The Culture Guide

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In the Onboarding section of the Employee Experience series, we briefly covered the value and purpose of a culture guide. A culture guide prepares a new team member to seamlessly integrate into your culture by clearly communicating what will be expected of them instead of leaving them to figure it out on their own. 

A culture guide is not the same as a handbook. You can think of the handbook as a document for the employee, and the culture guide as a document for your team member. The handbook is the appropriate place to address rules, policies, and procedures. The culture guide is the appropriate place to address the things that define company culture: a shared set of workplace beliefs, values, attitudes, and behaviors.

When it comes to how to write a culture guide, you’ll want to think of it as a letter to a friend, in a conversational tone instead of a formal or legal tone. A culture guide is storytelling, and you’ve got to keep your reader engaged in your brand’s story.  

The length of the guide depends on how detailed you want it to be. For reference, my guide is 11 total pages, including a title page, a couple of graphics throughout, and a signoff section at the end. 

When it comes to content, you can add whatever you feel is necessary for a person to succeed in your culture. Here are some ideas to get you started: 

  • Intro and Definition of Culture – Welcome your new team member to the company and explain what culture is. This may be their first job where an emphasis has been placed on having a positive environment, so start with the basics. Remind them that they’ll spend the majority of their waking hours with this new team and the goal is for everyone to enjoy their time together.
  • Brand Story – As the owner, you have to depend on your team members to be the face of your company, and they need to know your story so they can share it with others. Include a short story of how your company started, how far you’ve come, and what makes you different than your competitors.
  • Purpose – Explain the company’s mission, why you decided on it, and what it means to you. Go into detail so they understand how to take an overarching mission and apply it to daily activities and decisions.
  • Vision – You may want to include the company vision in the culture guide, but know that including it makes the document less “evergreen” and it will need to be updated more often. An alternative is to have an onboarding session with new team members to review the vision and the strategic plan. 
  • Core Values – Explain what values are, then introduce them to your company’s values. Each value should have examples of what they look like in daily life to prepare the team member for situations they’ll eventually be in. For example, Enthusiasm is a core value for my company. We tie that into the water loss that inevitably comes in on Friday afternoons and how we respond with excitement to help our customers, no matter the time of day. 
  • Practices (Values In Action) – Practices are things that are understood, but not usually communicated like values are. If I asked you to write down your pet peeves at work, you could easily turn that into your company’s practices. (examples: don’t leave a mess for someone else in common areas, or if you break something, tell someone about it.) It can also be areas where your company goes above and beyond, and examples of what that looks like in action. We have a kit on each truck with items for children that we encounter on jobsites. Our culture guide explains that while we usually hustle, we also prioritize slowing down and taking the time to interact with our customers’ kids. This is where you should elaborate on what you expect from your team, and make it as detailed as you’d like. 
  • Reputation – It’s important for our team to understand the complexities about our industry and know who the customer is (the property owner), but also understand how we cooperate with carriers. Here, you can explain the variety of emotions the customer may be going through and what fiercely serving the customer looks like at your company. Talk about what the customer is expecting from you and what you expect them to deliver. Customers read your reviews before calling you, and they expect to receive the experiences they read about on Google.  Explain the significance of word-of-mouth referrals that result from serving the customer exceptionally well. You can talk about professionalism, appearance, language, and how you expect them to behave on a jobsite or behind the wheel of your company vehicles. Anything that your logo is attached to is part of your reputation. 
  • Services and Coverage Area – If you polled your team about the types of services you provide (and don’t provide), the territory you cover, your most profitable service lines, and the breakdown of your revenue, most of them would be in the dark. You can give them an easy to understand and high level view of what you do, what you don’t do, and where you do it. The more knowledge you share, the better equipped they are to help you reach your goals. Also, your team members have family and friends who could one day need your service. They are better equipped to refer the company when they have accurate information about what you do.    
  • Your Development Philosophy – If your culture is one where continuous improvement is prioritized, you’ll want to explain how someone can grow in their role in your company and what kind of training and learning opportunities they can expect to receive from you. 
  • Your Compensation Philosophy – This is a good place to explain how you approach compensation and outline the process you use for regularly reviewing compensation. Explain how someone can increase their earnings and emphasize the point that when the company wins, the individual wins. If you are transparent about the company’s financial performance and goals, be sure to take the time to explain how the company reinvests profits back into the company, and ultimately, into the individual. 
  • Your Communication Philosophy – If you have certain expectations of how quickly you’d like an email, text, or voicemail returned, or if you would like someone to follow a certain protocol before walking into your office and striking up a conversation, outline that in the culture guide.Your expectations can’t be met if they aren’t communicated. This is also a good place to outline your meeting rhythms and how you keep everyone on the same page. 
  • Commitment – A great culture requires everyone in the boat to row in the same direction. Consider concluding your culture guide with the team member signing a commitment to do their part to build and maintain a positive company culture. Ensure they understand their responsibility to uphold the values and the mission of the organization. By having your team sign the commitment, you have something to refer back to when someone’s actions aren’t in alignment with your expectations and you need to have a discussion with them. 

There are a few different ways you can use the culture guide. If you are actively recruiting a candidate, especially someone who will be a leader or manager in your company, you can ask them to read it in advance of the second interview. 

For all new hires, the main concepts in the culture guide should be communicated during the hiring process, and the actual guide should be delivered to the new team member electronically before their first day, as part of your onboarding process. Additionally, the owner or the manager should review key points in the guide with the team member on the first day. 

And finally, we know that your words and actions as a leader are what your team members ultimately use as their guide to your culture. Be sure what you say and do are in alignment with what you expect from your team. They may not remember the words in the guide, but they’ll remember how you behave, and they’ll model that behavior, so be a living culture guide. 

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Katie Smith, CR

Katie Smith, CR is the second generation owner of PHC Restoration in North Carolina, an independent company committed to making a positive impact on its team, customers and community. Passionate about servant leadership and building relationships, Katie plays an active role both inside of her company and within the industry. She currently serves as the President of the Restoration Industry Association, the oldest and largest non-profit, professional trade association dedicated to providing leadership and promoting best practices through advocacy, education & professional networking opportunities for the restoration industry.

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