Few organizations have the luxury of focusing on company culture from the start. More often than not, it’s simply the byproduct of habits and attitudes of the founding members, original employees, and first hires resulting in a legacy culture.
But what happens when you look up and realize you’ve grown to that benchmark you thought was a long way off and your culture isn’t scaling well? Or that your culture has taken a turn for the worse and too much of a certain something has crept in, like negativity, gossip, or competitiveness?
There’s no starting over. Your veteran employees are good at what they do, and you value the loyalty they’ve shown over the years. So how do you reset an out-of-date company culture – or fix a broken one – without turning off employees who have been around since day one?
1. Tie change to meaning, not mandates
As the global innovation company IDEO wrote for The Harvard Business Review, movements start with emotions, not calls-to-action. You can ask, beg, demand, or force your team to do anything, but the results won’t be nearly as powerful as true culture change would be. At best, entrenched employees will humor you and hope the phase passes quickly; at worst, they’ll roll their eyes and start looking for a new job.
Instead, bring the focus back to the deeper purpose of your organization and tease out what that should look like in the emotional landscape of your team. Use the push for a culture change as an opportunity to check in with the employees who have been there from the start and help them connect with the new vibe.
For example, what is it about your company’s mission that originally attracted your veteran employees? Has that mission changed? (In which case you’ll need to address that and see if they can get behind the new vision.) Has that mission evolved? (In which case you’ll just need to help connect the dots). Let every conversation come back to a meaningful, “Why?” instead of a behavior-focused, “What?”
2. Welcome tense conversations
There’s no dodging the fact that change management is hard. You could be implementing a new 50% raise policy with every employee and you would still probably run into one employee who’s upset, one who’s going to quit, and one who feels like it’s a slap in the face to all the ways they’ve contributed to the company. (Just ask CEO Dan Price, who raised everyone’s minimum annual salary to $70,000 and still had a few people leave over it).
Before you start to work with your team through some of these company culture changes, embrace the fact that there will be difficulties and that people won’t always see it the same way. Welcome frustrated and discontent conversations and try to bring the conversation back around to the deeper “Why,” of the changes.
For example, when Kronos CEO Aron Ain implemented an unlimited time off policy, a lot of veteran employees actually didn’t like it! They felt like the vacation time they’d accrued was going to waste, that new employees shouldn’t get so much time off when they themselves had to work for it, and so on. Instead of smiling and nodding, Ain and his HR leadership team sat down with each employee and heard them out. They weren’t about to change the policy, but addressing each of the employee’s frustrations went a long way towards bringing the focus back on the benefits.
3. Honor your employee’s commitment – long-term and short-term
Jumping right to, “This is the way it is – adapt or leave,” will drive your experienced employees right to the job boards. But if you spend too much social capital on honoring the old-timers, you’ll end up alienating new employees. (After all, if there’s anything worse than feeling left out of the future it’s feeling like you’ve joined a team that lives in the past – you’re just walking around stuck in someone else’s inside joke.)
How can you walk this line? By bringing the attention to commitment and loyalty to the company’s purpose, not necessarily duration or “who was there first.”
For example, communicate to veteran employees that you value their time and the longevity of their commitment to the company, but keep relating it to where you are now and where you plan to go (not just that one isolated moment in the past). Express your excitement for the contribution of new team members freely, but bring it back to how it furthers your organization’s original or founding goals (if possible).
In practice, this could mean balancing awards or bonuses for service time, like longest tenure with the company or biggest client network, with equally valuable prizes for accomplishments not tied to service or seniority, such as most improved, biggest collaborator or contributor, or “Put Out the Biggest Fire.”
4. Ask them to lead
When you’ve been a part of a team or organization for a long time, it’s natural (and healthy) to feel a sense of ownership over how things are done and what changes are made. Put yourself in the shoes of one of your most senior employees – wouldn’t you feel powerless or left out if you thought your company was growing without you?
Instead of bringing culture change to your legacy employees as an “Us Versus Them” event, turn it into a partnership by asking them to lead a particular change. When legacy employees are change agents – especially if they feel informed and connected to the new value – they’ll be less likely to undermine the change and more likely to promote it. Here are some scripts you can use to ask for buy-in and leadership on these company culture changes:
- Your feedback about X has been incredibly helpful. Now that you’re confident X will help you X, what do you think about helping us bring the rest of the team on board with the change?
- You’ve been very clear with your feedback, and I appreciate that. The leadership you’ve shown here will be really helpful when we make X change next – can we count on you to support us with that?
Don’t miss this one: A Step-by-Step Strategy for Communicating Change Across Distributed Teams
Culture is behavior. If you tell people to think a certain way or ask them to behave in a certain way, they might comply for a week or two, but you won’t achieve any of the benefits of true, fundamental culture change. If you want to change the way your company works, collaborates, and communicates – without alienating your first hires – you need to encourage new relationships, behaviors, and habits among new and old employees alike.
We hope this list can help you start brainstorming ways to welcome legacy employees into the company culture change process, but we’d love for you to share your wisdom, too.
What would you add to this list?
Sarah is a HR and HR marketing and technology writer who analyzes and condenses cutting-edge research and data to help leaders and HR professionals develop their instincts and arrive at actionable insights for employee engagement and business performance. She loves to consider the possibilities of humanizing, organizing, and minimalizing all things HR.