Why Culture is Everything

“Culture is one thing and varnish is another” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

I don’t typically like to start anything I write with a quote. I think it’s cliché and predictable and really just doesn’t fit well with my style of writing—it works quite well for others. But here I am, starting this post with a quote.

I’ve wanted to write a post on the importance of culture in the workplace for almost a year now. I know this isn’t directly related to a topic in higher ed, but there are so many members of the #EMchat community who are in the job hunt, and to be honest, I don’t think there is a more important thing to consider when looking for a position.

I started working when I was 13 as a bus boy in a local restaurant. I somehow conned the owner into letting me wait tables when I was 15. I started working in my university’s admissions office my freshman year, was an RA for a year, worked in the writing center from sophomore year on, was a grad assistant for institutional advancement, waited tables at a fine dining restaurant and then eventually a crab house at the beach during the summers (greatest. gig. ever.), and now I’m hanging out at the Senate as a contractor. So, while I’m not an expert on the job hunt, these opportunities have afforded me the chance to see how important culture is in ANY job and how it can make or break your experience as an employee.

Culture isn’t part of a company; culture IS a company. Our jobs are defined by the environments in which we work, the colleagues with whom we spend our time, and the experiences we have each day in our offices. Culture should be defined by leadership but should be practiced across the corporate spectrum. It should be embedded in work ethic, communications, and should be visible to those outside of the company (or institution).

I have been incredibly lucky in my life to have always worked with people with whom I am able to connect and I’m currently in a phenomenal position. I’m a serious extrovert, so that probably helps. For me, culture is about people and how employees are treated. Culture is about mentorship opportunities, opportunities to share and collaborate, and opportunities to be heard.

Looking for your first job out of college is intimidating. Heck, looking for any job is intimidating. It’s a daunting task with catered resumes and tons of cover letters. When you get to the interview the intimidation factor increases. But, when it’s your chance to ask the questions, make sure you ask about culture. Think about what culture means to you. If a company or institution doesn’t fit your definition, don’t waste your time.

I’ve left two positions in my life because the culture wasn’t a right fit. The varnish Emerson writes of was too shiny, too smooth. I don’t regret those experiences because I was still able to build meaningful relationships. I do regret not being able to see past the varnish. Companies and institutions want to find the right fit for them. Make sure that they’re the right fit for you.

Good luck on your journey!