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A New Era of Culture as Everything

by Bryan de Lottinville

Lessons from Uber, Lyft and Hewlett Packard Enterprise

The old adage that it takes a long time to build a great brand and only seconds to damage it has been recently evidenced by one of the world’s most powerful brands, this time Uber. As one of the most highly valued tech startups in the U.S., Uber has been dominating business news over the last few months for what has been described as their “aggressive, unrestrained workplace culture.”


A Little Recap of the Uber Saga

You’d have to have been on a silent retreat or record-long digital detox to not know what’s been going on since a blog post by one of the company’s brave female engineers, Susan J. Fowler, went viral a few months back. In it, she describes Uber’s workplace culture and articulates the company’s seemingly sanctioned practices of sexual harassment, illegal threats of employment termination, ignored requests for change, disrespect, gender discrimination and deception, among other stories of strangeness that favor “high performance” above all other values. And to add insult to injury, this story broke not even one month after the company came under fire for picking up passengers and charging surge pricing during the travel ban, in which New York’s taxi drivers and others called for a temporary halt on rides at JFK airport as an act of solidarity with refugees and immigrants. Two public missteps that dealt potentially mortal blows to its brand and profile in less time than it takes to hail a ride...


The Culture Conundrum

Every brand hopes to one day become a verb. The “Uberization” of the world has been a testament to the power of their disruptive business model that has combined the powerful forces of dynamic pricing, microservices, a two-sided platform, and zero marginal costs with an experience that resonates with Millennials on every level. But as can be gleaned by the events of the past few months, even the most future-forward companies are not impervious to the consequences of a corporate culture that is not compelling to the very stakeholders it seeks to target.

As every CEO knows, company culture is the intangible that occupies most of their headspace. Why? Certainly because of its positive impact on productivity, innovation, profits and most importantly, employee recruitment, engagement and retention. A survey conducted by Deloitte found that 94 percent of executives and 88 percent of employees believe that workplace culture is important. And if that weren’t enough, just ask your employees who are posting on Glassdoor, the popular employer brand rating site. According to Glassdoor’s Chief Economist, the top indicator for workplace happiness across all pay levels is culture and values.

Unfortunately, there’s no silver bullet when it comes to company culture. Despite feel-good words on the wall, behaviors measured in new breed performance reviews and a host of other progressive HR ingredients like manifestos, handbooks, surveys, free everything, and hundreds of new apps purporting to be the latest and greatest thing for employee engagement, building a positive and purposeful culture continues to be one of the most elusive business challenges executives face. Workplace culture is tough to ingrain, tough to maintain and tough to keep authentic. It’s also never been more important than it is now, to companies of all sizes, across all industries.

But there is a powerful force that more and more companies are tapping into to create a positive, purpose-driven culture and a resonant consumer brand…


The Power of Authentic Passion & Purpose

As Uber gained notoriety, not far away, a little ride-sharing company called Lyft started to gain market share as consumers (and celebrities) opted to support a company whose core values are defined as “diverse, inclusive and safe.” At the time of the travel ban, Lyft co-founders pledged $1 million dollars to the ACLU – an act of authentic commitment to and passion for an important social cause just when the country needed it. As a result, they have converted people into passengers.

Lyft’s core values

Not unlike many companies today, Lyft is undergoing significant change (in their case, hyper growth) with a highly diverse, distributed workforce and consumer base. More than 50% of their team members identify as being part of a minority group and 60% of their riders are female.Throughout this change, they have recognized the need to maintain their company culture and to live their brand of “treating people better.” One of the ways they have chosen to instill their values is through cultivating and supporting a culture of employee “Goodness” – giving back in the form of time, money and talent. For example, Lyft hosts community service days where each office goes out into the local community to give back. One need only grab a Lyft to feel the difference their workplace culture makes in the brand you experience in the back of a car.


Corporate Goodness Programs as a Culture Catalyst

Although it may sound simplistic, the concept of “Goodness” is one of the few values that crosses geographies, industries, languages, ethnicities and religions.  It is, in fact, a compelling and formidable unifying force for any person or company to rally around. 

Through a holistic approach to corporate Goodness programs -- workplace giving, matching gift programs, friendraising campaigns, employee volunteerism, community impact grants and other ways for employees and customers to support the causes they care about through their chosen brand -- many companies are reaping the benefits of increased employee and customer acquisition, engagement, and retention.

For example, when individual donations to the causes of their choosing are matched by their employer, people feel backed and supported by their company, creating a deeper sense of loyalty and engagement with increased empathy as the backdrop (contrast that with the feelings generated when individuals are bullied into giving back to a cause of the company’s choice; a well-intentioned but ultimately misguided approach still chosen by many).

Corporate volunteering helps with team-building, leadership development, cross-departmental collaboration and employee morale by creating a shared sense of camaraderie, networking and working towards a single goal. Skills-based volunteering enables individuals to apply their trades and skills to a cause they are passionate about that needs help in their area of expertise, building confidence while building their community (and both the company and nonprofit’s brand). The cultivation of compassion, empathy, empowerment, communication, collaboration and other leadership skills cannot be overvalued, especially when one considers how much money is spent on employee training and development (in a large company this can be up to $13 million per year!). Pro-social initiatives like the ones delivered through corporate responsibility software like Benevity’s are an authentic way to attract, engage and retain people while helping to develop critical “soft” skills that will fuel the modern workplace.


Beyond Workplace Culture to Customer Brand-Building

Data shows that today’s diverse and socially-conscious workforce wants a chance to give, volunteer and get involved in their company’s philanthropic efforts; in fact, 84% of millennials (and 65% U.S. average) want their company to help them identify ways to get more involved in their community and 76% of millennials (and 58% of the U.S. average) consider a company’s social and environmental commitments when deciding where to work.

And consumer preferences are unsurprisingly similar, if not even more preferential of mission-driven brands. According to Cone Communications, more than 80% of consumers say that when a company supports a social or environmental issue, they have a more positive image of the company, would be more loyal to that company and would be more likely to trust the brand.

With this in mind, there’s clearly a compelling case for companies to consider using their corporate Goodness programs for authentic brand-building, both internally and externally.

When companies lead the social impact space and highlight what’s important to them, their reputations are bolstered. A good example is Hewlett Packard Enterprise: they have advocated for pressing issues including immigration policies, the Paris Agreement & LGBT equality. They recognize that their Goodness activities are a competitive advantage with Lara Birkes, VP & Chief Sustainability Officer, Hewlett Packard Enterprise saying,

We believe that reinforcing our commitments to meaningful action on human rights, workforce training, and corporate citizenship is a matter of business competitiveness. We recognize that in order to compete and succeed in the 21st century, we must put our employees, customers, and our communities at the heart of our business model.

Perhaps not coincidentally, a recent employee survey at Hewlett Packard Enterprise revealed that 64% of employees felt that company-organized opportunities to volunteer or support the community played an important/very important role in their decision to join the company.

We’re encouraged by other examples as well: LinkedIn stands #WithRefugees with its Welcome Talent program, which has assisted 4K refugees to date with critical job preparation skills. Airbnb developed the Open Homes platform to support refugees and seems to be weaving Goodness into its operations, business model and corporate culture. Earlier this year, one of our large global manufacturing clients raised almost $30 million for human rights initiatives in a 200% match campaign. Famously mission-driven Ben & Jerry’s is standing #WithRefugees by partnering with the International Rescue Committee. A grassroots movement by Google in February saw employees raise $2 million for refugee support that was matched 100% by the company in less than 24 hours. Google and Microsoft partnered with Mercy Corps and the International Rescue Committee to develop a website/app called Refugee.Info, with an “aim to provide refugees with critical, clear information about conditions, legal procedures and rights in locations across Europe.”

None of these are advertising or branding in the traditional sense, but all earned media attention, and even more importantly, had profile and impact with their employees and the broader community. Goodness abounds and is bountiful!


From Business Case to Business Imperative

The concept of doing well by doing good is not new, and there is a ton of empirical data that supports the business case for embracing it.  So the “why” is fairly clear but the how, what, when and where are really evolving. Actions speak louder than words, especially to a world that is demanding more authenticity and accountability from business. It’s not enough to name your values, you have to live them. By infusing Goodness into company culture and architecting it around the way companies interact with their communities at large – not just in North America but in a global context - companies are creating a unified and purpose-driven business that engages an increasingly diverse and dispersed workforce and customer base.

There’s never been a more critical time for CEOs, Chief Marketing Officers and Chief People Officers to come together to make culture a priority – it’s no longer a nice-to-have but a business imperative that will differentiate a company’s products and services in today’s fast-changing, socially-conscious world. It’s not just about how good your product or how disruptive business model is anymore. True differentiation will come from the inside out.

Uber and other companies that struggle with similar issues have their work cut out for them as they seek to reform their workplace culture, regain trust and rebuild reputation. Supporting the notion of corporate Goodness from the top down and engaging in it from the bottom up will see them get there.

Interested in building a purpose-driven corporate culture? Check out these resources