is “we have a great culture” an attempt to disguise low pay and weak benefits?

A reader writes:

I have been noticing for the last 18 months or so that my employer has been putting a lot of emphasis on their culture, most likely in response to the Great Resignation, but they have done little to change pay and benefits, or what I like to think of as the reason that I go to work.

There is nothing about my employer that is different from any other employer. The values and expected behaviors are rather cliché and there are no particularly interesting perks that you wouldn’t find in any other office. When it comes to pay, what we get at hire is usually good, but annual raises aren’t anything to write home about, and it sounds like our next round of annual increases will only be slightly higher than normal despite inflation (like 3.2% instead of 3%). When it comes to benefits, premiums for health plans have skyrocketed, and I’m noticing any benefits besides health plans and PTO are slowly being cut.

It feels to me like they are just trying to get everyone to drink the Kool-Aid and ignore that we are fall farther and farther behind the rest of market. In other words, they think a great company culture is a substitute for good pay and benefits. Am I being too cynical or am I seeing a potential warning sign?

You are not being too cynical.

Whether or not they really think the culture is enough to substitute for good pay and benefits isn’t really the point. (They might think that! People running organizations often have an incredible ability to delude themselves about things like that.) What matters is what they’re trying to convince you of and why, and it sounds like you’re seeing that pretty clearly.

{ 147 comments… read them below }

  1. Dust Bunny*

    Also, that doesn’t even sound like a great company culture.

    I work for a nonprofit and it’s understood that we’re underpaid but we still have decent benefits and generous PTO that we’re encouraged to use, and they do try to give the best raises they can, get us decent furniture, etc. We have very low turnover and I’d say that, yes, the culture is the reason for it, but they’re not cutting things like your workplace is.

    1. Sloanicota*

      Yeah, I *have* seen cultural values come into play when pay and benefits aren’t great – but it’s usually about an great-than-normal degree of flexibility in hours and independent work style. Used to be supporting remote work, but this isn’t a way to stand out as much as it was (my work has not figured this out, they used to coast on that alone).

      1. ferrina*

        Yep- work-life balance can definitely help make up for some of the pay, but it’s way better to have competitive pay and healthy work-life balance.

    2. Drago Cucina*

      This was the case at previous workplace. As a public library that operated on appropriations there was very little I could do about pay. We also had decent benefits and generous PTO. We had a rotating Saturday and I encouraged people to tweak their day off (it took a lot of diagramming) so that they could have a three day weekend every month.

      Would I have paid more? In a hot second. Short of that ability the thing I had most control over was culture.

      1. Sara without an H*

        Fellow librarian here. As director of Tiny College Library, I had no control over salaries, BUT I tried to make up for it by giving employees as much flexibility as possible.

        Btw, we also had a rotating Saturday shift. Some people liked to take a three day weekend, others liked a free Wednesday. As long as we had coverage, I told them to suit themselves.

    3. Startup Survivor*

      Also: low raises with market level initial offers often leads to pay inversion, which is a prime area for gender or racial pay disparities.

      1. Really?*

        It also means that motivated existing employees who do want to get paid appropriately need to leave….

    4. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain*

      Same here. I work for a non-profit and accept that my salary reflects that but as long as my actual needs are met plus a comfortable cushion, I value my coworkers, our work, the culture of collaboration with leadership (mostly), our generous leave, comfortable environment, short commute, other benefits and reimbursements that I would never get in the for-profit sector, our mission…etc. as soon as those get chipped away, Show Me The Money becomes more and more important.

      And it’s funny what becomes a hill to die on for employees in non-profit… pay for parking! No more swag (I’m actually glad we aren’t buying a bunch of throw away crap anymore)! Wear a visible badge! My hill is parking…I’ll park blocks away and pay public parking to the city, but my employer pays me to come to work not the other way around, and I know that’s slightly irrational.

      1. Allegra*

        Ditto. I know I could make more money moving to the for-profit side of my industry, but I’m staying at my job for the culture–great work-life balance, I care about our mission, and our benefits are excellent for a nonprofit. I realized when we started coming back to the office a few days a week that I genuinely enjoy working with every one of my colleagues, too; I was happy to see every single person and I still am. But, crucially, nobody’s trying to take those things away and convince us we’re all happy anyway!

    5. DJ*

      Years ago I worked for a non-profit. Admittedly wages aren’t good but they can compete by actually being nice workplaces. But with this one the manager would advise workers of the main culture were poor workers, would say it was unacceptable to use accrued time made up to leave before 5pm despite nothing urgent needing to be done, favour certain staff over others etc. When asked if the non working air conditioning had been reported and when did building management indicate they were going to fix it replied they don’t have air conditioning in 3rd word countries. With that last comment I stated “Seeing it’s not been reported I’m going to report it now” and went to walk out the door to do so. Funnily enough this manager run after me saying “it’s been reported”. I’m sure the manager would have described the workplace as having a “good culture”.

      1. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain*

        Yikes! But that shows one part of culture that’s really difficult to quantify and why culture (and not just salary) is important…does the company value its employees and act on their feedback? Was HR or leadership ever told about your manager and would they have stepped in to fix it or just brush it off? The org as a whole can have a good culture but still have bad employees… people are people… how does everyone respond? Blame, ignore, gaslight, give everyone a donut…or take meaningful steps to fix it?

  2. Ailurophile*

    How great can the culture be if wages are low and benefits are subpar? The company doth protest too much, methinks!

    1. Beth*

      It probably means “We think we treat you well, although we don’t really know what that means and it certainly doesn’t mean pay or benefits, but we’re sure everyone else is meaner than we are, yay.”

    1. LW for this post*

      Funny, you should bring that up, I was looking at our recognition programs and noticed that the “rank and file” have a peer to peer program for which the recipient can print out a crummy certificate. There’s also a manager to employee program that gets the crummy certificate, but gets you in a raffle for such a small cash prize no one would care. Managers, however, have a reward for their team, having excellent performance that results in a big cash prize and extra vacation time for the year. So yes, great for management.

      1. KRM*

        Wow. We have peer to peer recognition here too, but it’s way better. You can send cards and kudos for every day things (think ‘thanks for picking up my temperature sensitive package while I was in a meeting), points for bigger things (10-50, for things like “taking care of my developing cell line while I was at a conference) and even things beyond that (team/individual awards over 100 points). And the points are 1 pt = $1, and you can choose from a huge catalog of things, or get gift cards. So yeah, they’re doing you dirty on that front too.

        1. desiree*

          we have this sort of thing at my company too but the merch available in the catalog is either company logo branded or take a lot of points

  3. Just Another HR Pro*

    I am so cynical that at this point I just consider it yet another piece of fluff I ignore completely. I pretty much only look at the job description and make my inital decision to apply based off of that. Unless of course I KNOW the company’s reputation for a fact.

    Having worked in HR for over 15 years, I can tell you for an absolute fact that 99% of that stuff on a careers page is crap – including the videos of people who work there who love their jobs.

    but again – I am very cynical and my job certainly hasn’t helped.

    1. Honor Harrington*

      Totally agree. I moved into HR a few years ago, and I was shocked at what I learned. I didn’t think I was naive, but learning just how much BS there actually is shocked me.

    2. Antilles*

      I don’t think you’re too cynical in treating it as fluff in application materials and job descriptions – because in my experience every company claims they’ve got a strong culture, regardless of whether or not it’s true.
      It’s no different than if they say they’re a “great company”. Well of course you’re going to say that!

      1. Kuddel Daddeldu*

        Welp, a heap of manure is a strong, fertile culture, but I’d not want to work in the middle of one. So companies should cut it out and let facts (decent, posted wages, reasonable benefits, retention rates…) speak for themselves.

    3. SP*

      I was made aware of how completely bullshit company marketing images of “real employees” are when my company sent out a meeting invite for a company picture. There were two invites— one marked mandatory that went out to women and minorities, one marked optional for everyone else.

      There’s a big collage of employee pictures in one of their client facing boardrooms, the vast majority of the pictures depict women who have since quit and sued the company for sexual harassment and discrimination.

      1. Luca*

        That reminds me of the time I saw photos of three guys modeling personal flotation vests, for a promotion on boating safety. One guy was ruled out because TPTB didn’t like how his last name would look in print.

      2. MigraineMonth*

        There’s a hilarious skit I saw a couple of years ago about the only black student on a college campus who realizes he is being stalked by the college brochure photographers. Wish I could find it again.

    4. Justin*

      That’s the thing. It is actually true at my company and they pay well but because every other company is lying I didn’t believe them when I applied.

    5. rebelwithmouseyhair*

      ooh yes. I remember my boss wanted videos of employees saying how much they liked working there, but decided to do it on the cheap, so he filmed us himself. I made sure to scratch my nose regularly as I “enthused”, so the pro who had to edit the footage ditched all the recordings with me in it. And I didn’t manage to say that I loved working there, even though I did say, very truthfully, that my work was really interesting.

  4. Sharkie*

    See a great company culture would not be cutting those things. Culture is having those benefits BECAUSE they can’t pay you. The current company I am at has solid pay but gives us off a full week off paid (yes even hourly) without taking pto in the summer and encourages us to work the hours that make sense to us ( we just have to be available during core hours)

    1. Sloanicota*

      I think there *is* an aspect of culture that is distinct from salary and benefits, although it’s unusual that they’re not related, but it might be like, employees are generally trusted to manage their own time, employees are supported in career growth (as evidenced by the fact that people have stayed a long time and advanced from entry-level positions to upper management), the company doesn’t nickel-and-dime people on things like hours and PTO, etc etc. I suppose there could also a generally pleasant atmosphere of polite civility that only comes by enforcing “zero a**hole” type rules – or maybe a warmly social culture where employees are given lots of opportunities to connect personally (some hate this, some love it, but it is a form of culture). These things weren’t mentioned in OP’s summary either!

      1. Sharkie*

        Oh totally, but it I think alot of that comes because smart people are like “we cant pay, what else will keep people?” but then again I am a bit spoiled so my view is a bit skewed on this.

      2. Harried HR*

        Company Culture is definitely a thing though… current job is creative industry and there is definitely a type of personality that fits with the company culture. We have had employees who were too buttoned up or nmj (not my job) or abrasive that didn’t work out. They looked perfect on paper had the skills to do the work but still 100% were bad hires.

  5. KHB*

    I mean, a truly great culture can make up for slightly lower pay and benefits. If it’s a choice between, say, making $95K working on a truly supportive team with great people, and making $100K working with a bunch of jerks, I’ll take the former all day long.

    But “great culture” actually has to mean something. Just because company culture is less tangible and less quantifiable than pay and benefits doesn’t mean you can just say you have a great culture when you don’t.

    1. Sloanicota*

      I’d agree that having a great boss and a great team will compensate somewhat for less money, but I wouldn’t even be confident this was truly the culture of the organization – sometimes it’s just your own small clan that forms. So often when that boss leaves or there’s enough turnover, you lose that magic – meaning it was not actually the culture of the organization broadly.

      1. KHB*

        Oh, for sure – in fact, this is my life right now: My direct team is awesome, but upper management is a bunch of corporate-BS-talking clowns. My (awesome) boss was driven to quit in disgust earlier this year, his (also awesome) second-in-command has been running in circles trying to do two jobs for the past six months because it seems there’s nobody else in the world who’s both willing and able to fill my boss’s shoes. I’m really hoping we can find a way out of this that will land us on our feet, but I’m not confident at all – which is why I’m job-searching.

        1. Esmeralda*

          Whenever my boss calls me over for a meeting where he says please close the door, my first response is, Please don’t say you’re quitting.

          Because the academic-BS-talking clowns above him are taking a toll…

    2. Gnome*

      Yes. This.

      And there are some tangible culture things people can point to, but the lack of them is often telling. Examples: culture of results (is the task done) more than hours, flexible hours to work around things like doctor appointments, funding for training and professional development, clear cases of people being allowed to transfer internally (as opposed to being blocked).

    3. goducks*

      I agree with this. Also, that difference in pay for a good culture is something I’m more willing to do if I’m working a 95-100k job than if I’m working a 25-30k job. If I’m making a wage that’s comfortable for my family to live on, a few thousand dollars vs. a great working experience is entirely a different calculus than it would be if I need every penny to get by.

      1. The Original K.*

        Yes – there was a letter a couple of years ago in which the writer applied for what he thought was his dream job, but the pay wasn’t enough for his family to live on (he mentioned he’d need to go into debt to make ends meet). When he tried to negotiate they yanked the offer and he was wondering if he was wrong to try. The consensus was “nope, and a dream job that has you running a deficit isn’t a dream job. All the culture in the world won’t matter if you can’t pay your bills.”

    4. Irish Teacher*

      Yup. I was thinking the same. I would prefer to work with friendly, cooperative people and earn a little less than work with obnoxious people or bullies and get a little more, but…well, ofr one thing those aspects of culture are fairly subjective. For some people, a group of colleagues who went out for drinks after work at least once a week would signify “a great culture.” For others, that would be their worst nightmare. For some a lot of collaborative work would be ideal while for others, being able to work independently and in peace a significant amount of the time would be the ideal culture.

      It’s also something that can change and to be honest, low pay could cause it to change if only because people are more likely to move on.

      And it’s not always something the company can claim much credit for. I’ve come across places that had great supportive cultures where I’ve suspected it’s partly because they WERE such terrible places to work. People looked out for each other because…well, that was the only way to make the job bearable and because it was awful for everybody there was no judgement among peers if somebody was struggling.

      And companies aren’t always the best judges as to whether or not they DO have a “great culture.”

  6. Neon*

    Organizations that actually have a great culture don’t need to spend much time talking about how great the culture is.

    1. KHB*

      That’s a really good point. It’s like how I tell my coworkers (we’re in the communications/media space) that they should never have to tell their audience that what they’re about to say is “interesting.” If it really is interesting, that should be self-evident.

      1. rebelwithmouseyhair*

        Yes, like decency and honesty and integrity: you don’t tell people these are your qualities, you only show them. Someone who tells me he’s honest immediately gets my hackles up, and I start looking for instances of lying. Because it’s the surest sign that he’s a liar, as is any accusation of other people lying when you have absolutely no proof, when that’s your first reaction to something.

    2. L'étrangère*

      Another cynic here, but basically I’d say the more they talk about it the less true it is, as in many other domains

    3. NYC Taxi*

      Agree. If you can show me that you have a great culture by treating your employees well, you don’t need to keep telling me about it. I admit I’m cynical, but “Great culture” and “we’re a family” are the two red flags that would get me running away as fast as possible.

    4. Will Work For $*

      Similar to how actually smart people don’t usually spend much time insisting on how smart they are (they just display a natural curiosity about the world around them). Doth protest too much, etc etc.

    5. Gnome*

      Yep! An individual might talk about what they personally love about it, but the corporate speak “we have good culture” is… not much of an organic message

    6. Chickaletta*


      And I can assure you as an EA who sees how execs think behind the scenes, the more you hear “we’re a great company to work for”/”here’s a little token of our appreciation” (cue corporate branded gift)/”here’s a certificate in recognition of your hard work on blah blah blah” – this is a good sign that they are trying to head-off resignations, discontent, and financial issues. The more you see of the former, the more they’re seeing of the later.

    7. Daisy-dog*

      I disagree. A great culture is usually really intentional and it stays that way by being a frequent topic of conversation. It isn’t a generic: “Our culture is so great. It’s just all culture-y and greatness.” It’s much more of a real conversation.

      1. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain*

        I agree with you Daisy Dog…and a great culture intentionally has room for different people; both the happy hour drinks, collaborative, face-to-face, we’re a family people, AND the work-life separate, we are professionals, go home to my family at 5:00, work independently people.

  7. SereneScientist*

    LW, I’m personally of the opinion that a company’s culture *can’t* be great without good benefits and care/attention paid to employees.

    I switched jobs this year from a mid-sized research company that uses its culture as a selling point the way yours does to a large global firm that is often tauted publicly for its culture. And it turned out to be true–the atmosphere here is collaborative and not-too-serious, and nearly all of my coworkers are intelligent, kind, and very willing to help. I think this is due in no small part to the company’s generous benefits for all employees, exempt and non-exempt. My colleagues and I have reason to contribute to our culture because we are treated with dignity and respect.

    1. SereneScientist*

      Said prior employer talked the talk about culture, but never really walked the walk. So while there were a handful of folks in the org who helped to make the culture better than other similar firms…as soon as those people left, things started to fall apart.

      1. KRM*

        That’s funny because I left OldJob where they talked a lot about establishing the culture, but then the majority of our ideas were blocked by HR (there was only one real HR person at the time)! Then HR got fired (the culture things, not doing anything to keep departing employees (including me), general incompetence) and the culture dramatically improved because people on the culture committee were able to implement their ideas! And others really liked them! And it became the place that HR had SAID they wanted but wouldn’t implement.
        So, same kind of thing with the opposite result :)

        1. SereneScientist*

          That is so interesting! Yeah, those obstacles to building a better culture can be anywhere in the org but HR is especially culpable as your example shows.

  8. carcarjabar*

    One department in our very large firm recently sent out a survey on improving culture. The survey invited us to participate in (no joke) knitting club, baking club and book club. Outside of working hours, with our coworkers. I shamelessly created a ReplyAllmageddon to let everyone know that the way to improve culture is through pay, benefits, respect, support, work-life balance, advancement opportunities, etc etc etc… and that suggesting to a primarily female department that we should devote our unpaid, personal time to KNITTING to improve the firm’s culture was incredibly problematic….. So, that was a fun day for everyone.

    1. A. Tiskit & A. Taskit LLC*

      Well, some people would happily participate in some or all of those clubs, and some of your colleagues may already have seized on those opportunities. BUT – clubs are NOT a substitute for competitive salaries, generous time-off, good medical benefits and opportunities for advancement. It’s not either/or…but some companies clearly think that it IS – sigh!

      1. KRM*

        I know! I’d love to participate in all those things, but not as a substitute for having a real discussion about culture! More as a “here’s a few clubs where you can get together with fellow employees, some of whom you may not know, and have fun”. Not “so instead of paying you, we’re starting a book club! Aren’t we fun?”

        1. rebelwithmouseyhair*

          And maybe the people you’d like to spend time knitting with are not the people you’ve just had to hammer out TPS reports with

    2. commonsensesometimesmakessense*

      oh, that is awesome! What did the people suggesting this stuff say to it? What was the response? Give us more!

      1. carcarjabar*

        Wellllll, nothing really came out of it but I haven’t heard anything else about clubs… But I’m pretty sure I’m notorious now.

    3. Gracely*

      I’d be down with any of those clubs as long as I could participate during work time. But on my own free time? Hell no, I do that stuff on my own when I want to, with people I choose to be around.

    4. Relentlessly Socratic*

      You are an absolute HERO–and I would be more than happy to knit you a cape. (Knit on my own time watching Star Trek and MST3K, NOT with my coworkers).

    5. Thin Mints didn't make me thin*

      Not all heroes wear capes! I mean, unless you do wear one, in which case, you do you.

  9. MisterForkbeard*

    I think OP works at my company.

    Our department had a manager’s meeting today and this same question was asked. And not pushed back on terribly effectively.

  10. Hiring Mgr*

    I don’t know that they’re related, even companies that do pay well and have great benefits hype up their culture whether it’s deserved or not.

    But it doesn’t really matter, if your pay and benefits are below what they should be, and diminishing, all the happy talk won’t help

  11. Michelle Smith*

    When I approached my boss with a question about pay, not only did she immediately prioritize it but she said the magic words to me that made me know I was in the right place: “We don’t work for free.” Pay your people well. It makes a difference. Most of us are working because we have to do it to survive, not because we just love work (even if we like what we do!).

    1. Stuckinacrazyjob*

      Nod. I also do not care about parties or bonding or anything. I only have so much time in a day. If I’m going to some after hours thing I might not have energy to work.

      1. Kuddel Daddeldu*

        To some extent, I want to get paid in respect, flexibility, and interesting tasks – including the opportunity to “reinvent myself” every few years. But I am at a point in my career where my take-home pay significantly exceeds my needs – more money would not motivate me nearly as much as the opportunity to, e.g., go on a very cool work trip to Antarctica in a few days. I absolutely realize that most employees do not have that luxury.

        1. allathian*

          Ooh, I hope you’ll post on the Friday thread about your cool trip to Antarctica when you get back.

  12. pcake*

    A great company culture to me would mean managers who are helpful without micro-managing, co-workers who are competent at their jobs and friendly but not over-friendly, reasonable expectations, management who doesn’t yell, threaten or overreact if something goes wrong. No stupid office bonding events or parties unless they are truly optional. No guilt trips when one takes time off plus everyone is cool if you have to take time off due to illness, burnout or family issues. Management and HR (if any) who go to bat for their reports.

    In my experience, those things don’t happen with companies who try to sell you the company culture, but OP, are those things the case at your company?

    Does the company offer flexible hours or schedules or allow you to work from home? For me, that’s worth a little lower pay, although not when it comes to me paying more for health insurance.

    1. Sloanicota*

      To me, the first paragraph until the last two sentences are just the floor of what I expect at a job. I wouldn’t accept lower pay for those conditions personally, and I would actively try to leave a situation where that didn’t exist. But I agree that flexible work hours and work from home are perks that are likely indicative of a good culture.

  13. Somehow_I_Manage*

    “Culture” can mean a lot of things. Generally, I wouldn’t link it to benefits. Those are a tangible and measurable part of your total compensation.

    I would associate positive culture with the intangibles:
    – Sense of shared focus, vision, and values (mission driven)
    – High quality work
    – A corporate bureaucracy and process that supports employee efficiency
    – Access to professional development, with track record of employee promotion and growth
    – Access to resources (good computers, tech, etc.)
    – Corporate support for work/life balance
    – Access to meaningful social connection

    1. KHB*

      That’s a good list. I’d also include:

      – Respect for individual autonomy at all levels. People don’t feel like they’re being arbitrarily ordered around with a bunch of “because I’m the boss and I said so”s – when there’s a job request or change in procedures, the reasons behind it make sense.
      – People’s contributions are seen, recognized, and valued, even if they’re not Above and Beyond Exceptional. There’s a pattern of managers and coworkers seeing the good in their colleagues’ work and taking the time to say “You’re doing a great job, and I’m glad you’re here.”
      – And if somebody isn’t doing a great job – or if they’re being a jerk or otherwise doing something dysfunctional – that’s dealt with promptly and appropriately (and compassionately), rather than being allowed to fester.

      1. commonsensesometimesmakessense*

        My workplace is really very good, but your first point is definitely where we are lacking. Policy changes happen, get announces, no real plan for rollout is made even when it is a huge change, only some people even get the message and others who are impacted pick it up through office “gossip,” and no one feels remotely obligated to explain the reasons or context for making the change. It gets a bit ridiculous at times.

      2. Sparkle llama*

        That is honestly not putting up with people being rude or bad at their jobs is the number one thing I am looking for in a work culture. Probably due to working in government where their tends to be an attitude that you can’t fire people, which is baseless, but nevertheless prevalent.

    2. Emily*

      I agree. I’ve worked places with many of these attributes and it really did make a difference to my day-to-day experiences. Those were places I was sad to leave, as opposed to places where I couldn’t get away fast enough.

    3. Mr. Bob Dobalina*

      I agree. In my mind, culture is not salary or benefits (at last not the traditional benefits like health insurance). I work in an industry that yapps incessantly about culture. Every employer I’ve had in the last 15 years has had an unhealthy and fruitless fixation on culture, and it’s all lip service and superficial. Every employer had a “culture committee” – a group whose only output was to plan parties and organize charitable drives. The reason these companies didn’t have good culture was because, as organizations, they were dysfunctional. Weak leadership. No accountability. No work-life balance. Understaffed. They didn’t make employees feel valued or respected. Employees weren’t given development opportunities. Poor communication. Certain employees were obviously favored because they were corporate cheerleaders and yes men.

      One of my prior employers spent tons of time on trying to launch multiple cultural initiatives that involved mandatory all-hands seminars on how culture could be improved, anon surveys, working groups, drafting new corporate values, etc. – all with the intent of identifying particular areas and improving the culture. Over a year later, the only thing to come out of countless hours invested was a single thing: an employee mentor program. None of the other programs got off the ground– it was wasted time in the end, and made the company look even worse and ineffectual.

  14. Sloanicota*

    My personal experience is that a “great culture” is usually invisible until you find yourself in an organization with a bad culture. Then you see things like jerks being tolerated and enabled because nobody tells them to knock it off, HR policies that nickle-and-dime people on leave or are unnecessarily rigid (like at a past place I worked, my coworker lost the beloved stepfather who had raised him, but wasn’t granted bereavement leave because the policy didn’t extend to stepfathers), an overall top-down attitude of micromanagement – like those offices that implemented keystroke loggers or required weird monitoring systems from remote employees … etc. I wouldn’t accept less money for a “great culture” but I have fled a bad one even though the pay was good.

    1. Sloanicota*

      For example, the letter earlier this week about “Elizabeth” had an example of what I would call a crappy office culture (with everyone overworking regularly and that not being seen as a problem). Even great pay and amazing benefits wouldn’t make me want to work there.

    2. Mr. Bob Dobalina*

      I have worked at several places that tolerated overt bullies and jerks. When I was finally targeted by a bully myself at a brand new job, and the company knew and HR did nothing, I did one of the hardest things I have ever done at a job: I quit that new job after only being there 6 months. Because that kind of rotten culture is almost impossible to correct.

      1. allathian*

        Impossible to correct unless you’re an executive and can get buy-in from those who are higher up in the org chart. Unless the top leadership is committed to change, it won’t happen.

  15. Firecat*

    In a job interview I find asking specifically what about the culture is great tells you all you need to know. Do they pause smile and say “we are like a family” or some other platitude? Crap place to work.

    Do they launch excitedly into elements of working there? We have an amazing respect and support for DEI! A culture that supports promoting and cultivating talent from within! Great benefits such as x, y, z! Then sure that’s a good culture.

    Many people will say good culture whether it’s good or not so that alone is not a red flag.

    1. Cordelia*

      yes, but I’d still then want to know what form their support for DEI takes, and how internal talent is cultivated, otherwise those are just more platitudes…

  16. C-Dub*

    Even if it were a great culture, it does NOT pay the bills. I am biased on this because 5 years ago, I was given the same exact excuse and then some, and it only paid $15/hr. I was pissed but I begrudgingly accepted it because I was inexperienced and didn’t know how to handle it properly. Let’s just say I did not last long there.

    1. Thin Mints didn't make me thin*

      it’s like the idiots who try to “tip” waitstaff by giving them religious tracts.

  17. Avocato*

    Hey, do you work at my company? Our CEO just sent out a video this morning telling everyone to stop quitting and going to places with higher salaries–don’t they know that we’re like a family?

    The whole video was incredibly cringey–apparently a bunch of people have left to go to a competitor that’s offering higher pay, more vacation, and the ability to be fully remote. Our CEO wanted to tell us how stupid those people were for leaving, because they’ll probably only be at that job for a few years before jumping again and they won’t find another company that’s a family like we are. It was all very “Man Learns How The Market Economy Works, Is Shocked to Discover Employees Want Modern Salaries and Benefits.”

    Why he’d choose to remind the whole company that our competitors are currently hiring and offering better money and benefits is beyond me. He just doesn’t get it.

    1. KRM*

      “We’ll let the free market take care of everything! It’s amazing”
      ‘Great, I quit because the guy down the street pays more, gives more PTO, and is a nicer person to work for’

      I used to work for a company that liked to say we were family, but honestly that translated into the CEO knowing what project you were working on and would chat with you about it at Friday Breakfast (company provided). The only example of workplace family going OK.

    2. C-Dub*

      That video would make me want to throw up. Honestly, I would be planning my exit immediately. I am beyond words.

  18. Thin Mints didn't make me thin*

    IMHO a great culture is one where people are treated decently, do great work together, and have enough balance and independence to have enjoyable lives outside of work.

  19. Nerto*

    I thought the endless cycle of recessions and layoffs, culminating in COVID, should have put the nail in the coffin for “culture”. Here’s the thing – the companies that put culture first are generally the worst ones – because if you don’t LOVE the culture, you don’t fit in. Culture is an analog for our society which very diverse. Generally speaking, a company that leads with culture, is the worst company to work for. Being friendly, socially courteous, and professional is supposed to be just basic table stakes for an employer (and a human being).

    1. Quinalla*

      It should be, but it really is not.

      I actually think the studies coming out from the great resignation are some of what are propelling employees to tout their culture as one the main reasons people are leaving companies is that they have toxic cultures. Not just not inclusive which is a problem at a lot of companies still sadly, but cruel and demeaning.

      I would say most companies have mediocre cultures, some have toxic cultures, and even less have really great cultures. I do agree that companies with strong cultures don’t fit everyone and I’m not talking here about people using culture to mean “only people like me”. I don’t think you have a strong culture unless you value diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging because if you don’t value that you don’t actually value your people.

        1. Ariaflame*

          Yes, after all, a lot of people have families that are actively dysfunctional (and the last few years hasn’t helped)

  20. Fikly*

    I just had a potential employer tell me that because they are a startup, that means their salaries are low, but their benefits are great! When you dug into the benefits, it was 4 weeks of vacation, which sounds great, but only 3 sick days, which then makes me think the vacation only exists in theory.

    They also told me they wanted me to be financially motivated to come to work, so that’s why, because I negotiated 5k when they made an offer of 65k (range of 55-75k), they were withdrawing their offer, because they “didn’t want me to start unhappy.”

    In other words, don’t believe a single thing any company tells you about your own interests.

  21. JM60*

    I’m warry when someone mentions “company culture”. My employer got a new CEO right before COVID, and her first major move was to build “culture” by getting rid of our company policy of allowing everyone to work from home two set days each week. It was a very unpopular move that undone by COVID forcing us to go 100% remote.

    Usually when I hear an employer cite “culture”, I fear a lot more things that would drive me away from an employer (e.g., forced socialization at company events I’d rather skip) than I think of things that would entice me to work for them.

  22. Alan*

    Some comedian has a whole sketch about this: if you want to know what companies really think, it’s the opposite of what they say. In this case, if they really thought you had a great culture, it would be self-evident and they wouldn’t need to say it. They’re trying to convince you, because they really think the opposite.

  23. Pop*

    My previous employer advertises their “excellent benefits package” in their job ads, including medical, dental, PTO, and retirement match. What they don’t tell you is that the retirement match is 1.5%, they don’t cover any medical or dental for spouses or dependents, and the PTO is slightly above average but nothing to write home about. It’s above the minimum for sure, but the idea that giving you holidays off is “excellent” is really out of touch.

  24. urguncle*

    Hahaha made this mistake in my early to mid 20s! I kept working at teeny tiny companies for almost nothing because they just had such great “culture!” My parents even tried to talk me out of taking a job at a larger company with a full 100% raise because “they might not have the culture!”
    But they did have health insurance coverage without my manager calling me greedy.

    1. Elenna*

      Haha, no, a culture where people are called greedy for wanting health insurance is not one I would call great…

  25. RJ*

    You’re not being cynical, OP. When a company changes/alters the appearance of the workplace and it’s practices and not the actual issues within the workplace and practices, it’s not a place people will stay at no matter how they rebrand, rephrase or otherwise try to make it sound pretty.

  26. RT*

    I’m sure you’re thinking of this already, but yes, please dust off that resume at this point and see what else might be out there. Just to explore! Even if you’re not sure you’d switch jobs! Maybe you might find something better.

    Companies like this….well, they don’t get better.

  27. CheesePlease*

    Just here to say I took a new job for the same pay, slightly better benefits (from my end, because I am on my husband’s plans) because of culture / management improvements. And personally, I recognize this is a huge financial privilege, I am happy to forgo a raise if it means my manager isn’t hounding me about “stealing company time” for arriving at 8:05 multiple times a week for my salary job, and I can ask for flexibility to have appointments, and my manager doesn’t yell at me or others. My mental health is worth something to me, and culture impacts that

    1. H3llifIknow*

      Yes, but it is different when it’s YOU making that choice and not a company trying to placate you by TELLING you that “we have such a great culture here that money isn’t even a big whoop to our people.”

  28. Gran Delusion*

    “Great culture” in my experience with Bay Area tech companies means there are lots of office perks to keep you there working really long hours, people who have issues with boundaries, and terrible work-life balance.

    1. H3llifIknow*

      Right? Our contract with the govt gives us a “generous” 1.8% each year across the life of the 3 year contract. So, if someone is stellar and the boss wants to give them 2 or 3%, someone else is getting bupkus. :(

      1. College Career Counselor*

        That’s how my previous higher ed employer did it. 2% salary pool, and I’d have to ding a high-performer (I had a good team) to reward someone else by giving 2.5%. Nope, not gonna demoralize the whole team that way.

        1. Curmudgeon in California*

          Yeah, my last university job everyone got the same 2% to 3%, regardless of rating, insisted they were “merit” raises, and even when local inflation was 5% or more never did COLAs.

    2. Sara without an H*

      Ah, yes, I remember an interesting lunch in our cafeteria one day, when several of our smarter staff were working out math on the backs of napkins, i.e. salary is going up 2%, health insurance is going up 6%, how much longer can I afford to work here??!!

  29. Velvet Yeti*

    Yes, yes it is. Pay and benefits are a part of the culture just like flexible time off policies, remote work opportunities, and continued learning and growth.

  30. Workfromhome*

    There is a certain minimum before you can really start pumping up culture. If pay is lower than market but everyone is making 100K plus sure. If people are fed and clothed etc. then they can focus on if culture is a benefit.

    I have never heard of a landlord, bank grocery store or pharmacy that accepts ‘culture” as payment.
    If people can’t survive day to day culture wont help them do so.

    1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      There is a certain minimum before you can really start pumping up culture.
      Exactly this.
      Good company culture grows from content, confident, successful employees.
      You can’t manufacture healthy culture with superficial fixes and bandaids.

  31. Kevin Sours*

    Building a good culture to retain people at below market wages is a strategy. The real question is are they spending their effort making the culture better or trying to convince people the culture is good?

    Because, at the end of the day, all that matters is given wages, benefits, and work environment do you want to stay or move on? You shouldn’t feel the slightest bit of guilt over moving on if you have a better opportunity. However you define that.

  32. Triplehiccup*

    It’s not cynical, it’s realistic. Just because they’re trying to sell you a raft of BS doesn’t mean you have to buy it.

  33. desiree*

    we have this sort of thing at my company too but the merch available in the catalog is either company logo branded or take a lot of points

  34. HugsAreNotTolerated*

    One of the best questions I asked in my last job interview (was with the VP of Sales and his admin who I was interviewing to replace). I asked them both:
    “When did you last take a vacation?” “How long were you gone for?” “How many times did you check your work e-mail while you were gone?”
    The answers were VERY enlightening. Mostly because they were so surprised by the questions that they didn’t have time to come up with a lie.
    When I found out that the admin hadn’t ever taken more than 3 days off in a row and that she was fully available via e-mail and text each of those days I knew exactly what the “culture” was like and was able to self-select out of their process. Even though they offered me the job.

    1. Curmudgeon in California*

      Good questions! I’ll add that to my one that is “Describe the typical workday for someone in this job.”

  35. Will Work For $*

    When I mentioned to my grandboss (as an aside) that our 2% max raises for top performers were a big driver of turnover and below market, she dug in on the whole, “Actually, studies show that culture is much more important than pay.” She really got stuck on it and seemed offended that I declined to agree. (She also repeatedly claimed that 2% was standard for raises in healthcare, which is extremely untrue and we both knew it. In my earlier years with the company 3 to 4% was always the thing so the gaslighting was not appreciated.)

    Suffice it to say, my NEW company gives 5-9% as a standard, and is happy to (quite rightly) boost that info.

    1. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

      She must have read it in a magazine somewhere and believed it , because she wanted to believe it.

    1. C-Dub*

      Yes, this is the truth. One company I heard of was going to force employees to come in on Saturdays. And they were going to order pizza on Saturdays.

      That did NOT make anyone smile. Saturday is the weekend, end of story.

    2. Mr. Bob Dobalina*

      Truth! Too many companies equate having parties with good culture. Because it’s easy to have parties, and much harder to fix dysfunctional organizational issues.

  36. H3llifIknow*

    I feel like if a company has to keep telling you they have a great culture–they don’t have a great culture. It’s like intelligence or manners; you don’t have to tell me you have them because it’s self evident.

  37. Von Trousers*

    Not cynical at all. Culture, especially the “mindfulness scam,” is fast becoming the method of choice for offloading the responsibility for poor conditions onto employees. In my soon-to-be-former company, they use “culture” as shorthand for stepping over personal barriers, having us work on federal holidays (even though our client is the federal government and locks the buildings closed on holidays), and maintaining low pay and benefits. Look for a “culture” where good work is rewarded, there are opportunities to grow as a professional if that’s your aim, that’s compassionate when it comes to sick and family leave, and pays you what you’re worth.

  38. Me ... Just Me*

    In this current economy, I don’t really even know anymore what “great pay” is — I used to think I made really good money, but it’s just not stretching as far. So, now, I feel like I make $25k less than I did a year or two ago. I don’t want to go out to the highest bidder, but I might just have to be more mercenary if my company doesn’t bump my pay. Our culture isn’t great. Benefits are pretty usual, though. Nothing special.

    1. Gary Patterson’s Cat*

      Lol! Isn’t that the truth!
      About 2 years ago I finally (FINALLY) eeked into a six figure income. I always thought that would make me rich or something and I’d splurge on some tony thing I’d always dreamed of.

      Ha! There’s really no big difference other than I can save a little bit more for retirement and (maybe) take a nicer vacation once in awhile.

  39. Justin*

    The sad thing is, my company does have a really solid culture, but they also pay well. From the outside when applying it’s hard to tell how genuine they are because so many companies are lying. I almost didn’t apply and would have missed out.

  40. Quickbeam*

    My last employer, a regional turned national company, beats the culture issue to death. They built an enormous home office and do offer subsidized meals, parking, dry cleaning etc. However the workers who don’t inhabit the home office get none of those. Worse, even their long term home office employees are asking to work from home. It turns out you can’t throw sugar on a crappy cube farm existence and call it cake.

    1. Curmudgeon in California*

      At least they have cubicles, not some nasty open plan where you have to watch your coworkers chew their cud and blow their nose.

  41. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

    “They might think that! People running organizations often have an incredible ability to delude themselves about things like that.”

    And they also delude their work staff into believing it as well.

  42. Anne*

    Whenever I read an article telling managers how to retain employees and prevent “quiet quitting,” the article never mentions money or benefits. Ever.

    I think the last time that employees had any substantial power in the workplace was so long ago that for the past few decades management has simply assumed that it would never happen again. They seem to be completely clueless on how to deal with it.

  43. Quickbeam*

    People always think nursing is such a guaranteed thing….as a hospital nurse we were treated like cattle. One year there was a severe shortage and they had to increase pay. A few years later there was a temporary glut with many new schools of nursing opening. Our CEO at our annual meeting said “no raises this year, just be lucky you have a job”. Gee thx.

  44. Gary Patterson’s Cat*

    I’ve always hated these kinds of fake corporate platitudes about company work “culture” because most large US companies are alike, which is most are what Id deem as decent (until something hits the fan anyway). Honestly, I never got it as I’m not “a joiner.” A job is just a business transaction. I don’t look for jobs to enrich anything but my bank account!

    I’ve always been called cynical or even “bad attitude”for not going along with it all though.

  45. Alternative Person*

    I think a good (or at least better than average) culture + (slightly) lower than average salary only works if you can otherwise trade off the company in other ways.

    My base pay may not have moved in years (though on paper I work 25% less hours than many similar positions for the same money, with WFH and some overtime options), but I’ll be able to trade off having spent time at this company and the experience I’ve gotten from it for a good long time if/when I leave it. It’s not an ideal situation, but its what I’ve got for now.

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