I Saw The Sign: Building Culture


A few weeks ago, I was reading one of the #BlackBlogsMatter posts when it hit me right in the chest. Jazmine Wilke’s post [read that post here] was about the sensation of a heightened awareness. Knowing you’re different and learning how to cope. For her, it’s a race issue. For me, it’s not white people – it’s straight people. The hard part is that it’s not as easy to spot them as it is to pick up on skin tone. That anxiety comes with me every time I go to a new restaurant, use the restroom or walk into any store. I have to think about how people perceive me and if they’re accepting. If the ‘look’ is one of malice. I question every interaction, wondering if it’s coming from a good or bad place.

It’s not a good feeling. Take it to work? It’s even worse. That’s why in the past, when I would interview for a new job, I would be looking carefully at every sign and how it was worded. What it said. I would scan the room to try to visually identify people like me. I’d go into the bathroom thinking, “well, let’s see if anyone gives me a second glance.” It was a pressure test to figure out if I could coexist there. Mind you, it’s a lame excuse at really answering that question but nonetheless, I functioned like a detective because it was my life and joy on the line. Hatred just wouldn’t do.

Fast forward to now as I’m starting a company and inevitably was put on every direct and digital mailing list that’s out there. Yesterday I received a very official looking letter from a “Poster Compliance Service.” My first thought was: this is not legit. Regardless, I was curious. This company wants me to pay $84 to hang up some labor law posters. Of course, they clearly did no research because we both know my dogs aren’t reading those posts and I’m a single owner LLC.

But it made me think about this whole concept of posters and people feeling welcome. We’ve all walked around an office and saw a poster for this or that in that impossible to read print. Or, the culture posters that infamously hang on startup walls. Is that really the best way we can communicate policies and values today? People are noticing yet we’ve taken 80’s style marketing and tried to make them represent all our visions and ideas. That’s just silly.

But Where Do You Belong?: Signs That Sells A Culture

image1 (1)The whole idea for this post started at my local YMCA when  I saw this new sign attached to the door. “This Space Respects All People,” it said. I instantly felt a sigh of relief. I know, it’s just a sign. But that sign says one really important thing about this organization, the people who work there and the people they serve. All means all. Respect is a core value. They care about people.

I’m lucky enough to know that’s true. See, my fiance has worked at a YMCA her entire working life with the exception of one year. She used to talk about this concept of a “Y person.” Someone who really lived the values versus reciting them. That’s how I feel about this poster, too. Instead of posting their core values, they’re publicizing how they bring life to those values in their relationship with their customers and each other. It makes me proud to be part of their community, to support them and to call that gym my own.

Screen Shot 2018-03-14 at 12.39.40 PMOf course, now I was looking for signs. I found the next one at Super-Mini, part of the Walnut Cafe chain of breakfast restaurants here in Colorado.

I’ve never felt so relieved when I was reliving myself. In fact, the day I took this picture the owner of the restaurant was sitting in a nearby booth and noticed. She said that sign is the most photographed thing in all of her restaurants. I just said thank you.

She looked an awful lot like me and I know she understood. The fear. The anxiety. The confusion. But it was the action, not a sign that said “we love everyone” that showed me they “get it.”

What’s even bigger? I would work at either of these places. I wouldn’t question if I would be accepted or if I belong. If we shared the value that people matter. I already know the answer from the ways they’ve decided to portray their values.

It Opened Up My Eyes: Living Your Values

So you’re probably thinking, “Ok that’s great but what do I do now?” I’ve heard it before. Employer brand and recruiting leaders often struggle in the activation portion of their plan because after they’ve created the elaborate brand story and employer value proposition, they have to figure out how to make that story matter to candidates and employees alike.

Let’s clear up one thing. Step one is not copying and pasting the pillars into 30 different print templates. First, take down those acronym value posters that try to explain your “core values.” Then, take each of those values and turn them into actions and activities. For example, if “care” is one of your brand pillars (as in caring for people and the community), make time for people to go out and volunteer. Reward people weekly for treating others well. Turn the poster into a wall of fame for people who exemplify care.

That’s the bottom line. Your job is to not just to define the values of your organization but to transform your values from sentences into living and breathing things. Make sure your leadership exemplifies those values instead of writing them in speeches that explain the acronyms. Then, those leaders can hire people who feel the same way. They can fire people who don’t.

But this is just the first step in building a living breathing culture to attract and retain those people you worked so hard to recruit….

Stay tuned.

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