“Perks Culture” vs. “Purposeful Culture”

By BlessingWhite , a Division of GP Strategies

The  Wall Street Journal recently reported that Facebook is building a $120 million, 394-unit housing community a hop skip and jump away from their headquarters in California. According to the article, “Facebook’s sprawling campus…is so full of cushy perks that some employees may never want to go home.” All I could think was how much is too much?


Pizza Delivery In Office

Sure, perks are important for recruiting the brightest talent — especially young workers in today’s highly competitive labor markets (like the high-tech corridor of Silicon Valley). Perks like free food and a place to sleep can keep workers on site and, in theory, more productive. But we also know from our research that perks may actually keep the wrong (aka disengaged) employees in the organization as well.


The article really got me to thinking about the difference between a “Perks Culture” and a “Purposeful Culture.” A purposeful culture centers on a compelling mission and core values, with shared accountability for maintaining the high-performance work culture and delivering results. A purposeful culture, when combined with a killer business strategy, drives an organization’s performance and can tie directly to positive bottom-line results. A free lunch does not make a culture (and I’m not suggesting that Facebook doesn’t have a purposeful culture). My point is a culture based on perks can be dangerous!


Without a clear purpose, an organization is at risk of sitting on its successes and drifting over time into a state of low-performance. Alternatively, in the absence of a purpose, an organization can become solely focused on driving results, leading to burnout and employee churn.


“The cost of fringe benefits in this country has reached approximately 25% of the wage dollar, and we still cry for motivation.” – Frederick Herzberg in One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees? [HBR Jan 2003]


My past with perks


I used to work for an organization where we were provided with many perks. For example, all the employees’ meals were provided at no cost. Bins full of snacks and candy, great company parties, gym membership, free health benefits, etc. All of which were great when I started the job but I still ended up leaving. The reason? I didn’t feel respected. My colleagues and I were expected to work 12 to 14-hour days. If we didn’t, then the message was this: you weren’t working hard enough. The management was very much “command and control.” Senior-level leaders appeared untouchable, and the company was run much like a dictatorship. My colleagues often complained that they felt like drones. This corporate culture was not good at fostering employee performance. Eventually I crashed and burned, and left.


My experience with purpose


In 2000 I came to work at BlessingWhite. At the time, BlessingWhite had some great perks as well: free lunch, gym membership, nice company outings with colleagues and our families, etc. The major difference was its corporate culture and performance. Our managers and leadership team cared not only about how well I did my job, but they also respected my personal values, which in turn made me want to contribute more and help make the company succeed.


I’ll never forget my second day on the job. I was sitting at my desk, trying to figure out how my voicemail worked (I still have this same problem today), when our company president stopped at my desk and asked me, by name, how my first day had been. I know this may not be a big deal to many, but after the proverbial hell I worked in for years I couldn’t believe he not only remembered my name but took a moment to hear about my first day.


BlessingWhite has gone through many changes since the January I started working here. In 2001 we became an employee-owned company. Then 9/11 happened, which had a huge impact on our clients and therefore our business as well. When all this transpired we had to lose some of those “perks,” because we didn’t have a corporate “uncle or dad” giving us an allowance anymore. We were all grown up, on our own and on a budget (which was new to the BlessingWhite culture). Even through these changes the core values of the people and the company held firm.


And in 2008, when the recession happened, BlessingWhite did what most companies did to survive. We had to buckle down! Like a struggling family we rode out the storm. We lost almost all of those so called perks; we took temporary pay cuts, received no bonuses, and faced a greater workload with fewer resources. But yet again those core elements of “culture and values” did not change. We endured, we survived, and we became a stronger company.


Merging families


As many of you are aware, one year ago BlessingWhite became part of GP Strategies. As employees we all held our breath in fear of losing our strong culture. We were two families merging into one, not knowing if we were going to like our new colleagues or more specifically the new protocols and procedures. And like any merging of families without common core values, the possibility of failure is there. Over the past year we’ve experienced bumps in the road, but I’m glad to say the foundation is still solid: strong mission, core values, and personal accountability.


Tools for a high-performing culture


BlessingWhite believes that a strong and purposeful culture leads to a high-performing organization. It is designed around these three points:


    1. A clear, compelling corporate mission. How many people in your organization know the organization’s mission? Do you? Your mission needs to inspire, generate customer loyalty, ignite employee passion, and motivate. It should be inspiring and clear enough to engage employees.
    2. Shared values. Your organization’s values never change; your business strategies do change. These values should guide employees’ actions and business practices.
    3. Shared accountability. The culture within your organization affects everyone. It’s important that the entire organization understands what drives your culture, and everyone should share responsibility for sustaining it. A strong and purposeful culture encourages employee ownership of both the organization’s bottom-line results and its cultural foundation.


You will notice there is nothing mentioned above about snacks and game rooms being necessary to have a high-performance work culture?


The foosball table is not the solution


As I sit here today at the same desk I was in a year ago, I see all the colleagues I worked with before the merger, plus many new faces. However, I am very proud to say that many of them are the same people who were here when I first walked through BlessingWhite’s door 13 years ago.  If you get the corporate culture right, it provides the groundwork for the high engagement that can sustain your workforce through good times and bad. And that is worth every foosball table in the world.