APU Business Careers Careers & Learning Podcast Politics in the Workplace

Assessing and Building Corporate Culture is Sound Business Practice

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Podcast featuring Dr. Linda C. Ashar, J.D.Faculty Member, School of Business and 
Dr. Suzanne Minarcine, Faculty Member, School of Business

Corporate culture is critical to the success of any business. In this episode, APU business professor Dr. Linda Ashar talks to Dr. Suzanne Minarcine about her work consulting with businesses to assess and improve their organizational culture. Learn about the role of leadership in establishing a positive work culture by valuing employees and customers over the bottom line. Also learn about strategies to assess culture, including conducting exit interviews for employees leaving the company, implementing clear policies allowing employees to freely report harassment or discrimination, conducting regular training sessions, and establishing zero tolerance for people who contribute to a toxic workplace.

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Dr. Linda Ashar: Welcome everyone to Politics in the Workplace for American Public University. This is Linda Ashar, professor at American Public University. I’m pleased to be with you today with our guest, Dr. Suzanne Minarcine.

We will be discussing corporate culture and what is corporate culture. The global definition is it refers to the beliefs and behaviors that determine how a company’s employees and management interact and handle internal procedures and relationships, and how they handle their outside business transactions.

It’s not something that every business defines. It’s the full embodiment of what a business is. Its global politics, if you will, of how it functions and its management philosophy. And a lot of it is implicit as well as explicit in its relationships with people and how it does its business.

Dr. Minarcine is well acquainted with the ins and outs of corporate culture. She is a consultant with businesses who need help with their corporate culture. Why would a business need help?

In today’s society, we have many issues that face businesses. One of them is diversity. Anyone paying attention to current trends in politics in the nation are certainly aware of the disunity our country has been facing over various issues, and that has not stayed out of the business world by any means. Issues relating to workplace harassment, discrimination, customer relationships—the issues can be vast and sometimes hard to define.

Dr. Minarcine, in addition to her doctorate degree, has many experiences in dealing in the business world. She is a licensed commercial pilot. She has run her own businesses. She’s an entrepreneur, sits on many boards of various sizes, nonprofit and for profit. She’s currently a visiting professor with Wesleyan. She is speaking to us today from her home in Macon, Georgia. She’s also a registered nurse and has vast experience in the healthcare industry. Suzanne, welcome. I am so pleased to have you with us today.

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: Thanks Linda. I’m happy to be here.

Dr. Linda Ashar: To start us off, what would you add to those comments?

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: I would say that corporate culture starts at the top and it rolls down. It can certainly be affected by people throughout the organization, but really leadership does set the tone, and leadership is critical to a positive corporate culture.

Start a Business degree at American Public University.

If we look at the big failures in corporate culture, if we look at Volkswagen, if we look at Lehman Brothers, if we look at Delta Airlines prior to the bankruptcy, they were all failures of the culture. They were caused by a shift from what are we doing for our customers to what are we doing for us?

Dr. Linda Ashar: Peter Drucker, who’s well-known as a management guru, once stated that, and I love this quote, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Could you expand on that a little bit?

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: You can have a great strategic plan, you can have a great strategy, you can be the best at whatever it is you do, and then when you lose sight of that. When management loses sight and when management shifts their focus, it can all collapse.

I use Delta as an example. The company was known for their customer service. They were totally debt free. They were a great company to work for, and they were the number one airline to fly. Then almost overnight, in just three years, they went from being one of the best airlines to bankruptcy. Jerry Grinstein took over as CEO and brought them out of bankruptcy and restored the culture, but it took a long time and a lot of effort at many levels.

Dr. Linda Ashar: But when you said their culture, that’s not just a downhill slide. That’s an avalanche.

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: Right.

Dr. Linda Ashar: How did culture do that, and so fast? What was it about their culture that caused that to happen?

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: The leadership no longer cared about anything but the bottom line. We can look at that with Volkswagen. We can look at that with a lot of companies. They lost sight of their customers. We have to remember, in terms of customers, that your employees are your customers too. You depend on your employees.

Before we talked about higher employee turnover costs for the company, a lot of money, and when you don’t care about your customers, when you don’t care about your employees, your employees are not going to care about anybody either.

Dr. Linda Ashar: It’s a pervasive attitude, is what you’re saying, that runs through the whole organization?

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: Right. The attitude goes from what can we do for everyone else to what can we do for our bottom line? This is why you see such successful cultures at places like Whole Foods and Costco, The Container Store. They work very well. Their focus, though, is on their customers, their employees, all the stakeholders. Everyone is valued.

Dr. Linda Ashar: You mentioned employee retention, and that is a very good topic regarding corporate culture because it is an insidious problem for any employer to deal with if they’re having a problem with it, because it may not be that easy for a given business to put its finger on why it’s happening.

Let’s hypothesize. If you are consulting for a company, a company comes to you and says, “Dr. Minarcine we have a retention problem. We’re losing our best employees. We get them trained to our business, the best ones that do well within three years, and we’re not figuring it out.” How do you approach that question if a company comes to you for help?

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: You have to look at how people interact with each other within the company. You have to look at how employees are valued and how employees are treated. Are they given opportunities for growth or is a place where you come and you’re just stagnant?

What happens when the employee has a life-threatening emergency or something? We’ve certainly seen difference in how companies have treated their employees during COVID.

One company that I’m familiar with closed; they paid their employees, and they made it a policy that if you were exposed then you were to quarantine for two weeks. You could not come in. They mandated masks. It made customers angry, but their goal was to protect their employees. So that’s a company that values its employees. We can certainly see other examples.

But in trying to figure out why employees leave, exit interviews are great. Exit interviews often need to be conducted by an outside person simply because people are often afraid to talk because they know that they’re dependent on that reference.

Dr. Linda Ashar: What do you look for in an exit interview if you are conducting one, whether you’re in-house or an outside person? What do you ask an employee?

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: I would ask the employee what could we have done better? Very simply, what could we have done better so that you would have stayed?

Dr. Linda Ashar: And I would think that you have to have a variety of those interviews, because any one employee is going to be a unique experience for that employee. I mean one employee might leave because they just have a better offer of more money, but that might not be why everybody is leaving.

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: Right. And money is quite often not the reason people leave. People will leave for opportunity. People will leave because the workplace is hostile, which of course is a cultural problem. But a lot of companies don’t realize it’s a hostile work environment. And this gets into gender, and it gets into perceptions, and it gets into our own expectations for how we’re treated in the workplace.

Dr. Linda Ashar: You mentioned hostile work environment. We also hear the term a lot, at least I do, toxic environment.

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: Yes.

Dr. Linda Ashar: What does that term say to you? What do people mean when they talk about a toxic work environment?

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: A toxic work environment is one where bad behavior is accepted. It’s “just boys being boys” type of bad behavior is accepted. It’s just that’s the way business is. I can give an example where employees are afraid for their jobs and they don’t work together. I’ve been working at the company for five years, you’re a new employee. I don’t want to share with you what I know because then you will know everything I know and you might be as valuable as I am.

When you have that type of culture where everyone is in a protective mode, they’re afraid to share, they’re afraid to help, they’re afraid to support their colleagues, this is toxic. This is what toxicity is all about.

Dr. Linda Ashar: How do you start with the workplace that’s toxic?

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: It’s starts at the top and it starts with leadership. You have to talk to the leader, find out what’s going on. What is their perception? Are they even aware? If they’re not aware, that’s another symptom of toxicity.

Then you have to talk to people within the workplace. What’s going on? What do they think is going on? What is their number one gripe? What would they like to see changed? How secure do they feel in their job? A toxic work environment can often happen if a company is struggling financially and the future is uncertain.

Dr. Linda Ashar: There are some famous cases of workplaces that have been turned around. One that comes to mind is Denny’s restaurants, and I can say that because it’s been well-stated in litigation. One of the famous lawsuits against them was the Secret Service employees served them with a lawsuit for race discrimination in one of the restaurants in, I believe it was Maryland.

Eventually Denny’s was turned around to be a completely different type of organization, which showcases that that can be done, even with a large organization. Are you familiar with the Denny’s story?

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: I am somewhat. That’s been a while back. But it’s very similar to the story of Cracker Barrel, where there was racial discrimination against customers. They were sued as well, and that’s probably a little older than the Denny’s. Denny’s, they did turn their culture around. The CEO recognized that there was a problem.

Dr. Linda Ashar: It seems to me that they improved employee leave. Again, they started from the inside and how employees were—that’s what made me think of Denny’s—was you were talking about employees valuing their jobs, and how employees are treated translating to how they, in turn, treat customers.

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: Denny’s had to pay $54 million to settle their lawsuits by Black customers who had been refused service or had had to wait longer than white customers. This problem was not unique to Denny’s, but it was quite an ordeal, $54 million.

It involved even a federal judge who had been traveling and he waited almost an hour to get a table with his wife, and he was taunted by a group of white teenagers. Then, of course, there was the Secret Service agent who was assigned to Bill Clinton. They wouldn’t seat him, but they would seat his white colleagues.

So if you think about this, think about when Bill Clinton was President. This was long after the Civil Rights Act, long after desegregation. So these attitudes are still pervasive.

Dr. Linda Ashar: Indeed they are. I just read in The New York Times another publicized workplace that an employee resigned citing it as a toxic workplace, an art museum in Indianapolis.

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: That’s an interesting story, because Charles Venable, he was the director and CEO, and he had written an ad, placed an ad in the paper for trying to hire someone white who would protect the heritage of the museum and their primary customers. This has been a huge uproar in Indianapolis. It was just overnight that this happened.

Dr. Linda Ashar: Yeah. Exactly. The newspaper article stated that the ad went unnoticed until February 12th. The ad said that they need a director capable of maintaining the museum’s “traditional” core “white” art audience. The thing that struck me though was not just that the CEO put the ad in the paper, but that this ad reportedly was reviewed by other people of the museum leadership before it was published.

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: Right.

Dr. Linda Ashar: Even though he has been the one who has resigned about it, he is not the sole leader wearing this brand?

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: No. No. He’s not, because that ad was approved by the board. The ad said they wanted to attract a more diverse audience but maintain its traditional core white art audience. I find that astounding. Yes, you want to maintain your donors. You want to keep the people you have donating and attending, but if you want a diverse audience, you certainly cannot say we want to maintain our white audience too. That’s the antithesis of what diversity is all about.

Dr. Linda Ashar: What is it about the culture that says that it needs to maintain a white core to be diverse? There’s something very counterintuitive about that, isn’t there?

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: Right. There is. And there’s nothing diverse about maintaining a white core.

Dr. Linda Ashar: Or any racial core. This is certainly very alarming because it’s white and what’s going on around the country anyway, but still that’s not what diversity is about.

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: No. Diversity is about opening it up to everyone. This job posting was extremely over the top, and part of the Newfields Art Museum; 85 employees and members of board of governors wrote a letter and called for his resignation. 1,900 artists and local art leaders also got involved and called for his removal, and they are looking into the culture of the museum.

Dr. Linda Ashar: Is Newfields the Indianapolis Museum?

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: Yes. Newfields is the Indianapolis Museum. They’ve got to take a long hard look at their board. They’ve got to take a long hard look at their governors. They’ve got to look at their membership and look at are they welcoming to a diverse population?

Something they could do, that I would recommend they do, get an advisory board. Reach out to the underserved communities in the art world. Reach out to minority artists and bring them in. Showcase their work. What Venable said was the intent was that the museum was not going to abandon its existing audience as it expanded.

Dr. Linda Ashar: That is defining inclusion as abandoning somebody. That isn’t what inclusion and diversity are even defined as. But he’s made that statement because it is his belief in making it, and clearly the belief of some others, that that’s what diversity means.

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: That’s not the way to do it. The way to do it is to welcome people, to open up, to encourage and develop the talents and embrace the work of these artists. White should never have been in there.

Dr. Linda Ashar: When a business is struggling to define corporate culture, especially in terms of diversity, and this is a larger issue in defining diversity in my belief, I’m interested in your thoughts on it, is that there is this inherent logical fallacy that diversity and inclusion somehow must color everybody in being included in some way.

What I’m saying is, if this group we’re including is green, somehow then we’re going to color everybody else green too. Or if people are white, then we make other people that are being brought in more white. Or if we’re bringing in people who are of color, whatever their color, then white people are going to lose their color.

That isn’t what inclusion means. It doesn’t mean taking a brush—I’m an artist as well as other things that I do in life—if you take a brush and mix it all together you lose any color. That’s not what diversity means. It’s all the colors on the sheet.

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: Right. In the anti-racism training that I’ve done, we’ve looked at a community as a tapestry. We’re a tapestry. We’re not a melting pot. I don’t like the term melting pot. I prefer the term tapestry. When you put a bunch of crayons in a pot and you melt them, you come up with a blob, but if you interweave them together you can come up with something very beautiful.

The thing is, being in an inclusive environment does not change my whiteness. It enriches my whiteness by giving me experiences I would not have if I were the type of person who chose to only affiliate with people who look like me.

Dr. Linda Ashar: We were speaking about exit interviews and employees leaving giving a company a heads up about their culture. In the Indianapolis Newfields Museum, prior to this issue with Venable’s resignation and the ad issue, they had a diversity curator who left last year. Are you familiar with that?

She left with a letter explaining to them that they had, and she used the word toxic. She was hired, it’s my understanding, to improve and expand the museum’s acquisitions and overall diversity in their artistic efforts at the museum, and was not able, at least in terms of her experience, to effectively do that.

She cited an incident with a meeting with the board where someone at the board reduced her to tears, she alleged. Are you familiar with that?

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: Kelli Morgan was recruited in 2018. She resigned last July, and she said the culture was toxic and discriminatory, and that says a lot. So she gave the board members and Venable a warning. She also sent it out to the local news media and to artists.

She said that while they had started some diversity, equity and inclusion training, it was not enough. There was no investment in what is being learned, and there’s no application to what was being learned in the training.

You can go sit in diversity training all day long, but if you’re not invested in the training, if you’re not paying attention to the training, and if you’re not committed to doing something about it, then you’ve wasted your time.

Dr. Linda Ashar: You mentioned leadership. If the leadership is not invested, that’s going to be a death knell to it right there, it seems to me. Because employees and anybody else is going to react to how they see leadership behaving on a day-to-day basis.

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: Yes. And it takes a lot of time for new leadership to overcome the damage done by previous leaders.

Dr. Linda Ashar: I’d like to spend a few minutes about training. Because I think that’s where you’re saying ultimately evaluation of corporate culture; we define problems; we identify problems; we don’t like the way the culture is working; but resolving it is certainly not simply saying we need to change it?

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: No. It takes a commitment from the top, and this is how Delta turned itself around. This is why Zappos has always had such a great corporate culture. This is how Volkswagen is turning itself around. You’ve got to have a commitment from the top, and then people have to see it in what you do every single day. There has to be a zero tolerance level.

I’m working with someone right now who had communicated that sexual harassment would not be tolerated and he went on to say, “I don’t want to hear anything about it.” Now what he meant to say was, you better not be doing it, okay? But the way he communicated it was a message to the women in this workplace that you cannot report it because he wasn’t interested.

My recommendation to him was, first of all, to apologize, own up for his communication errors, and communicate his true intent. And then to do some focus groups, and then do some education. There are probably going to be some people who have to leave the workplace, who just aren’t going to be a good fit in this new model that embraces diversity.

Dr. Linda Ashar: When I was practicing law full-time, employment law was one of the areas that I worked in most. And I worked with a lot of employers, and corporate culture was a real element of working with employers that had issues with workplace harassment.

The situation I’m thinking of is a company that had their top salesperson was a serial harasser, not in terms of doing so much physically. That probably could have been the easy situation to deal with, but it was the way he spoke and the way he liked to try to get women to go out with him and didn’t take no for an answer.

That type of consistent behavior was a problem for the company because eventually they had a fairly serious complaint about this fellow from another employee. And to complicate the problem, it wasn’t their first rodeo with him.

You go through the litany of what are your options? One option is, and what many employers were doing, was the harasser is gone. This was not an issue, well was there or wasn’t there harassment? This guy just freely admitted things he did and didn’t think there was anything wrong with it.

But he was their top salesman, brought in a lot of money. They didn’t want to let this guy go. The bottom line was, how much can you afford to pay in a lawsuit? How much can you afford to pay government fines if government agencies like the EEOC get their teeth into this, because there’s a track record here?

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: Not only that, can you afford to lose customers? Because I guarantee you there will be customers out there who will hear of this and some may applaud his behavior. We’ve certainly seen bad behavior applauded in the past. But there will be other people who will be horrified and they’ll take their business elsewhere.

Dr. Linda Ashar: I won’t go into how that was all finally resolved, but the incident that I’m relaying is not an unusual event. I mean it’s reported in plenty of cases, public cases.

It’s a problem for companies that have a culture of bottom line. You mentioned it earlier I think about keeping their eye only on the bottom line extends to evaluating a problem like that one, which is the bottom line is more important than what we say about workplace harassment when it comes to an individual like this one, who’s a producer, because this is what’s really more important. You have to run a business. We can talk about culture all day, but we’ve got to run a business. How do you respond to that?

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: You’re going to lose business, bottom line. When you have a company that condones bad behavior your customers feel it, and your customers will go somewhere else. You will lose employees. You’ll lose your top employees, because employees, if they’re good employees they have other options and they don’t have to stick around.

One person like that is like a virus and it infects the whole organization. So my advice to leadership would be move on and develop those talents in someone else. There are lots of talented people in this world. I’m not the only one, you’re not the only one, this guy is not the only one. Move on. Cut your losses, separate yourself from that person, and do it right. Treat your customers right. Treat your employees right. If you treat your employees right they will treat your customers right.

Dr. Linda Ashar: What are some wrap-up advice you would give to a company that wants to assess its corporate culture, even if it thinks things are going well? To kind of do a wellness check, even if it’s not experiencing problems at the moment?

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: Right. I would say talk to people. Listen. Focus groups are good. Town hall meetings are good, as long as you give voice and let them speak too. You don’t want communication to go one way. You’d be amazed at what you’ll find out when you actually listen to people.

Listen to people on the front lines. One of the things I did with my hospice organization is I included every level of employee in our team meetings, even the unlicensed employees. The reason I did this was they often know more about what’s going on in the organization than the licensed people. Don’t ever underestimate what someone has seen or heard or knows.

Dr. Linda Ashar: That’s excellent. Those are excellent. Suzanne, I really thank you for your time today. It’s been a great discussion, certainly timely. I look forward to a chance to speak with you again on Politics in the Workplace.

Dr. Suzanne Minarcine: I would love that. Thank you so much.

Dr. Linda Ashar: We’ve been speaking today with Dr. Suzanne Minarcine about corporate culture, an important and timely topic for business. Thank you for listening. Please join us again for our podcast with American Public University.

About the Speakers

Dr. Linda C. Ashar is a full-time Associate Professor in the School of Business, American Public University, teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in business, law, and ethics. She obtained her Juris Doctor from the University of Akron School of Law. Her law practice spans more than 30 years and includes employment law and litigation on behalf of employers and employees.

Dr. Suzanne Marlowe Minarcine is an active professor, writer, speaker, coach, retired airline pilot, nurse, and trainer. She is a seasoned entrepreneur who has successfully established and operated four businesses, including an adult day care center, a hospice, a flight school with 89 aircraft, and a home care company. Dr. Minarcine is founding partner of Sky High Aerial Drones, an aerial photography and aviation education company. She is President and CEO of the Organization for Research and Community Development Global, a non-profit which grew out of Afghanistan and currently serves 22 countries. She currently teaches in the business department at Wesleyan College. 

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