What Is a Culture Code?
- It’s the expected cultural norms of a company articulated and made transparent.
- It identifies the driving factors, people, and passions that create and sustain the culture and how we expect people to engage with one another.
- It’s the collective personality of a company.
- More than simply discussing general values, culture codes describe how a desired company culture is created and cultivated.
- A company adopting a culture code perceives its culture as not a random confluence of its people’s different values, beliefs, and actions. Instead, it’s something that can be shaped and directed.
A company’s culture is typically an unwritten code of conduct that staff members come to understand through their on-the-job experience. It is often not explicitly shared externally because it involves vulnerability in revealing internal aspects of a company. At the same time, the culture code is the core of a company’s unique characteristics, which influence accolades like “Best Places to Work” awards. Company culture has become one of the most important determining factors for why people join or leave a company.
As a company in the tech sector, Exponent Partners created their culture code as a “culture stack.” Just as a “tech stack” outlines all the essential technology services to build an application, Exponent Partners’ “culture stack” details the embedded values of building an organizational culture. The company explains its values in three essential components: clients, individual team members, and the company.
JB Media Group created its culture code within the frame of a honeycomb structure to represent the company’s values concerning interconnectedness, the natural world, the producing element (as a digital marketing agency), and connection with the wider B Corp community (e.g., the “B Hive”). The company’s values are held and expanded upon within the honeycomb cells.
With a collective goal to work with BIPOC-led organizations to advance justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion in their companies, Exponent Partners and JB Media Group met in 2021 in a cohort of B Corp-certified companies for a six-week Racial Justice Intensive led by subject matter expert and facilitator Hella Social Impact. Hella Social Impact is a BIPOC-women-owned business that supports leaders in dismantling systems of structural racism and white supremacy that marginalize, exclude, exploit, and harm Black, Indigenous, and non-Black People of Color. After the intensive, both companies developed Racial Justice Action Plans.
In 2022, Exponent’s VP of Talent and Culture and JB Media’s Director of People and Culture reconnected and shared updates on the progress of their action plans. They found they were both grappling with one element—creating an authentic organizational culture code. They agreed that a collaborative action learning approach would be the best way forward. So, they formed a “mini-cohort” with the two companies working again with Hella Social Impact to guide them through creating a culture code.
Exponent Partners and JB Media Group wanted to:
- Share the benefit of collaboration on a typically independent, private business practice to advance anti-racism in their companies (i.e., addressing anti-racism takes community).
- Anchor anti-racism in creating their culture codes and continually grow as companies where Black and non-Black people of color colleagues flourish and advance their careers.
- Make their company culture codes public and reveal the creation process through this case study.
Our Approach to Collaboration
This mini-cohort took place May 30, 2023, through July 25, 2023, with seven Exponent Partners staff members and six JB Media Group staff members, including leadership team members from both companies. Hella Social Impact devised and led the working process, which included three joint training and exchange sessions, asynchronous course materials, and guidance.
On the Cohort Working Process:
I saw moments of vulnerability as we all were asked to weigh in on several ‘sharing points’ along the way (e.g., during the discussion of privilege and systems). And, uniformly, both our team and the team of our B Corp peers were supportive through respectful and active listening and non-judgmental engagement.
I appreciated hearing the perspective and approach from another B Corp during our group sessions. Especially since our partner organization was in the creative field, it provided an especially interesting comparison for us being in the tech field.
We found the good aspects of our values reflected back in us (in working with another B Corp company), and we were challenged to articulate ourselves in certain areas more clearly and with specificity regarding social impact.
I did appreciate the opportunity to hear thoughts and insight into another company’s process. It helped us relate our own struggles and consider possible alternatives.
On Individual Perspectives of the Experience:
I was grateful for the opportunity to share ways that my own racial equity learning and unlearning is impacting how I think about our values. I was able to share my ideas in a way that felt complete without driving or overly steering the process.
There was a lot of vulnerability in our conversations about racism and anti-racism; I think there has to be. I see courage in those moments from people willing to engage authentically.
I was able to consider the duality of both my vulnerability from minority identities as well as privileges with equal measure to gain the most wisdom possible from the exercises. This will inevitably help me be a better leader.
There was one statement (made by Hella) that I wrote down and now is taped to my computer monitor, so I see it daily: “Diversity is a by-product of inclusion.” That shifted my thinking a bit and really resonated with me.
On the Guidance from Hella Social Impact:
I do really appreciate the Hella focus on systems, on dismantling those inherently based on perpetuating privilege or discrimination. And, of course, in building or rebuilding systems based on equity and inclusion aimed at equality of outcomes.
I always welcome the challenges and thought provocations from Hella’s gift of facilitating attention to the intersection of the personal with aspects of anti-racism. I also hugely value Hella’s art of bringing joyfulness to the table of tackling racism together.
I have facilitated processes that helped us write Culture Codes on behalf of other organizations. This was the first time we guided organizations to write their own. I actually think this has the potential to be way more impactful in the long run. This way, folks had to get their hands dirty (so to speak) and be even more involved in the process. I expect this creates even more buy-in that helps everyone (even me) understand how important it is to have a Culture Code in the first place.
Founder, Hella Social Impact
There will be a six-month or one-year follow-up in 2024 to:
- Track notable developments on topics in the survey questions;
- Capture any evolutions of the culture codes;
- Describe what has kept the culture codes updated and valuable to each organization, with input opened out to the broader teams of each company; and
- Note any metrics, such as demographic data of recruitment efforts, if feasible.
We also look forward to working with Hella Social Impact on improving our culture code and future self-education work, team training, and community involvement.