Ping Pong is NOT Culture

Emilie Grombacher

Sr. Director, Human Resources at Nagra Kudelski

Learning Objectives

Culture is the foundation of all business processes. Integrating a company's core values and purpose into its recruitment and onboarding processes is a way to expose prospects, candidates, and new hires to how they'll engage with colleagues and get work done. In this session, get practical tips on ways to embed culture into these processes and what to leave out because it's mere fluff.

Key Takeaways:

  • Move candidates from focusing on surface-level perks to meaningful ways they can have an impact

  • Create processes that help hiring managers to connect deeper with their new hires

  • Identify talent who align to the company's values and purpose and can be considered a culture add

"Think about the culture that you're trying to foster, and make sure that you're doing the things that it needs to do to help those employees thrive."

Emilie Grombacher

Sr. Director, Human Resources at Nagra Kudelski


Hi, and welcome. I’m Emilie Grombacher, Senior Director of HR with Nagra Kudelski Group. We’re a company dedicated to fiercely protecting data. Today, we’ll dig into how to understand your company’s culture, use it as the foundation for all of your HR processes and systems, and then find success by aligning talent to their purpose, so they can have a real impact.

Let’s start off with defining what is culture. It’s kind of like a personality. A person’s personality is made up of all the values, their beliefs, their underlying assumptions, their interests, their experiences, their upbringing, even their habits that they’ve created over time, and that turns into their behavior. The culture is the behavior of a group of people that arrive together to hopefully come up with a way to work together. These rules can be written or sometimes even unwritten. Some companies like to run a really tight ship and have that very traditional corporate approach, while others give employees a lot of flexibility. So if you understand your style and your approach, you can help find employees that fit in well with what you’re trying to accomplish. There’s a company for everyone, and everyone can really thrive in a company that aligns to them.

Think about the culture that you’re trying to foster, and make sure that you’re doing the things that it needs to do to help those those employees thrive. So you may want employees who prefer a very structured environment, maybe you can think of maybe a traditional law firm in that sense, or you may want to hire workers who are creative and comfortable being self directed, think of Zappos in that perspective.

Our values are traits like honesty, hard work, maybe a dedication to customer service or satisfaction, safety, even integrity. But those words are kind of boring, right? We’ve heard them over and over again. They’re on every company’s walls when you walk into their lobby. While they’re important, a lot of companies are starting to dig deeper into what that really means for them, and learn how to explain those things so that the values are truly alive in the way that they do their work.

Think about Zappos again. They don’t just say, “We want to have great customer service,” they say “We deliver wow through service.” Be very specific with your expectations because the way that you articulate your values communicates to your employees, how you want them to take that value to the next level. Business owners really need to decide what it is that’s most important to the business, and then communicate that with the employees in their own language so that it truly resonates.

Another example is Amazon. They use the term “customer obsession”, not just customer satisfaction, but obsession. They want to just show how important that is. If you’re an Amazon lover like I am, and you get everything through them, you’ll see that in the way that their employees are empowered to make business decisions so that they can be obsessive about their customer service. So it’s more than just talking points. It’s more than just talking about values, but the leaders will create policies, procedures, processes, ways of working that help employees to live those values, and ultimately, those senior leaders should lead by example.

So ultimately, think about culture this way. It’s the way that leaders communicate and interact with employees that sets the standard of how it is okay to communicate and interact with each other. It’s what they communicate, what they emphasize, what they celebrate, what they recognize, their expectations, the stories they tell, it’s how they make decisions and how they create policies. It’s also about the extent to which they trust their employees with living that value. So it all becomes beliefs, perceptions, reality in our employees minds.

Let’s also talk about what is in culture. Culture is not this ping pong table, culture is not words on a wall. Some businesses prefer an open space, and that means that they’re open to collaboration perhaps. We’ll talk more about that in a second. They prefer maybe a more traditional environment or cubicle environment. You can think about companies that have these bright contrasting colors all across their walls, and that maybe reflect a dynamic environment. Other companies might have a more traditional feel.

So this ping pong table, it can be an expression of the environment, and it can be a way that a company encourages collaboration, taking breaks. It may mean a relaxed attitude that the company wants to have. But think about those companies that do have a ping pong table and think about if it’s actually authentic or not. So trusting your employees to get work done and not monitoring them, and allowing them to play ping pong so that creativity can flow, the collaboration and the connection to their colleagues can flow. Great reason. But if it’s just because you’re putting a ping pong table in the middle of an office, it doesn’t mean that you’re a cool company, it doesn’t mean that you’re a cool place to work. The ping pong table should actually be a symbol for something larger.

Presumably, the same is true of dress code. Just because you allow your employees to wear jeans, why? Are you working with clients that also wear jeans so you want to match them? Is it because your employees are coders, and they’re sitting behind a desk all day, and you want them to be comfortable? Maybe it’s because you want employees to have walking meetings, and wellness is a really important value to your organization.

Every little thing that you do in your office, from the policies to the design of the office should be intentional. So are your practices reflective of your culture or is it fundatory? Mandatory is my word where it’s mandatory fun—those happy hours that you kind of just have to go to because they expect you there, or maybe it’s the baseball game that you have to go to, because that’s what everybody has done, and always will do. So think about those types of things—those fundatory things that you might be forcing your employees to do. Are they genuinely arriving at those types of events, because that’s reflective of your culture? If it’s genuine, if it’s a precise method of how you see your value showing up in your culture, then your culture is authentic.

Think about a study that was done by Deloitte. It was the core values and beliefs study. It shares that executives have an inflated sense of their workplace culture compared to the employees. The executives thought that their culture represented their values 19% of the time, where the employees only thought that 15% of the time the culture represented their values. While it doesn’t seem like it’s a big gap, it is meaningful according to the study. So when you think about your culture holding up, do you think that there’s alignment between your executives and your employees, where they also think that the culture is reflective of the values?

Perks can be a reflection of the mission and the values, but they aren’t always. Perks can help employees feel valued, but only if they’re intentional and authentic. So they have to be tied to what the organization represents, not just offered, because these other great places to work, whatever that means, whatever study that is, whoever paid to be on that list means.

Think about REI. REI is a great example. Their employees get to test this outdoor gear before it goes on to the market. That’s a huge perk because they’re outdoorsy people, and they like to hire campers and mountain climbers and bikers. The Boston Consulting Group is another great example of living their values. They often work long hours, but they tend to recruit people that really want to do that for whatever reason is important to them. But they have paid sabbaticals so that these really hard workers can also go super deep into their research into something that they’re really passionate about on the side, and they can relax and recharge in that super intense way as well.

So why don’t you ask your employees what they’re passionate about, and what they want to see as a reflection of your culture and the values? Also, of course, make sure that you’ve articulated those values before. Maybe they want community service, maybe they want training, maybe they want mentorship. It’s more than perks. It’s these meaningful things that they’re asking for. So pick the things that the company can sustain in good or bad times. If it is truly a part of your culture, you’ll offer it even when revenue is down.

I find a lot of companies that are offering these cool perks. They can be seen in the media, maybe other companies are doing it, especially those Places to Work companies. But when that trend turns out to be not so great, how does that make your company look? Are you going to stick by the reason that you offered that perk? Or is it going to just be another fad?

To take pet insurance and legal services—not bad things to offer—but a lot of companies do it because they think that it’s a cool thing to offer that the young employees are going to want that kind of stuff. Well, turns out that a lot of those perks that you’re offering, like pet insurance and legal services, are not offered at a discount. So, sure, maybe it’s a convenience that you want to offer to your employees, but perhaps it’s also a distraction.

For example, if you offer tuition reimbursement, and one of your values is learning, evolution, and innovation, that tuition reimbursement benefit should be highlighted and not be distracted by something that really isn’t very meaningful for your employees, I actually found that, in my experience, very few people take advantage of that pet insurance. Maybe it’s a cool way to attract a new worker, but if you could really highlight the tuition reimbursement instead, because it’s connected to your values, how meaningful and important is that?

What about this slumber pods that you hear about in the media? They actually encourage people to work longer hours. Does that align with your culture, maybe of work life balance? Maybe it aligns with your culture or maybe it doesn’t because you want people to be constantly consistent. Maybe you want them to be learning from those around them. So if you have high turnover, because people are burning out because they’re working too long hours, maybe it’s not aligned to your values after all.

Let’s continue to differentiate but also help our employees to differentiate, because we could talk at the length of how this is a great benefit and how it’s aligned to our values between HR professionals. Part of this is changing the perception for the employees because they see what’s in the media, and they think that that’s cool, but if you could really help them to see why we offer things and why we have policies and procedures and processes and everything like that, that it was really intentional, I think that they’re gonna come along with us.

Make it your mission to live more curiously. Question everything. Go deep. Understand why, and move from these trends that you see here, these fads to starting to offer things and make decisions with authenticity tied to your value. So instead of these things, what if we offer some of these things? Think about the impact of your decisions of your policies and of your practices. Understand that second, that third, that fourth level impact. Consider how changes or even staying the course will impact you in the short, the mid, and the long term. Then, come up with a plan to take action to be more purposeful, more authentic, and more deliberate.

Let’s dig deep into a specific process like recruiting and onboarding. As you consider your recruitment philosophy, ask yourself, do you want to hire the best? Of course, the answer is yes. But if you do, you need to be able to afford the best. You may not be able to afford the best, you may not be able to afford everyone with every skill that you need and every quality that you need at first. Think about all the startups that everybody’s wearing every hat. But strong players, while they may not necessarily have the skill, they’re willing to put in the work to be successful with your organization because they truly believe in the core purpose of the organization. They truly believe that what they’re doing with your organization is meaningful, is impactful that they’re going to change the world because they’re working on something so important. Maybe we’re looking for that character instead of all the skills. Maybe we’re able to get these people at a lower rate because they’re so passionate, but maybe not.

So if you can’t necessarily afford them at first, think about what you’re giving up. Maybe you hire fewer people as a strategy that are super connected to the purpose, and maybe have a little bit of that skill that you’re looking for. If you can’t do that, you have to commit to a different strategy. You can’t just wish and pretend. So that other strategy would to be hire lower wage workers. But maybe you need to commit them to their training their development. You won’t keep them forever, because you can’t pay them at the highest rate, but you can be known for training and development and promotion of getting the best workers in a specific role, so that those workers go on and they’re alumni of your organization.

You could also work with your recruitment team, person, or CEO, depending on the size of your organization to come up with the right messaging. The messaging is so important, because you’re trying to convey to your recruits that they’re going to be working on something very important, that they’re going to be standing for something by aligning with your organization—something that aligns with their core purpose, their identity, and also offers them an opportunity to grow personally and professionally.

Let’s think about those job descriptions. That’s one way of communicating. The job descriptions should just not be a laundry list of tasks. That’s boring, and who wants to just do a task? Why don’t you build a mission statement for your job description? You can act as the summary for the role. Then, share the major projects that that person’s going to work on. Where they’re going to have an impact over the next 6, 12, 18 months? You’ll have a couple of those responsibilities that are in the traditional job description underneath how they’ll execute those bigger projects and initiatives, but it will be so important for them, because they’ll be able to say, “I’m coming to this company that I align with to do this really important work.”

The job description can certainly change as the role changes, and the person in the role evolves over time. But please leave out that other duties as a sign and just update the job description and the initiatives. Someone who’s a really great fit will do whatever it takes to get the job done, so you don’t need that sentence in there.

The impact that these processes in recruitment will have will show hiring managers how they can commit deeper to their team members, because they’re going to be able to read the impact that the employee will have, and connect with the employee on stories that show they’ve done that kind of work in the past. It will allow recruiters to connect strongly with candidates and build a really meaningful pipeline. It will also get your hires off to a fast start because they’re going to know what’s expected of them, and they’re going to be very deeply connected to their role, the impact that they’re going to have, how they’ll work with colleagues on that mission. There they go, off to the races.

They’ll appreciate that the thought went into the process. They’ll be considered a culture add because their skills, their experience, their perspective will bring this fresh energy to the organization. They’re probably going to be inclined to join the organization based on these factors than superficial factors like the perks we talked about earlier.

I intentionally said “culture ad versus culture fit”, because you don’t need more of the same people that you already have. You already have their experience, you already have their perspective, you already have their ideas. You’re looking for people with new experiences, new backgrounds, new ideas, new perspective. Those fresh perspectives will bring curiosity to learn and inspire others to learn as well and continue to grow and evolve, and maybe some alternative approaches that they can bring to the organization.

The onboarding starts from the second that a candidate signs their offer letter all the way maybe through their first year or beyond. So outline each stage. How are you engaging with your new hires? How are you supporting them to learn your new ways? How are you making them feel empowered to act within this context? How are you encouraging them to collaborate so we break down silos? How are you encouraging them to kind of dive into this ethos? Build each step thoughtfully.

Think about a marketer that builds a marketing campaign. They outline these personas, they think through every stage from prospect, all the way to making this person a lifelong client. That’s what you’re doing. This is your first impression of them as a new hire. Of course, you have your first impression as an organization with them, as a candidate, and a recruit, but moving forward from this new hire stage, this is your opportunity to really ingrain what you’re expecting and how they can align. The new hire should feel their onboarding is purposeful. It’s meaningful, it’s intentional, not just an afterthought of, “Oh, yeah, meet these people and do these things,” or just get right into your work without understanding the context of how it aligns to a bigger purpose.

Share those unwritten rules of how work gets done. Ask them to meet with people, so they know who to go to for what. Think about the little things that will make them feel comfortable. Think about the office hours, what’s normal, the dress code, how people communicate, different styles of communication and preferences. It’s those little things that really make a difference. I’ll reiterate this, share your expectations. Go through that thoughtfully crafted job description, reiterate the goals, and tie it back to how they’ll have an impact. Reiterating this many, many times over the course of their onboarding will really keep them grounded and aligned as they go through their onboarding. This will be an excellent application of how to bring your culture and your values to life.

I’ll remind you that, as you go through this process to look at your recruitment and onboarding practices, this is just the start of the journey. I really encourage you to make it a point of every 12, 18, 24 months to take a look, again, at these processes, and tweak. Because it’s never gonna be perfect, but you can only get better over time. You’re always working to get better so that you can continue to serve your employees in this really meaningful and thoughtful way. As you tweak though, always come back to, is it tied to our core purpose? Is it tied to our core values? If it is, when you’re doing a great job.

Now’s the time for you to take action. Don’t let this be another session that you sit through and you hear these things, and you’re thinking, “Wow, that would be really cool if…” Go take some action. Don’t just move quickly on to your next tasks of the day. Make a plan. Plop time in your calendar to sit down and think about this. Set the meeting with the people that need to be involved in this conversation, which probably includes some senior leaders. Go get started, find that working group, gain alignment, discuss these things, build and keep moving forward. Move forward proudly because you’re going to be having an impact on some really wonderful people that align to the same thing that you believe in and want to do really cool things.

Thank you so much for your attention, for your time, and listening to this. There’s an opportunity to leave questions and comments below, and I’ll be responding to those as they come in. Best of luck to you as you go down this journey. It’s going to be meaningful, it’s going to be purposeful, it’s going to be intentional work. I know that you’re going to have a lot of lives impacted because you took the time to do so.

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