Subculture Is The Culture That Matters

Were we at the same party? How is it possible that I had a great time while several others thought the party was an epic fail? My friends and I loved the music; it was 80s themed and we danced our hearts out while belting along to Madonna, Janet Jackson and Cindy Lauper…”oh girls just wanna have fu-un, oh girls just wanna have…”


All the while, others at the party thought the music was lame and the dances were dated. This seemed odd, how could you not have a great time?


This dueling experience is equal to the conundrum stumping many employers who believe they’ve nailed the culture question. Workplaces have been turned into amusement parks with play areas, fancy break rooms, and team building activities. Yet, these employers still have great employees leaving in search of greener pastures while other employees would never dream of working anywhere else. What makes these experiences at the same workplace so different? Well, just like the party, it’s not the culture that dictates an employee’s experience. Rather, it is the subculture.


A subculture is comprised of the five people an employee interacts with on a regular basis. Typically, one of the five is a supervisor. An organization can laude its culture as great, family friendly, relaxed, and innovative. Nonetheless, if the five people in an employee’s circle are toxic, complacent and haven’t bought into the culture, that employee is destined to leave. 


Here are three tips on how employers can align the culture and subculture in order to retain talent. 


FIRST: Align your leadership. 

Many organizations promote or hire leaders primarily because of their record of performance and the assumption that the manager will motivate subordinates. Leaders should also be evaluated on their understanding of the culture and ability to weave the culture into motivating and leading others. If this is not established as an expectation, the leader may end up using his or her own interpretation of motivation—which could be counter to the established culture—thus, creating an unintended subculture.


SECOND: Align your words and your actions.

Employees may be confused by conflicting messages if the espoused culture of the organization is “family friendly” for example, yet there’s an expectation of working long hours and responding to e-mails during all hours of the day and night.


Shonda Rhimes, the Emmy award-winning writer and producer of Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy and How To Get Away With Murder, has a message in her e-mail signature that reads “I don’t read work e-mails after 7PM or on weekends, and if you work for me, may I suggest you put down your phone?” Her message encourages a “family friendly” culture and her actions support her message.


If you offer employees the benefit of vacation and sick time and then praise employees who never use the time, your subculture message indicates that time away from work is frowned upon. If you say you’re a family-friendly employer, respect the family time of your employees. If you say you offer PTO, praise your employees for taking time away to refresh and relax.


THIRD: Don’t oversell.

Employers that are proud of their culture often pitch it during the interview process and sometimes oversell the culture in an attempt to solicit top talent. This can be viewed as deceptive if the culture you presented is not the culture the employee experiences. Instead of giving a hard pitch, try standing behind your desired culture and explaining that any time an employee believes there is misalignment during their work experience, they are expected to speak up and hold the company accountable. If you expect that this will open the floodgates of complaints and entitlement, you may be right…which means you have a subculture problem and it’s time to address it.



As an employer, your first step is to define your culture, your identity. You don’t have to delve into anything elaborate. You do, however, need to make it clear. Once you establish the culture, weave it through every aspect of your organization. Also, have a training session or series for your leaders on exemplifying the culture and then, hold them accountable.


For example, if your culture is to be environmentally-friendly, make sure you have visible recycle bins and incorporate recycle drives into the workplace routine. Train your leaders on why recycling and going green is important and remind them to lead by example. Employees should be encouraged to be earth friendly and praised when they adhere to the given expectations. Going green might also be discussed during job interviews.




Total HR supports the cultural preference of organizations by developing HR practices that align with the culture established by the employer. These HR practices touch on areas like policy language, disciplinary practices, training, and on-boarding and off-boarding strategies.


Please contact us today for support in weaving your culture into your practices. We’re here to help.