What every HR manager needs to know about company culture

Ask any HR manager why they chose their career and they’ll probably mention the word ‘people’ at some point.

It’s a social job based on communication and leadership, and attracts some of the most emotionally intelligent people in business.

Having good people skills and wanting to help aren’t always enough, though. Modern HR managers are deeply involved with shaping company culture and often influence, or contribute to, leadership decisions.

While the nuts and bolts of recruitment, staff welfare and policy-setting might take up much of an HR professional’s time, they’re relied upon for more strategic leadership than some people think. So if you're thinking of becoming a HR manager, or are already on your way, here's some of the cultural aspects you'll be responsible for.

You shape the culture of the company

Through a combination of communication, leadership and example-setting, HR managers are the guiding forces that shape cultural norms.

Why’s that important? Well, according to OfficeVibe, company culture primarily correlates with five components of HR operations:

  • Recruitment
  • Onboarding
  • Retention
  • Ambassadorship / company evangelism
  • Staff loyalty

Getting the culture right makes all of those things easier. How does that work?

Well, HR should be encouraging healthy work-life balance, making sure workloads are sensible, and talking to staff to make sure they’re equipped to produce their best work. There should be opportunities for staff to share their frustrations to a relatively neutral party - for example, if their line manager is overbearing and likes to micro-manage, that needs to be highlighted. If stuff like this is left unaddressed, staff are more likely to burn out or look elsewhere.

As an HR manager, it’s up to you to lobby management to implement these cultural practices. You’re the expert and you should be able to back up your claims, by citing scientific research if necessary.

This might involve using reports and analyses from resources like Harvard Business Review, or seeking out research papers yourself using academic search engines like Dimensions. Being a voice is important, but being a voice who can back up their assertions is much better.

One of the most effective ways of shaping culture early is to create a culture deck.

This is a short slide deck or document that succinctly explains the cultural expectations of your company; basically a ‘how we do things’ guide.

It can include how you manage collaborative projects, what kind of people you hire, or how you approach taking time off.

Working alongside the company’s management and owners, this should evolve into a useful guide rather than a rigid rulebook. Take examples from other companies leading the way: Netflix was one of the first to publicly release their own culture deck, which explicitly admitted they want ultra-high-performing individuals. It’s not a company that wants employees to slack off - you work hard for Netflix and get compensated well.

It’s not how we’d choose to run a company, but it works for them, and it’s better that they’re open from the start, rather than hiring people on false promises of an easy ride and have them get burnt out if they prefer a slower pace of work.

You have to cultivate continuous improvement

Helping other employees level up their skills is as much a mindset as it is a process. (And this includes your own professional development).

Investing in staff is one of the most important things business leaders can do, and HR managers play a critical role in that. Whether it’s designing training programs, encouraging staff to take part in development opportunities, or managing CPD budgets, helping everyone to push themselves forward is vital.

Knowing that the company cares about their career development can make employees feel highly valued. Put yourself in their shoes - if your boss paid for you to learn and increase your earning potential, you'd be pretty happy. So would most people; it's an investment that pays off for everyone.

Creating new responsibilities, or even new job roles can be part of this process, too. Would your organisation benefit from a Chief Happiness Officer? Do you need a social gathering organiser? Talk to everyone you can and find out what'd make their working lives easier, and start from there.

Peabody Library
Photo by Elijah Hail / Unsplash

Conflict management is a normal part of business

There’s always going to be disagreement in the workplace, and you won’t be able to stop it happening. In fact, healthy conflict is a good thing - it means ideas are questioned and tested, rather than blindly followed.

But it’s not just about stepping in to moderate fights like a boxing referee. It’s about guiding the workplace towards a culture of healthy disagreement.

Conflict management involves setting clear expectations so everyone knows what’s acceptable behaviour and what isn’t. That means setting out the difference between constructive criticism and insulting or mean discourse.

It might sound like a rather vague mandate, but if communication expectations are shared in the onboarding process, as well as ongoing reminders being visible (like in slack channels and emails), it can quickly become company-wide.

HR managers can thus help promote creative friction by encouraging healthy kinds of conflict.

Technology will help you thrive

Your strongest skills might be interpersonal, but you can’t survive in business these days without some technical systems knowledge. People management in particular is going paperless, with records of development, appraisals, and e-learning being managed through collaborative software.

And right now, if you’re stuck at home with some free time, it’s a good opportunity to learn more about how these things work. You can gain a huge advantage in just an afternoon’s worth of learning and tinkering.

Arte Nathan writes for the Society of Human Resource Management:

"I believe in using technology to improve the processes and effectiveness of HR. The problem was that I didn’t know enough to articulate my ideas or participate in discussions. So I took courses that helped me better understand the terminology and methodology."

Even if you’re not the most tech-savvy person, you’ll still benefit from knowing your way around HR and people management systems. If your company culture runs on innovation, you can't be left behind with old processes and reams of paper.


If you’d like some more inspiration, our top ten HR books are a great place to start.

As well as those, you’d do well to follow these HR experts on Twitter and read through some of the best HR blogs around.