Policies & Procedures

The Culture Cycle – September 2021

Your organisational values determine the employees you attract and recruit.

Your employees determine the culture in your workplace.

Your workplace culture determines your organisational values.


Some say that leaders determine organisational culture. I disagree; even in organisations with the most toxic leadership you can imagine, it’s HR that shapes organisational culture. It’s HR who have the position, the authority and the obligation to challenge where others don’t.

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Post pandemic working will bring forward big changes in organisational values and culture. David Solomon of Goldman Sachs was amongst the first to set their stall out.

“It’s an aberration that we’re going to correct” he said, referring to home working.  This is the CEO of an organisation whose junior bankers report ‘inhumane’ and ‘abusive’ working conditions including 105-hour weeks.

Of course, the Goldman Sachs leadership are entitled to build whatever culture they want. No-one’s suggesting they’ve done anything illegal; nobody would describe their junior bankers (whose year one salary is £79,000 before bonuses) as victims of modern slavery.

But the culture they’ve developed and the values they wear very publicly will attract a certain type of candidate. Highly driven, very able and almost certainly ruthless. All perfect qualities for an investment banker.

A quick look to history however shows that having a workforce entirely made up of aggressive, cut throat go-getters could be an issue for the banking sector. They create the sort of culture where Jérôme Kerviel was able to lose Société Générale €4.9 billion.

And this sort of problem isn’t solved by diversity initiatives either. The values – employee – culture cycle is cunningly impervious to such techniques. It’s completely possible to have a highly diverse (according to all the metrics) workforce who all hold the same values. Indeed, for a business like Goldman Sachs, they would neither attract nor recruit people without those values.


As you might be able to tell, I’ve got the utmost sympathy for those who forge a HR career in this sector. But returning to my initial argument, HR can and should still influence the organisation’s culture.

In our Goldman Sachs example, we already know the organisational values being set by the leadership (regardless of whether this is done formally or informally). There’s nothing HR can do about that in the short term. But these values exist because they’re what the leaders believe drive the best results for the business.

You can challenge these with comparators. Not only from the same sector (UBS have just announced they’re adopting a hybrid working approach to become a more attractive employer) but also in other sectors; in our example, the industry that has replaced finance as both the world’s most valuable and vilified: big tech.

Use these comparators to build your case. Your main opponent is fear of the unknown, so you’ll need evidence to convert leaders to your point of view. Even outspoken organisational leaders don’t reach their position by being dogmatic in their views – they achieve their position by being flexible and adapting to new evidence as it arises. 


It’s not just the bottom line that matters, even for Goldman Sachs. Solomon’s words are aimed at customers, reassuring them that his bankers will be working non-stop to grow their investments.

But one just has to look at this spring’s ill-fated launch of the Super League to see how organisation’s arrogance can severely damage a brand. And numbers alone aren’t the only consideration for customers. Reputational damage emerges very quickly merely by association, driven by social media. Examples include the Stop Funding Hate campaign, which demands advertisers don’t deal with certain media partners.

That means both doing the right thing, and recognising that the ‘right thing’ is subject to change.

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There are a few things you can start thinking about today


Pick your battles. Every sector and industry has specific challenges, and some cultures and values are deeply embedded. Whilst the idealist in you may want to ‘correct’ things, ‘the blob’ will always resist… and usually win.

There are three parts in the culture cycle. Recruitment of employees is the area where HR can project its influence and start to produce change.


Celebrate victories. Changing the culture and values of an organisation is a process that will probably be completed by someone else well into the future; the important thing is you’ve made a difference.

Employee surveys are great indicators of change. Set yourself graduated milestones to celebrate. After all, culture change is a marathon not a sprint and regularly hitting milestones gives both you and the wider business cause to celebrate and evidence of your impact.


Formal rules can be changed. It’s the informal, unwritten ones that are inflexible. It’s a challenge that occurs often with diversity and inclusion, a specialism which is primarily concerned with culture change.

This is a problem for HR, who aren’t embedded in teams or functions and can’t see that large chunks of the organisation are following a completely different set of procedures. Often this disparity doesn’t show up until it reaches an employment tribunal, where it’ll be written off as the actions of a rogue individual.

That’s not true. It’s simply that the individual hasn’t realised when they needed to switch to the official rules.

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