What you have is a Clique not a Culture

Artificial culture is paint. Real culture is patina. I think I read this in 37 Signals’ book Rework, if not it certainly sounds like them. In any case I’ve often seen small & medium sized companies mistakenly believe they have a corporate culture when what they really have is a small group of individuals with a similar work ethic and skill level who unintentionally use their competence and influence to form a clique that excludes and baffles everyone else.

And you know what, for a small company it’s not a bad thing. The core band of clique members are likely to be the people who care most for the company outcomes and they’re likely to work harder than anyone else to achieve those outcomes. The camaraderie and influence that comes with acceptance into the corporate clique is a nice non-financial reward for their efforts.

But what to do about the people who can’t break in? I’d suggest this can often be resolved by simply not hiring anyone else. After all, do you really need another employee? A characteristic of clique members is that they informally carry out 2 or 3 roles, when they hire it is usually out of a desire to offload one of those roles. Almost by definition, that hire is not going to join the clique unless they too start putting up their hand for more responsibilities, but usually their first concern in the new job will be something like “where is my job description”. That’s where the trouble starts.

As soon as you have to start documenting things so that new people can follow some rules or steps to know how to “belong”, it’s at that point that you’ve started creating an artificial culture. If you really must hire, either A) write up a succinct job description and don’t hope for a new member of your clique (and accept that a clique is indeed what you have), or B) if you are after another clique member, have a short probation period, you’ll know one way or another after 2 weeks.