It's becoming incredibly common for people to mistake perks for company culture.
Ask any variety of people about their culture strategy, and they will tell you about their party planning committee or the new ping pong table they ordered for the office.
And it makes sense: We care about people, and we want to do everything in our power and resources to treat them well. And make no mistake, a robust perks package is a good thing. It’s a tangible way to show your team care and generosity, and can prove solid recognition and support of their lives outside of work.
Now don't get me wrong... I'm all about perks! They are a great way to show employee appreciation. However, to mistake them with culture is doing your company a huge disservice.
Perks are tangible things that you can easily wrap your head around, while culture is this intangible presence that's much harder to describe.
It’s a phenomenon too common on Careers pages internet-wide. You “click here to learn about our amazing culture,” and land on a page of smiling employees gathered ‘round a ping pong table (or impressive snack kitchen, or top-of-the-line espresso maker, or…). Below that is usually a two-line blurb about Company Values, followed by bullet points that outline a slew of enticing perks.
Perks doth not a culture make
It begs an important question: what even is Culture? For a concise and encompassing definition, I often return to Katelin Holloway who said “culture consists of the beliefs, behaviors, and shared values of any community.”
So then why do people conflate perks with culture? Because it’s easy.
It’s WAY easier to rattle off some perks than it is to capture a culture. A culture is a complex organism, shifting subtly with each team evolution while still remaining true to itself. Defining and communicating the beliefs, behaviors, and values that anchor and nurture a culture is tricky! It makes total sense to assume (or maybe to hope) that a nice neat list of perks would just as efficiently let someone know what to expect of their experience.
So what IS the difference between culture and perks?
Perks are privileges granted to employees in addition to their salaries and benefits. In contrast, company culture is made up of the values and behaviors that contribute to the unique social and psychological environment of an organization.
While dictionary definitions are great, nothing rings clearer than a few real-life examples. Let's start with the most common offenders – games and parties. Let’s turn to my favorite, the infamous ping-pong table, to demonstrate how the same perk could be experienced by teammates in two organizations with differing cultures.
Having a ping pong table for your employees is a perk.
Whether or not your employees feel comfortable using the ping pong table is a reflection of your company's culture.
Is taking a break to play ping pong seen as a positive way to refresh and clear your brain before heading back to your desk? Or does no one dare take a break to play, because they fear they'll be seen as an unproductive member of the team for doing so? These mindsets are reflections of the beliefs that are held in your office - reflections of your culture.
The Perk: A Ping-Pong Table
The Belief: If you have enough time to play ping pong, you don't have enough work to do.
The Behavior: Few employees, if any, use the ping pong table.
The Perk: A Ping-Pong Table
The Belief: Breaks are a necessary part of creativity. Taking a break away from your desk improves your productivity.
The Behavior: Employees use the table during the day and end up meeting people from other departments.
See the difference? Same table, two vastly different ways of behaving. It’s the culture that defines the meaning of the ping-pong table - not the other way around.
Hosting happy hours for your employees is a perk.
How employees behave at those happy hours is a reflection of your company's culture.
Does everyone on your team feel comfortable attending or do certain people feel unwelcome? Are crude jokes thrown around once people are a few drinks in or does the conversation stay respectful? Do people order as many drinks as possible on the company card or are they thoughtful of how much they're spending? These are all reflections of a company's culture.
Tip: Sometimes opposing beliefs can drive the same behavior.
Consider the happy hour example.
The Perk: Monthly happy hours
The Beliefs: 1) If I don’t show my face at the happy hour, I’ll be seen as unengaged VS 2) Happy hours are the best way to build meaningful relationships with employees from different teams.
The Behavior: Most employees attend every happy hour - some more enthusiastically than others.
Unlimited vacation is a perk.
Whether employees feel welcome to use that vacation time without fear of being labeled a slacker, is a reflection of your company culture.
The Perk: Unlimited Vacation
The Belief: If I use more vacation time than my team members, it will seem like I’m the least dedicated person in the group.
The Behavior: Employees pay attention to how much vacation their manager and peers take before scheduling their time off. Teammates generally take little vacation time, and the benefit sees little uptake or engagement.
The Perk: Unlimited Vacation
The Belief: Taking care of your mental health is just as important as taking care of your physical health.
The Behavior: Employees feel safe and empowered to take mental health days when needed. The team reports little burnout and high engagement.
Yes, these are simple examples for the sake of exercise. But they illustrate an important distinction: perks are the tangible rewards you make available. Your culture is what dictates how employees engage with those perks.
Kind of cool to see the differences, yeah? What's most exciting to me is that understanding the differences makes culture something more tangible and actionable.
Evaluate your perks
There’s no time like the present to practice communicating your company’s culture. Thinking about your current perks through a culture lens is a great point of entry, and this exercise will help you get started.
Pick a perk or benefit your company currently offers.
Consider how that perk is currently utilized. What behaviors do your employees take in relation to that specific perk?
Work back from the behavior to brainstorm some of the beliefs that could be influencing it, based on what you know about “how things work” at your company.
Want to encourage a culture of play and trust?
Take time to lead by example and schedule three 20-minute blocks during your workweek to challenge someone in the office to ping pong or another activity away from the computer.
Want to foster a culture of inclusivity and safety? Plan a team bonding activity that doesn't revolve around drinking. Or speak up when someone says something inappropriate after having a few to many drinks.
Uncovering and naming your company culture is like one big safari. Stay open and curious, keep your eyes peeled, and I promise you’ll uncover new surprises around every corner!
When it comes to culture, actions speak louder than words. And in my experience, culture speaks louder than perks every single time.
To happier employees,
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