We’ve all seen that secret code in a job ad before—words to describe company culture that send our spidey-senses tingling.
‘Work hard, play hard’ as a pretext for grinding work and hard partying or "We are a family’ as a code for emotional manipulation.
The truth is that the words that you use to describe your company culture or corporate culture are probably saying more than you think.
Those magic words that team members use to describe a workplace, or those that a company themselves uses to describe their environment, can at times say more about how a company runs than its financial statements, its presence in the market, or its plans for growth.
Culture, in a word, is everything.
What Is Company Culture And Why Is It Important?
Culture is defined as the “ideas, customs, and social behaviors of a particular people or society”. In a workplace setting, it covers how people communicate, dress, arrive at work late or on time, collaborate, and generate ideas.
When we think of corporate culture, for example, we generally think of suits and formal emails with glimmers of individual personality peeping through occasionally. Conversely, when we think of a startup’s culture, we picture folks in t-shirts and sneakers playing office pranks.
Company culture starts from the top. Company leaders craft the mission statement and company values and are the models for attitudes and expectations. The words they use to describe company culture matter.
So, how are you describing your organizational culture? Are you using words that make your workplace sound appealing, or are you instead giving subtle verbal clues that are driving talent away?
Here are some of the most popular words to describe company culture, both positive and negative, and a look at how they’re interpreted by those in the know.
Positive Words To Describe Company Culture
An innovative workplace culture sees the world differently. Like some of the great tech companies out there, they see beyond the status quo and encourage a work culture that places value on risk-taking and trying new ideas. Innovative cultures allow room for failure and are great for companies looking to disrupt their market.
Related listen: How to create a culture of innovation with John Carter, the inventor of Bose Noise Canceling Headphones (podcast).
In a collaborative culture, employees share ideas freely and work closely together in order to get the job done right. No person is an island in a collaborative culture—workers regularly work together, either in small groups or large teams, to further the company mission and produce better work than they would individually on their own. Teamwork make the dream work, as they say.
A trusting work environment is one that places a high value on their employees’ integrity. Trust does not go one-way. Employers need to place trust in their employees and their work, and need to trust them to get the job done right. Those employees then need to trust that the employer will protect them, and has their best interests at heart.
That mutual trust represents a healthy culture, but it can also be fickle. If one side or the other breaks that trust, it can be incredibly difficult to regain, and will not happen overnight.
A strong company culture of learning is one that encourages and supports professional development in all its forms. The advantages of a learning culture are happier, more engaged employers with the necessary skill sets to keep moving the organization forward.
Related read: How to create a strong culture of learning
Here’s a fun fact: ‘balance’ does not have to mean the ‘work hard play hard’ paradigm from earlier. Balance does not need to be about living to two opposite extremes. A happy employee is often the one that’s found true work-life balance—one that empowers them to work hard when at work but also gives them time to enjoy family, friends, and the rest that life has to offer.
Life may not always be positive, but there is more than just compensation that makes an organization a positive place to work. A positive workplace culture is one that focuses on the good wherever it may be. They don’t ignore what’s going wrong, but they also emphasize what’s going right, and work towards reframing challenges to move things in a positive direction.
An entrepreneurial workplace does not necessarily mean that employees are in competition with their employer, or that they’ll suddenly run off to open a competing business. Entrepreneurial employees treat their work with an owner’s mindset. They take a more holistic view of each project and ensure that their actions are in line with the goals and needs of the company.
Autonomous cultures are similar to entrepreneurial ones except that the drive towards autonomy comes from the top. In an autonomous workplace, employees are empowered to make decisions independently and are given the freedom to do so without heavy oversight. This can also lead to a healthy culture where employers are not worried about having to micromanage workers.
Inclusivity in the workplace has gained traction with the move towards DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion). An inclusive culture is one that promotes a sense of belonging among employees from all backgrounds and walks of life and recognizes that their unique experiences can help create a strong culture of collaboration and forward-thinking.
Some workplaces believe strongly that a healthy employee is a happy employee, and they work to live these values. Truly healthy workplace cultures value not only physical health, but mental health and emotional well-being also.
A workplace that encourages physical fitness but expects employees to work 12 and 14-hour days is not a healthy workplace. Instead, a healthy workplace combines fitness and healthy snacks with things such as yoga, meditation, and a positive attitude towards vacation and family time.
A fun workplace is one that knows how to have a good time (but not necessarily partying)! They still get the work done, but they aren’t afraid of employees having a good time while doing it, and they don’t hesitate to get a little silly once in a while either.
There are no bad questions in a curious workplace. A curious workplace encourages workers to ask ‘Why?’. Those answers often get leaders thinking deeper about a project or initiative and may evolve into a new way of doing things.
A rewarding company culture encourages employees to succeed and recognizes them when they do. While the classic ‘employee of the month’ plaque may help boost employee engagement and motivation, the ultimate goal is to develop a culture in which employees openly recognize each other for their hard work.
Related read: 30 Creative Employee Recognition And Appreciation Ideas
A connected culture is one that takes employee engagement to the next level. Leaders place a strong value on keeping employees connected to one another and to the company, and these connections allow employees to share ideas quickly and easily in their work environment.
Have you ever walked into a party and no one says hello? No one wants to be in a cold environment. A welcoming work environment is one that prizes the onboarding process as a strategy for employee retention and makes sure that all new employees quickly feel like they’re part of the team.
There’s no law that says that workplaces have to be uptight! Sometimes a great company culture is also an easygoing, laidback one. So long as work is being done on deadline and quality is intact, many employers and managers are willing to sit back and relax.
A transparent workplace reflects a strong organizational culture that trusts employees with a behind-the-scenes look at operations and decision-making. Transparency is not easy for employers, but it often makes employees feel like highly valued members of the team, and informs them of the circumstances behind difficult business decisions that may affect them.
Empathy shouldn’t be hard, but a little extra compassion goes a long way. In an empathetic culture, managers can acknowledge how employees are feeling, and engage in open communication to see if people are truly happy. This approach can easily alert you to problems before they spiral.
Unless they're absolutely necessary, suits and ties are probably a pre-pandemic relic. Younger workers today thrive in a casual environment with a casual dress code and casual expectations of hours that allow them to thrive at their own pace.
In a post-pandemic world, more people value flexibility around where and when they work than ever before. A flexible workplace culture is one that allows team members this flexibility with either the option for remote work or a hybrid model. It comes hand in hand with high levels of trust and autonomy.
Some workplaces, like newsrooms or trading floors, thrive in difficult situations and high-pressure environments. For employees who do their best work when the heat is on, a challenging workplace culture may be the perfect fit.
A respectful workplace is one that is willing to listen to all employees and takes opinions and employee feedback that challenge the status quo seriously. Employees are respected because they know that they are being heard, and thus are unafraid to speak up when they feel it’s right.
A nimble workplace is sometimes described as an ‘adhocracy culture’ where workers can pivot quickly to meet a rapidly changing market culture. This can help a company pivot during times of chaos, but it should not come at the expense of clear directions and expectations. Learn more about adhocracy culture.
A high-energy workplace can be absolutely infectious. Energy is contagious, and an energetic culture can keep all employees going at their full capacity when they’re feeding off of each other’s strong energy.
Ultimately for a business to survive it needs to produce certain results. A results-driven culture isn’t too concerned with the when, where, or how as long as results are achieved which engenders autonomy, creativity, and flexibility. Of course, this has to be kept in check by strong ethics and compliance practices!
For some employees, a great company culture is one that places ethics and values above all else. These don’t always need to be non-profits, but generally have a corporate social responsibility mindset that values honesty, integrity, and their ability to use their strengths to give something back to the world.
Negative Words To Describe Company Culture
Is everyone in your workplace angry and emotionally checked out? Is there an apathy toward meeting deadlines? Are employees often trying to undercut each other and sabotage each other’s success? You may have a toxic workplace culture on your hands.
Related read: Signs of a toxic workplace culture and how to fix it
High stress leads to burnout, period. While there are stressful times in every job, a continually stressful atmosphere, and one that encourages and fosters stress, creates an ongoing culture of burnout. Employee retention is nearly impossible when employees are wiped out, falling ill, or simply resigning because they can no longer take it.
A manager with unrealistic expectations should be the unfortunate exception, not the rule. A high-pressure workplace culture can also lead to burnout, and employees becoming emotionally distraught if they feel like they can’t meet expectations. If a skilled and talented employee simply can’t cut it, there may be a greater issue at play that needs to be explored.
No one wants to be on the outside of a clique, whether it’s in the high school cafeteria or in the workplace. Employees will build friendships and those can be encouraged, but a cliquey environment can make coworkers feel lonely and excluded, which can easily reflect in their work.
Doing something the same way as always, even though it’s long since stopped being effective, can be a terrible business strategy. Rigidity in a workplace culture does nothing to inspire creativity or innovation, and it can lead to talented employees feeling stymied and held back.
Every job has quiet days and quiet weeks, but when going to work is consistently boring it can leave employees listless and uninspired. A boring workplace culture will leave employees disengaged, and make it hard to engage top talent. Employers should always strive to find a way to make things interesting where possible.
Employees love complaining about slow and antiquated technology. An outdated culture is more than just old technology though, it’s also old ways of thinking and old ways of looking at the market. These businesses can quickly become dinosaurs that have trouble adapting to new ideas and a changing world.
Employees should not have to move mountains to complete a simple task. Larger companies will inherently have divisions and teams, but a breakdown in communication can lead to unnecessary delays, duplication of work, and employees feeling stifled that they cannot properly contribute to a project.
Manager feedback is not always positive, and constructive feedback is often what helps employees grow and develop. Yet, if managers are frequently and unnecessarily critical, it can create a hostile workplace that encourages employees to be just as difficult with each other, which can significantly impact overall morale.
A disengaged culture can leave employees feeling aimless, with no passion for their work or for helping the company grow and develop. Disengaged employees are quick to look elsewhere because they simply don’t care, and this can lead to high turnover and poor performance.
No one can achieve great things without some help along the way. To work effectively, workers need to be supported both operationally and emotionally. Managers play a key role in this, which is why it’s important they’re supported as well!
How To Maintain The Type of Culture You Want
If you can’t tell what your workplace culture is like, take a step back. Look at your workplace from an employee’s point of view. Ask around, or run a proper anonymous survey asking questions such as “Do you feel able to contribute ideas?” and take the feedback seriously.
Cultural change has to start from the top and isn’t built overnight. When managed properly, though, it can help take your workplace from where you’re at today to where you want to be in the future.
For additional reading on company culture types and how to lead that change yourself, check out:
- Company culture, why it matters and how to improve your own
- 7 Company Values Examples From Top Organizations
- 7 Company Culture Examples From Successful Companies
- 13 Characteristics To Create A Sustainable, High-Performance Culture
- The CEO’s New Shoes: Maintaining Culture In A Rapidly-Scaling Business