08/05/2013 10:49 BST | Updated 07/07/2013 06:12 BST

Are Your Employees Engaged or Indoctrinated? The 'Cult' of 'Culture'

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Why is it that in some companies, often with multiple locations or having formerly merged there's always just one that doesn't quite "get it" and definitely doesn't "fit"? Working with high growth companies, our job as HR consultants often involves assessing and recommending how a company can keep its culture even and distinctive whilst evolving rapidly and often over a number of locations, each of which will have regional variations.

Whilst this is truly exciting and interesting it can also be intensely complex, hard to put a finger on and difficult to master! Recently, clients have sought our expertise in valuing their culture and sharing it emphatically with staff. Today I'll share with you some companies that do it well by asking their employees to "buy in" to the company culture from the very outset. But when does this "buy in" (signalling agreement and alignment), become something altogether more insidious: indoctrination.

Following on from my last blog on how to keep your company culture as your business grows, I wanted to develop the idea of company culture and ask, when does a company culture become a "cult"?

Cult or culture?

So what is a cult? The word cult has its roots in the Latin cultus, which means "care" and "adoration" and is the past participle of colere, meaning "to cultivate." Well that all sounds very positive! But more recent definitions of "cult" have focused on religious extremism, unconventional behaviours and authoritarian leadership.

A company culture is often created by a single person: the company founder. It is a set of values and behaviours that employees are asked to buy into in order to be successful at that company. If "done well" the company culture can bring many benefits. A positive company culture gives clients and customers a strong brand to identify with; it helps employees understand what success and achievement looks like, and gives them clear goals. It also makes your recruitment much easier - when you have a strong culture, you attract people with these qualities and beliefs: personal and company values align and candidates seek you out so they are already a strong fit.

But how far is it acceptable to ask an employee to behave in a certain way? At what point does the conveyance of a company culture become less about engagement and more about indoctrination? When people are instructed on the emotions as well as their behaviours, it could be said to cross that line.

Pret perfect behaviours and the "high five" culture

Pret a Manger hit the headlines recently for their "Pret perfect" behaviours. A Pret worker should: "create a sense of fun;" be "genuinely friendly;" "go out of their way to be helpful" and "have presence." The behaviours emerged online after an essay in the London Review of Books highlighted the company's reliance on 'affective' or emotional labour.

Clive Schlee, chief executive at Pret since 2003 told The Telegraph last year: "The first thing I look at is whether the staff are touching each other. Are they smiling, reacting to each other, happy, engaged? ... I can almost predict sales on body language alone." A blogger for US-based is scathing about the policy: "Pret doesn't merely want its employees to lend their minds and bodies; it wants their souls too."

Some people would insist that cheerfulness and regular touching are not only completely unreasonable requests to make of employees but also pose potential harassment risks. And yet, humans are social beings where touch controls stress levels and benefits our health, so surely being part of a group within which they feel valued, wanted and close will naturally help them to perform better?

In any case, it must be working, you just have to look at their staff retention rate to see the benefits: According to, Pret took 58 apprentices in 2011 and more than 75% of them were still working with the company six months later, which according to the financial director Nick Candler is "an extraordinarily high percentage", and in my opinion is especially so in the retail sector.

This culture is also backed up with financial incentives, which support the goals of the company. Mystery shoppers visit every branch of Pret A Manger every week. If their reports are positive (and over 80 per cent of are), all branch staff get a bonus. But I think there is another key point here, which I made in my previous12 steps to a superstar workforce blog: If your company culture and values are strong and well publicised, then candidates who identify with these values themselves will actively seek you out as an employer, and are more likely to be happy working for your company. Happy and engaged employees are more productive, give better customer service, and stay longer, winning more business and saving you money on recruitment and training.

The Asda "huddle" - frivolous or financially beneficial?

At Asda, managers lead a daily "huddle" described by The Guardian's Julia Finch as "an update on sales and performance and a ra-ra talk" with "laughter and whooping." Sceptics of anything that sounds like a "happy clappy" culture may think these huddles rather frivolous, but they can be an extremely effective method of communicating company performance, news and offers. I know someone who works at Asda House HQ in Leeds and he is the first to let me know when he hears about a current Asda offer that he knows I would like! This is a company that understands the value of sharing important information with staff in a timely and effective manner - they create a workforce of informed and enthusiastic salespeople whose word of mouth marketing helps to ring in extra pounds at the till. And in addition to the regular freebies and celebrity visits that Asda House employees are treated to, all staff receive a discount in store.

Asda is striking a balance between internal communications and staff incentives that not only equip their employees with the knowledge and tools to promote shopping in Asda stores, but also give them a reason and a reward for doing so.

Great culture = no cult required!

This is the key difference between engagement and indoctrination: it's the carrot not the stick. For employee buy-in to be successful, a company culture and values need to be something that they want to sign up to. It's about creating an internal culture and values for your organisation that you are proud to reflect and your employees are proud to be a part of.

When your company culture runs through everything you do, recruitment is easier, engagement is quicker and employees' connection to a company runs deeper - staff will get great results for you because they genuinely want the best for the company - no indoctrination required!

"Cult" may be part of the word culture, but if your employees are happy and proud to sign up to your company culture, values and behaviours, then that's where the link should end.