Company culture is a joke and employees are the punch line.

Hard work. Integrity. Curiosity. Fun… 

There are a lot of words that people throw out when discussing company culture and they tend to be values and traits that anyone in business should have regardless of where they work.

They’re attributes the company leadership has chosen to “set them apart” from other companies, but if you compared the 3-5 “unique attributes” of 50 companies, you may get 25 different attributes repeated 6-10 times.  

Frankly, there are only so many unique traits a company can value and there isn’t a compelling reason to choose a list of words that define you and your company. 

After all, these traits are rarely actually manifest in the behavior of the company.

What often does happen, however, is that employees are let go without clear explanation because of “poor cultural fit” and prospective employees are not given the chance to prove themselves because of “lack of cultural alignment”.

Saying that an employee has a poor cultural fit is essentially telling them that you don’t like them.  

There are exceptions, obviously. 

If you say that honesty is an important part of your company culture and you have an employee that is lying to clients or stealing from you, that’s poor cultural fit. However, it’s also lying and/or stealing, which are more solid grounds for firing an employee. 

If you say “being a decent human being and not doing illegal things” is your culture, it would sound pretty stupid (seriously considering putting that on my website now…). But it’s basically what we’re all saying when we describe our company culture to others.

All this ranting aside, I’d like to state that I’m completely ignorant to the idea of company culture and the value of the concept. So I want to share with you a better way of approaching it than just listing some words you want to describe your company.

What Culture Is & How It’s Created

By definition, culture is “the characteristic features of everyday existence shared by people in a place or time”. Get a group of people together on a regular basis and the culture will be defined by their behavior.  

It’s been said a lot that if you aren’t intentional about creating a specific culture in your agency, your employees will create one for you (similar to how a market creates a brand identify for you if you don’t tell them what to remember about you). The concern behind this idea is that you’ll have a chaotic group of people taking over your agency and breaking everything.

The thing is, though, that you’re not hiring people willy-nilly. You’ll generally hire people that you trust, that excel in their specialization, that will work hard, and that are constantly learning. Most employees (and clients) tend to be similar to the leader(s) of any given business and so your culture will tend to be a reflection of what you value and how you behave. 

Communication is important, though, so it’s not actually a bad idea to tell people you may hire what to expect when working with you. It’s even a good idea tell people who currently work for you what you expect, if you haven’t told them recently.

If you want to avoid confusion and turmoil, though, you should consider these things when addressing culture in your agency:

Culture Design Checklist

1. Be Specific

Language is a funny thing. English is not alone in that you can say one word and have it interpreted in many different ways. If I say “Honesty”, some people will interpret it as telling the truth. Others will view it as proactively sharing all possible angles and context around an idea. Still others will view it as going beyond communication and applying to behavior. 

One employee may feel like another is not being honest because they don’t clock out to go to the bathroom. Meanwhile, the “dishonest” employee may be bothered that their co-worker doesn’t share when they’re having a tough time with their family.  

If you want to list values that should define your company’s behavior, that’s not a bad thing at all. What’s bad is giving vague concepts for people to follow and expecting them to interpret them the same way.

If you want your employees to act with honesty with their coworkers and clients, tell them how you think that should look. Describe what honesty means to you and give some real-world examples of honest behavior.  

2. Outline Expectations

What happens if an employee doesn’t exhibit one of your cultural values? To what extent do you expect them to follow these behavioral standards? What should employees do if they see a coworker behaving contrary to the cultural guidelines? 

If you don’t explain the consequences of not aligning with the culture or give a clear process for addressing the cultural misalignment of others, your employees will be frustrated at the seeming lack of consistency in your cultural management. This will create uncertainty in your employees and an atmosphere of mistrust as nobody knows who will get culture-slapped at any given moment. This is a recipe for low employee retention and a culture of fear. That’s bad. 

3. Be Reasonable, But Reliable

Whether it’s a 3-strike rule, a one-warning-then-you’re-gone approach, or a performance improvement plan, it’s best that you seek to understand your employees and the reason for their misalignment before you drop the hammer on them.

Your employees will be terrified of you if you fire people left and right for not fitting into the culture. They’ll always be second-guessing whether they’re following the culture properly and if they’ll be next.  

Nobody is perfect and it’s ultimately up to you to hire the right people and communicate to them how you expect them to behave, but having grace and being willing to understand and work through differences will make you a better leader with better employee retention.

I’m fond of the 3-strike approach, in which a strike is only given for intentional poor behavior. If you give a warning first, then you can start the 3 strikes. In this case, each strike is an opportunity to discuss why the behavior occurred and discuss a way to avoid it again. If you show that you care enough to listen and coach your employees, they’ll be more likely to strive for the behavior you’re asking for.

If they hit all 3 strikes, though, they need to go. Otherwise, your employees will see that your culture is just a suggestion and that it’s not really important enough to act as a filter for decisions. Don’t expect everyone to be perfect all the time, but don’t let them drag your company and coworkers through the mud either. If they can’t show self-discipline and a desire to treat you, your clients, and their coworkers with respect, they need to be shown that their actions have consequences.


Company culture isn’t really as bad as I made it out to be in the beginning. It’s a part of every business and every group of humans that spend any amount of time together, so you can’t ignore it.

It should not, however, be thrown out as an ambiguous set of rules that have dire consequences for breaking. The goal with employees and clients alike is to create an environment of safety in which everyone can work together toward the same goal of client and agency growth. That’s going to take as much communication, personal development, exhortation, and grace as any other relationships. 

At the end of the day, we’re all humans working together with other humans. If we keep that in mind that humans need clear and frequent communication of expectations with the occasional reminder, we’ll end up with a fine company culture without the need for corporate buzzwords.