A Conversation on Culture

The cofounders of Cardigan Communications Group on why culture matters to today's candidates.
By: | November 27, 2018 • 3 min read

In a world in which just about everyone is competing hard for a limited supply of talent, what can help your organization stand out? Recruitment experts repeatedly point to the importance of organizational culture: By conveying an honest representation of your company’s work environment, values and people, you’ll be better able to attract the type of candidates you want.

Harold Hardaway and Shannon Hernandez are the co-founders of Cardigan Communications Group, a new boutique agency that helps organizations “find their voice” when it comes to culture and help them stand out to candidates. Prior to starting their company, Hardaway and Hernandez worked at H-E-B Grocery Co., a Texas-based supermarket chain that’s won accolades for its standout culture. Hardaway served as H-E-B’s director of corporate communications and culture, where he worked on integrating technology to reinforce corporate culture and engage employees at every level of the organization. Hernandez began her career in the HR department at Southwest Airlines prior to joining H-E-B, where she oversaw rewards and recognition and the health and wellness programs.

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One of their first assignments after forming Cardigan was producing the content for H-E-B’s careers site. I recently spoke to them about the role that culture plays in attracting top candidates.

What typically gets in the way of companies successfully communicating their culture to potential candidates?

Harold: Lots of times they want to communicate what other people are communicating about: pay, benefits, and so on. It’s sort of like, “Make a spreadsheet and compare what we offer to what our competitors are offering.” But, when it comes to that big culture component, getting something out that will really speak to your target audience, it’s about understanding what—aside from those other things—makes you unique compared to everyone else. So, it’s being introspective, digging into what that is, and then being able to articulate it and being honest about who you are.

Shannon Hernandez and Harold Hardaway

Can you elaborate on the “being honest” point?

Harold: Some places work really hard and people put in a lot of hours, but some people will choose to work for an organization like that because of all the other benefits they’ll get. I have friends who say about a job, “I’m going to have to work so hard, but the experience I’ll get out of it will last me far beyond that.” If you’re honest about what your culture’s like, then you’ll attract the right people because they’ll know what they’re signing up for. If you’re not a start-up, for example, and you don’t have that type of high energy you tend to find at startups, then don’t put a bunch of stuff online to make it seem like you have that. Sell what you actually have, rather than trying to sell something you don’t have.

What are some other ways in which companies can convey an honest impression of their culture?

Shannon: We find that using existing employees to help tell that truth for you can be really effective—it’s a great way to “show, don’t just tell.”

Harold: We did a bunch of focus groups for a client, and one thing that came up over and over again was “Show me—show me the people I’m going to be working with, some me the workplace, show me the projects.” People want to be able to see themselves in an organization, see if it’s a place they’d like to work and if it’s the type of work they want to be doing. One quote from that group has stayed with me: “I just want to know if I’m interested in solving the same types of problems you’re trying to solve.”

What role should recruiters play in conveying the culture to candidates?

Harold: One of the initial things would be an accurate description of the work environment and the expectations for the role you’re hiring for. Lots of times the recruiter will sell a candidate on the job and get them interested, but then the candidate goes in and talks to the hiring manager and the hiring manager tells the recruiter “Oh no, that’s not what I was looking for.” The recruiter can interview for culture fit to save both the candidate and the company time. The recruiter is the first line of defense for the company and for not wasting the candidate’s time.

Shannon: Recruiters also need to understand the importance of how they’re first in line to make a positive impression of the company for a candidate. Unfortunately, the recruiter might not mirror the image of the company. I think recruiters need to consider the impression they’ll make, how it reflects on the company they’re recruiting for, and make sure their energy matches that of the person they’re trying to recruit.

In your company materials, you note the importance of executive onboarding—what’s the connection between it and company culture? What are the steps to an effective executive-onboarding program? 

Harold: The leader really influences the culture of the organization. They’re moving into a new role without the years of experience that the other people in the organization have, so it’s important that they’re able to take the time to see the organization’s values in action. They need to understand the organization’s culture and people. If they come in and try and do things the way they did at their old company, that may not work. In terms of time, I think executive onboarding should last between two and three months to give the person enough time to observe and learn, to understand their new role and the people they’ll be leading.

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What are the most important elements of creating a strong employer brand?

Harold: The most important thing is authenticity. Be honest about who you are, and then find ways to bring that to life. And then it’s about trying to be consistent, so people don’t experience that dissonance where the brand conveys one thing but the reality is something quite different.

Shannon: I think one of the most important things about employer branding are the communication materials you’re using. Whether it’s conveyed via print, in person, or the booth you’re using at a career fair, all those things carry the branding. Consistent messaging is important, even from the standpoint of the quality of materials you use—if the paper stock is high quality, high value. So, it’s one thing to be authentic, but even when you get into the actual things you’re producing, they need to match in terms of quality.

Andrew R. McIlvaine is senior editor for talent acquisition at Human Resource Executive. He oversees coverage of talent acquisition and recruiting and also edits the weekly Recruiting Trends Bulletin e-newsletter and its associated website, RecruitingTrends.com. A Penn State graduate, Andy also spent two years in the U.S. Army prior to attending college and attained the rank of sergeant while serving in the Army Reserves. He can be reached at [email protected]