Culture could be the root of many HR, engagement, retention and other ills

Brian Sommer Profile picture for user brianssommer August 29, 2017
All the analytics and engagement software in the world won’t make any difference if a company has a bad culture that’s reinforced by clueless executives. An analyst meeting at OC Tanner provides needed insights.

OC Tanner CMO David Sturt
OC Tanner CMO David Sturt

Quick trivia question: Who is the oldest HR technology company around?

Answer: By my reckoning, the correct answer is OC Tanner – they were founded in 1927.  That’s 90 years for those with deficient STEM skills.

OC who?

OC Tanner has been in the rewards/recognition business for all this time. If you ever wondered where companies get those interesting miniature oil derricks, banks, etc. for some long-tenured executive, they probably came from OC Tanner. Years ago, I even bought some of this material:


Some of the flair/recognition the authored has picked up over the years

That was then. Today, OC Tanner has moved into a more digital world. All manner of electronic recognition and reward programs, content, catalogs, etc. now exist to drive continued engagement within the workforce and to recognize great work effort. These solutions are branded as “Culture-Building Tools” and contain:

  • Products
    • Recognition
    • Career Anniversaries
    • Well-Being
    • Event Awards
    • Incentives
  • Services
    • Consulting
    • Communications
    • Awards Strategy
    • Measurement
    • Training/Speaking
  • Awards
    • Custom
    • Brand Name
    • Gift Cards
    • E-Cards

Some HR/HC suite providers treat rewards and recognition as an afterthought or bolt-on capability. They think that providing an electronic atta-boy/girl solution to their product line ‘solves’ the morale, culture or engagement issue within customers’ firms. Others think that adding a social/collaboration function to the HCM suite will allow colleagues and bosses to add laudatory comments to a worker’s social comment stream – comments that could be made part of a worker’s performance reviews. Still, these efforts, while well-intentioned, might often miss the mark.

People want to work for a company that has a culture of recognizing great work effort, great workers, and, actions that help grow the company. How companies do this is not necessarily a core competency of some firms nor is it a requirement for many people to master prior to getting promoted to a managerial capacity. This is the real recognition and reward challenge: getting a company to alter its culture and management practices to reward people who exhibit the behaviors that drive corporate success.

Some companies I’ve worked for/with, have a culture that is described as “constructive confrontation”. These are tough places to work at and reinforcement for being a great employee is simply continued employment. Praise and rewards are not part of the culture. Doing a great job (all the time) is an expectation of everyone. There are other dysfunctional cultures out there, too. I’ve seen cultures that let everyone slide, if they want to. Accountability is not part of their DNA. But regardless of the kind of culture, people that do great things aren’t getting recognized for doing so.

In today’s business climate, people have choices. If people have to wait a year to find out if their boss liked something they did ten months ago, they’ll seek a new employer. Feedback doesn’t have to be instantaneous but it does need to happen sometime close to when the good work occurred.

OC Tanner gets this. One of their messages to the analysts was simply this: “Does your company culture enable or inhibit performance?” That’s a great question and one that more executives (not just HR) should ponder.  Why executives? Because cultural change is not the responsibility of HR alone and it can’t be fixed by a mandate, technology or HR. It needs the support of all executives and management.

Those words are easy to write but listening to some of OC Tanner’s customers points out how hard this can be. For example, how is it that different facilities within the same firm can have different cultures, widely different engagement scores, etc.? Measuring engagement doesn’t change anything. Management must change – they must be trained to deliver frequent performance feedback and they must recognize large and small contributions as they occur.

A mistake many companies make is to promote a do-er into a management position without training them for this very different role. Just because someone is a great Accounts Payable Clerk doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be a great Accounts Payable Supervisor. These roles have two completely different skills needs.

The most important thing managers need to know is this: Your job is to find ways to keep your best and brightest people YEARS longer than they would otherwise stay with your firm. And guess what, you have to do this without offering them outrageous salaries. No, great managers create an environment where people want to work. Great managers recognize the efforts of others (not just their own). Great managers and great cultures go hand in hand.

If you have a great culture, you’ll likely have great engagement scores, too.

Talent magnets

To OC Tanner, a great culture is a pre-requisite for creating a talent magnet for the company. The components of a great culture require:

  • Purpose – Forget the boring, generic, one-size-fits-all mission statement, does your firm have a real vision for where it’s going and does it offer its people a reason for existence (i.e., raison d être).
  • Opportunity – Can people grow professionally within your organization or do you treat them like interchangeable cogs with no future? Do you train them and help them achieve new opportunities?
  • Success – Is the firm winning in the marketplace? It’s hard to have engaged people if the company is circling the drain.
  • Appreciation – Are employees appreciated and valued? Is the appreciation tangible, genuine and timely?
  • Well Being – Are the physical, social and emotional requirements of employees being met?
  • Leadership – Are company leaders creating an environment where employees trust them? Do executives mentor their employees?

Creating a great culture can drive a couple of benefits for the firm.  Employees are more engaged and possibly more productive. Engaged employees become champions of the company and its brand. These champions can often help in the attraction of additional great employees. Higher engagement usually triggers increased retention which lowers overall recruiting and training costs. You get the drift.

Becoming a talent magnet won’t happen just by installing some technology or adding an analytic app to one’s HR software suite. It takes smart people and help beyond that found in the typical HR department.


OC Tanner offers more than products.  Their captive services group may have been the star of the analyst event.

Why a services group? As OC Tanner transitioned from selling ‘things’ to a delivering a different corporate culture for its clients, it acquired a team of consultants that assess, design and train organizations. They devise culture ‘brands’, design training, and, rollout and measure the progress of these initiatives.

Hearing OC Tanner customers talk about these journeys reinforced the story-line we got from the OC Tanner service leaders.  The magnitude of the customer culture changes we heard was often significant. These changes couldn’t be accomplished without help – expert help.

The service teams work with customers to jointly create a new vision for the company, develop a new brand for the culture change initiative, architect the performance/rewards structure, etc. Rolling out these initiatives takes time and requires interaction with all workers – a task bigger than most HR executives can drive alone. Some customers also pointed out that their HR team is already swamped, and needed additional help if it was to succeed in creating a new axis for enhanced corporate performance.

My take

People often leave bad bosses not bad companies. Bad bosses create toxic cultures, trigger low engagement and drive up attrition. It was nice hearing the Tanner team address that engagement issues are not just the purview of HR – it’s an executive challenge. While OC Tanner’s solutions don’t directly address what to do with a bad boss, they do at least identify bad cultures as a major causal factor in poor engagement and corporate performance.

This was one of the few events I’ve attended this year that lacked an Alexa-like demo and, amazingly, never mentioned artificial intelligence or machine learning. I thought I was going through some kind of techno-speak withdrawal.  But Tanner’s solutions are more about driving a new kind of business environment than loading up a customer with a bunch of technology..

OC Tanner has some refining to do re: its ideal customer profile (ICP). While they can point to the demographics of their ICP (i.e., mid-to-large sized firms), the psychographics of an ideal customer were not discussed with us. This needs some refining.

Finally, I did wonder what role OC Tanner will have as more and more workers find themselves working for bots and not other human beings. We are already seeing people who are dispatched/given work assignments by bots and never interact with other human beings. Who provides recognition to workers in this world?

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