Understanding company culture can help you shape how you interact with your clients to get the best results for both you and your client. 

So what is company culture? The best ones are those that have a unity or shared set of beliefs that underlie or support the strategic plans of the company. Organizations that emphasize company culture have employees that feel like they understand management’s expectations, especially on safety or accident prevention.  In a strong organization, company culture is reinforced through training and onboarding materials created by HR. 

Strong company cultures can enhance trust and foster efficient decision-making.  It also usually reduces role confusion, where employees feel that they must take on management’s roles or where they feel they can “go rogue” from their job descriptions and do other tasks not assigned to them.  Because culture may influence how employees behave, it can be an important factor in employee benefit administration issues, whether those issues are problems that arise from a difference between expectations and reality or concerns about priorities in rolling out benefits.

How is company culture created? The most efficient method is through management and leadership’s actions. Additional methods include defining organizational ethics, and ensuring that all employees acknowledge those ethics and core values. That acknowledgement might come through receipt of a company handbook or through updated ethics training, where appropriate.  Culture is also shaped and reinforced through situations that require a response from management on ethics or core values.  Role definition, separate from job function descriptions, also help shape ethics by indicating channels of communication and priorities.

What elements of company culture should you take note of and how? Note the general perception of how the company views people. Are they inherently good and to be supported? Or are they wayward and should be constrained? This will help you understand how management will respond to employees and customers.  Also look to how the company sees itself as a player in its community. Is it important that the company lead as well as profit? This may indicate that the company will be more likely to try innovating for diversity or work harder to make enrolling all employees in a 401k plan. Do leaders value passion and positivity? Are employees encouraged to be creative problem solvers? In one small business, a customer was referred to as “our mascot,” indicating that the owner of the company valued customer input on design as well as customer loyalty. Employees learned that patience with customers and service to the elderly customers was valued highly through that nickname. Another method to observe company culture is to look at the decorations in employee spaces. A space full of family photos and community awards might indicate a company driven to act as a leader in its industry and could signal a willingness to be more innovative in its approach to benefits. It might also indicate that people are prized over tasks and productivity.

But more than the qualitative elements of culture, the quantitative elements can be measured as well. Examining how a company sets its goals and then measures those goals can show an outsider what the company is seeking to reinforce as its culture.  Key elements to watch include what achievements and results are lauded – who gets awards at the company Christmas party? Are their plaques noting special achievements? Is there a company newsletter and does it highlight wins? Even more so, what wins are celebrated?  Look for rewards based on more than specific profit benchmarks, including client retention, customer satisfaction or innovation. Take note too whether the company celebrates collaboration across teams or large projects that require cross-divisional work. This is an indication that teamwork and cooperation are highly-prized.  The descriptions of these awards can also note how competitive a company might be.

Importantly for financial advisors and benefits consultants, understanding the degree of hierarchy can be essential to prevent ruffled feathers in working with a leadership change or new project.  Note whether the company has a well-defined organizational structure and a requirement that individuals will communicate through specific channels or whether job descriptions are more loose and authority is more minimal.  You might also take note of how the offices in the organization are arranged, and especially, if the company is planning to move from one arrangement (offices with defined cubical spaces) to another (an open floor plan). That may indicate cultural change.

Noting how hierarchical a company is may also assist in predicting how long a program will take to roll out. More formal, and more hierarchical, companies tend to move more slowly. However, some companies have a greater sense of urgency in decision-making, and will push decisions through faster.

Noting whether a company values quality over efficiency will be key in looking to how a new benefits program could be rolled out. One company might need every aspect of a new database to be fleshed-out and quality checked before going live, where another will want the most efficient method, with bugs in the system to be worked out while the system is live.

Other areas to examine when sleuthing out company culture: examine the company’s mission, vision and goals statements and look to whether the company is operating in alignment with these statements or where it strays. Noting where the company strays can tell you where you may need to focus in shaping your approach as a consultant.

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