You're doing it every time you hire a new employee - or promote or fire an old one.
You're doing it when you choose how to respond to a complaining customer.
You're doing it every time you hold a meeting or interact in any way with an employee.
You're doing it every time you establish, follow or disregard a company procedure or policy.
And you're doing it each time you address a question or concern raised by a customer, vendor, employee or insurer.
While many business owners don't spend a lot of time thinking about or cultivating their company's culture, every company has one - and it can have a serious effect on the company's success. So what exactly is a company culture and how do all the activities mentioned above impact it? More importantly, how can you improve your company's culture - and what are the benefits of doing so?
Why culture matters
Most business owners are at least vaguely familiar with the term "corporate culture," and indeed, larger organizations tend to place more focus than smaller ones on developing the culture they seek.
But Anie Chinarian, senior vice president of human resources for the 1,700- employee Caliber Collision Centers chain of shops, said every business, no matter what its size, has a culture. She said the culture for any business is essentially what everyone in that business sees as "the way we do things around here." She said a good way to look at it is to think of the different "cultures" there are among families sitting around a table for Thanksgiving dinner.
"Some families are pretty quiet, reserved and formal," she said. "Others are pretty loud and boisterous, always a joke, always a laugh. A family member may leave, but that family's personality is still there. Similarly, a culture in a business takes a long time to build. It definitely comes from the influence of the owners, the leaders, the managers. But it also takes on a momentum of its own."
But is thinking about the "personality" of your company really all that valuable, particularly if it's not something you can have 100 percent control over. Chinarian believes it is. For one thing, your company's culture can have a big impact on your employee's job satisfaction.
"It's been documented in plenty of surveys and research that when you have a stable, positive workforce, that has a very direct influence on things that do matter: things like quality, innovation, customer service, growth and profit," Chinarian said. "That's why building a positive culture is important."
It begins with relationships
Chinarian believes three primary things impact a company's culture.
"The first is relationships: How we build them, how we sustain them, what's important to us about them," she said. "Then we talk about traditions, established ways of doing things in our company. And lastly, we talk about values. Values are our core beliefs, the things that are kind of a moral compass, the things that help us know how to proceed when we have to make difficult decisions. Those three components end up building your culture."
The "relationship" aspect of culture revolves around how you treat other people. How formal are you and your employees with one another? Do you call each other by first name, last name or nickname? Is everyone treated with respect? Do you know something about your employee's kid's activities - or are you not sure if they have kids at all?
"The relationships you build with employees, the time you invest in that, the focus you put on that, has a lot to do with building the culture," Chinarian said. "And of course that spills out to customers. How you react and talk with customers is something employees see and emulate."
Everyone has had the experience of walking into a business where all the employees were on the phone or with another customer - or even just chatting with a co-worker. How you feel as a customer in that situation is largely driven by that company's culture. If an employee acknowledges you in some way, you know they will help you when they're done with what they're doing. But if they ignore you, it's easy as a customer to feel like you're an unwanted interruption and that you should take your business elsewhere.
"That environment, in either case, has been created by how owners or managers role model the types of relationships they want employees to have with one another and with customers," Chinarian said. "Remember that what you do every day says so much more than what you actually say to people. You're the one everyone is watching."
The relationship portion of developing a positive culture also entails creating consistent procedures and policies to reduce the sense of chaos, the problem of people not knowing what to expect.
Tradition is another important aspect of developing a positive culture within your company. Traditions often start very simply: bringing doughnuts in every Friday or holding a summer picnic every year for employees and their families.
"But they become things that people look forward to, that they know are part of being part of your business," Chinarian said. "They become ingrained, celebrated, or valued."
A good example of a tradition is recognizing employees on their key employment anniversaries with the shop: one year, two years, five years, 10 years.
Ten years of employment at Prestige Auto Collision in Mission Viejo, Califor-nia, earns a cruise to Hawaii, compliments of owners Bernie and Laurie Gates. Talk about incentive to stay on the job and do well.
The Gates regularly hold summer barbeques for the staff and their families. In addition, each year they throw a huge Christmas party at the Mission Valley Country Club as a way of saying thanks to insurance agents, vendors, dealership folks, employees and anyone who helps the company succeed during the year. And it is one hot ticket!
Earlier this year, Myron Hazen, president of Collision Repair Center, Inc., in East Moline, Illinois, celebrated one technician's 20th year with the company. At the party at a local pizza parlor, Hazen gave the employee a plaque and a framed copy of his first repair order and paycheck, and announced that the employee would now get 20 days of paid leave a year (up from 15). In addition, the company sent the employee and his wife on an all-expense-paid 7-day trip to Alaska.
"After 20 years, they deserve something special," Hazen said.
Less extravagant rewards work as well
But not all employee recognition has to be this elaborate or costly.
"It can be a small thing, a flashlight or duffle bag with the company logo, but it's marking the occasion and letting the employee know that they've passed a milestone and you're recognizing them and bringing them further into your business," Chinarian said.
A lot can be done at no cost, she said. If parking is at a premium near your business, give your "employee of the month" a coveted parking space near the building. Even just acknowledging at a company meeting something that an employee did can lead to getting more of that same behavior from other employees. Make it specific, Chinarian recommends, so that not only that employee but everyone else knows exactly what was done to draw the praise.
She admits that she herself wonders sometimes if people really care about this kind of acknowledgment.
Do people really care?
"But they do," she said. "We all do. It doesn't matter how old you are or how long you've been in the business or how routine your job is. You care to be recognized. You care to know you're doing a good job.
"As an owner, you care when an insurance company or customer or someone says, 'I like coming here because this is where I know I can depend on good work.' That's pretty much as close to an acknowledgment or reward or recognition you're going to get as the owner, and you like hearing that. So how we recognize and reward our employees is part of the tradition we build in the culture that we create."
William Parkins, general manager of Metro Auto Rebuild in Seattle, Washing-ton, agrees that acknow-ledgment can be more powerful than cash as an effective reward.
"Give a guy $50 and he can drink it up without even getting a hangover," Parkins said "But give a guy a reward in front of all his co-workers, call him up on what a good job he's done, maybe give him a gift certificate for a meal that he might not have otherwise gone to with his wife, that will last a lifetime."
Coming up: A third key element - communicating values
John Yoswick is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon, who has been writing about the automotive industry since 1988.