We’ve all heard top business leaders proclaim: “This is the best place to work as our leaders are visionary, and will help propel our company into the future”, or, “We strive to promote inclusivity and diversity in our workplace, making us a top employer, while creating value for all”, or, “Our innovative leaders are some of the best you’ll find in the industry, demonstrating empathy and compassion for all employees, while embracing passion for our values and mission”.
Yet what is your reaction when you read these types of statements for your organization or institution? Do you immediately feel inspired, because you recognize these qualities within your firm? Or do you view the words as corporate speak, designed to flatter and impress, without holding much weight?
From my time in higher education over the past 16 years, I have found very few academic institutions that have a corporate culture which matches the corporate speak, or words written and published by its leaders. This is especially true for the for-profit (and non-profit) online schools. When it comes to enrollment and retention numbers, there is often one primary concern, and it isn’t the culture of the firm. Why else would an institution decide to value profit over employees, and layoff high-performing employees, especially those who are willing to work hard?
I understand this is the “world we live in now”, and there are “no guarantees in life”, and more importantly, “employment is at-will”. Yet I find it amazing when leaders tout how valuable their organization or institution is, and then allow the actual culture of the firm to deteriorate into a place no one actually enjoys working at, and only remains at due to financial need. This leads to a question then of what does a person do when they find themselves in a position of working for a firm where the culture is a mismatch to the corporate speak? Or should you do anything if this is detected?
Leadership Puffery Online
Where most of the leadership statements can be found, regarding the working environment of an organization or institution, are online. For the most part, this type of wording is used in public relations statements, and social media posts. When posted by the organizational or institutional leaders themselves, it is a form of puffery designed to help elevate their feeling of status, self-worth, and sense of position within the industry. It is also a reminder to you, as someone under their position, of what they have accomplished, and how valuable they are, should you ever forget.
Now if you are starting out in your career, you may find this level of puffery inspiring, as a means of thinking about what it is you could accomplish in your career. You may not recognize the disconnect between the words and the actual culture, and perhaps there isn’t any at this time. If the words match your organization and how it operates, believe me, this is a firm you want to build a career with over time. I’m fortunate now to work part-time for an academic institution that is a certified B-Corporation, which further exemplifies their commitment to the values they promote. But finding an institution that has a culture which matches the words spoken by its leaders is rare. Most leadership puffery will be personal in nature and unrelated to what the needs of the employees are now.
Caring (and Not Caring) About Employees
At the very heart of the issue about corporate speak matching (or not matching) the culture of an organization or institution is the issue of how much the firm cares (or not cares) about its employees. If you really want to know how much your firm cares or doesn’t care about its employees, find your firm’s leaders on social media. First, if you cannot find them on social media, that may be your first interesting clue. Next, once you’ve located your leaders, take a week or two and really pay attention to what it is they post. Are they invested in their employees, or are their posts simply puffery, proclaiming their virtues, and the virtues of their leaders?
Here’s are some examples: Do your leaders honestly address downturns? Will your leaders address laying off employees at the holiday season? Do your leaders address poor working conditions, when there are known issues that have gone on for years, and the firm has gotten a bad reputation? In other words, what your leaders post about is going to tell you very clearly what they are concerned about most, and it won’t take long to determine. All the diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives in the world are never going to make up for: #1) a workplace culture that allows managers to gaslight their employees, #2) employees being forced to work 80-hour work weeks as salaried employees, #3) employees living in fear of their managers, and #4) employees being let go in retaliation for reporting poor management.
What You Can Do When You Are in a Poor Working Culture
Let’s be clear: An employer is always going to believe they have the upper hand in an employment situation, and for the most part, they are going to. Employment is at-will in most states. If you report a manager, even with evidence, the manager is always going to be believed over an employee. This means you must go beyond learned helplessness and take control of your career. I understand the economy is challenging and for many careers, jobs are few and far between. But what you can do is to be proactive immediately. If you are working within a culture that is anything but positive, now is the time to start developing another pathway forward. You must think beyond the present, as you never know when you will be the next casualty. This is always going to be a possibility when working in a negative environment.
If your leaders are promoting values that align with the work culture you are in now, and you are supported by your manager, then you should feel fairly secure about your job and your tomorrow. But if there is any mismatch between the corporate speak and the corporate culture, you should have your eyes open and beware. I’ve learned the hard way about trusting an employer, especially one I began a journey with many years ago, and then waited nine years to work for. I should have seen the signs ahead of time, and all I can do now is what I do best, help teach others. The organization or institution may be the place you want, but if the leadership is not focused on the needs of its employees, you may find yourself distressed, discouraged, disappointed, and eventually displaced. Don’t let this happen to you. Pay attention to the culture and environment you’re in, and be certain you’re in control of your career.