I recently read an article on FastCompany.com entitled, “Why a Negative Work Culture Is Better Than No Culture at All.” Much of the article centered around Victor Ho, the CEO of FiveStars – a customer loyalty network for small businesses. Ho, who worked on Wall Street before cofounding the company with another former Wall Streeter, talked about bringing elements of the Wall Street culture to his new company, including long hours, six-day workweeks and high standards of output without much praise. He goes on to mention the growth of the company, the necessity of defining company values and the resulting success.
The article’s title alone was interesting enough to warrant clicking and reading, though my first question was, is there really such thing as no culture at all? According to the HR Insights Blog, workplace culture is defined as ‘the character and personality of your organization. It’s what makes your organization unique and is the sum of its values, traditions, beliefs, interactions, behaviors, and attitudes.’ Even if these elements aren’t defined, they still exist, though the lack of recognition and definition among employees and management would most likely result in poor performance and a lack of success. So the real question is – would you rather work for a company that is unsuccessful, or one with a culture that makes your life miserable?
Let’s examine the first option. What the article describes as ‘no culture at all’ is what I would define as a work culture driven by apathy and indifference, devoid of teamwork and collaboration and with no measurable goals, and thus no pride of achievement or accomplishment. By definition, the culture is not negative (otherwise it would fall into the other category); it’s simply not conducive to success. A company like this probably won’t be profitable for long, but perhaps its employees aren’t looking for longevity. Can an employee be considered ‘valuable’ if he or she doesn’t truly care about the company or its goals? What if the employee is only using the job as a stepping stone to gain experience before moving on to the next stage of their career? Can he or she still make a worthwhile contribution? If you can answer ‘yes’ to these questions, then this nonexistent work culture may actually be a better option than a truly negative one.
Now for the second option. In some industries, a negative work culture is the norm and may be considered the price for success. In the original article, Ho mentioned that his Wall Street background included a culture of ‘negative reinforcement’ where you ‘chastise someone when they mess up.’ Recently, the banking industry has come under fire following reports of extreme stress, long hours and unrealistic workloads and expectations. Why is the industry able to get away with providing such horrible working conditions? Because the demand for jobs far outweighs the need for employees, and for some reason it’s become an accepted practice. Why pay junior employees X when there are thousands of new grads willing to work for half that? Why allow them to work X hours when they are willing to work twice that? A work environment that severely affects the livelihoods of young interns or employees is certainly a negative culture. And no, this is not better than no culture at all.
The Lesser of Two Evils
Obviously a positive work culture is always favorable, but in determining if a negative work culture is better than no work culture, I believe it’s dependent upon whether you see it from an employer’s or employee’s perspective. For employers, a negative work culture is favorable. While it may not be in its employees’ best interest, the company may still be successful – in some cases, maybe more so than with a positive culture. Employees may hate working there, but if it’s in a field where turnover is typically high, this may be of little concern to the employer.
On the other hand, for employees, no work culture may be favorable. According to Jeanne Meister of Future Workplace, in a survey entitled “Multiple Generations @ Work,” 91 percent of Millennials expect to stay at a job for less than three years. With employee focus shifting from employer loyalty and tenure to gaining skills and experience, a lack of culture may be of little concern to younger workers who will use their acquired experience to navigate through a number of positions with a variety of benefits.