Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Corporate culture is the NEW rock and roll

It’s been one week since a New York Times report on the Tribune Co. and its corporate culture hit newsstands and the Web and the story is still generating chatter — locally and nationally, online and in print.

The story generated local interest for obvious reasons: Tribune Co. owns the Baltimore Sun, and its takeover of the daily paper and other prestigious media properties in January 2008, and its subsequent bankruptcy filing, have been closely monitored.

More titillating than its “financial hubris,” however, is the New York Times’ account of “sexual innuendo, poisonous workplace banter and profane invective” at the Chicago-based company. Call it Senior Executives Gone Wild (allegedly — said senior executives have denied much of the bad behavior recounted in the story, and board members say the stand behind Tribune management and their leadership of the company).

Three different people mentioned the story to me at last week’s “TechNite” celebration, I guess because I work in media and so the assumption was I would naturally be interested in any corporate shenanigans at The Sun’s parent company. And I suppose I am to an extent, in an I-can’t-believe-what-I’m-reading sort of way.

(Posting pictures of your office poker party on Facebook? Really? Plus, there’s the unintentional comedy of a corporate memo containing the phrase, “News and Information is the NEW Rock n Roll.”)

What I’m more interested in, though, is the whole notion of corporate culture.

Specifically, how different organizations perceive it, and value it, and try to change it, and communicate it to the rank and file. After reading the article, I updated my Facebook status to read: “Rob Terry believes that it really does come down to the culture.” Soon after I received a “Like” as well as this comment from Penny Lewandowski, the former head of the Greater Baltimore Technology Council and now the director of entrepreneurship development at the Edward Lowe Foundation in Cassopolis, Mich.:

“Culture rules! Every time. All the time. Funny — I just finished creating a PowerPoint slide on culture for an upcoming presentation.”

At Tribune — where the company’s chief innovation officer was suspended without pay Wednesday for sending an e-mail with a link to inappropriate videos —  the employee handbook was apparently rewritten shortly after real estate mogul Sam Zell bought the company. It read in part:

“Working at Tribune means accepting that you might hear a word that you, personally, might not use. You might experience an attitude you don’t share. You might hear a joke that you don’t consider funny. That is because a loose, fun, nonlinear atmosphere is important to the creative process. … This should be understood, should not be a surprise and not considered harassment.”

Having covered business for 12 years now, I’ve observed a lot of corporate cultures, some up close, some only from the periphery. Most were by the book, about what you’d expect. Some I’d even describe as fun and nonlinear. What the good ones all shared were leaders who worked really hard to forge a direct link between the culture and the company brand. They wanted employees — who, let’s face it, hear all sorts of feel-good talk about this stuff — to feel respected, their opinions valued, their concerns validated.

What they didn’t do was tell them what they should consider harassment, nor how they should feel about it. As Umair Haque wrote on the Harvard Business Review’s blog, corporate culture is a direct reflection of what an organization values. Is it out-and-out dominance? Or is it “about the capacity to evoke … the willingness to serve a bigger purpose than yourself”?

So tell us, what are your cornerstones of a good corporate culture? And how did you assess that before coming to work for your employer?