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Great Perks Don’t Fix a Crappy Company Culture

October 15, 2015

company-cultureUnlimited vacation. It sounds great, right? Who wouldn’t want to work at a company where you have an unlimited amount of vacation? Think of all the places you could go. I’m dreaming of a month long ski-cation in the Alps. It really does seem like an incredible perk. It also seems like something that would help create a great work culture. But does it really?

The bad news

Here’s the unfortunate truth: unlimited vacation rarely means unlimited vacation. Fast Company notes that supervisors generally look down on employees who take extended vacation time. Coworkers might also use an employee’s extended absence to their advantage. It’s easy to throw someone under the bus for your mistake when they’re not around to defend themselves, right? It also seems that there is an unspoken rule at many companies where if you’re going to be taking a long vacation, expect to spend long hours in the office during the weeks leading up to your vacation.

If you don’t have a set amount of vacation days, how many do you take? If I take 30 days, but Frank is only taking 10 days, what does that say about me and my dedication to my job? Maybe next year I should only take 10. I don’t know about you, but I’d feel guilty taking 66% more vacation days than a coworker.

Kickstarter recently noticed these problems with their unlimited vacation policy and decided to get rid of it. They changed their policy to 25 days per year to give employees something to actually use up. It seems counter-intuitive, but by capping their employees’ vacation days, they’re actually giving their employees guaranteed vacation.

This all comes down to your company culture, though. Unlimited vacation certainly does work at some companies, where the culture actually supports it. But if your company’s culture already isn’t great, unlimited vacation is probably going to make it worse.

What about other perks?

Tons of companies now are offering free food, free exercise classes, beer, ping-pong, comfortable lounging areas, the list goes on and on. These all sound like fantastic things to have at a company, and they can be, but just like unlimited vacation, they’re not always as good as they sound.

First and foremost, these “perks” often have ulterior motives. They’re usually designed to keep you at work longer. Seriously, think about it. If your office is a cool place to hang out, you’re more likely to stick around for a few hours longer. If you’re getting free lunch at work, you'll be less likely to take time out of your day to leave the office and decompress for lunch.

HR veteran Suzanne Lucas, author of Evil HR Lady, says these perks are, “all about maximizing your time in the office. One of the big transitions is, yeah, millennials are into this, because if you're single and living alone and your company offers a free dinner, well, why not? But then as you get a little older and get married and have kids, that free dinner isn't a perk anymore. It’s like, ‘Oh, this is additional time I need to stay away from my family.’”

In fact, some companies notice that free food is actually causing their culture to become more negative. The CMO of Nextiva says that they axed their free snack program because they realized it was actually creating negativity in their company. Employees were getting upset when they didn’t have the free snacks that they requested. Nextiva realized that these cool perks were having a negative effect. They talked to their employees about how to fix this and found that employees don’t just want cool perks, they want to be heard and supported. Nextiva pivoted from spending money on free food to spending money on employee development, and ensuring their culture was authentic, open, and receptive.

That’s the whole point right there. If you’re investing money into company perks, instead of company culture, there’s a good chance that your company culture isn’t going to be one that supports those great perks.

Where do you start?

All of this raises the question: where do you start when looking to improve your company’s culture? Here are four suggestions that can help:

  1. Define your culture. And stick to it. The President of Endeavor America Loan Services says that one of the things that makes his company’s culture great is his unwillingness to stray from the defined path. He says he is as deliberate about culture as he is about product development and client relations. EA Loans uses a variety of employee recognition programs to motivate employees.

  2. Hire for cultural fit. Zappos is well known for having an incredible culture. One of the main reasons is that they have a clearly defined culture and they focus on cultural fit in the hiring process. If a candidate has all the qualifications, but won’t be a great cultural fit, they don’t hire that person. Zappos actually offers new employees $2,000 to quit after the first week if they decide the job isn’t for them. They also dedicated portions of their budget to employee team building and culture promotion.

  3. Support your employees. In an industry known for bad PR and poor safety records, Chevron stands out. Their culture, which they call “The Chevron Way”, is dedicated to employee safety and support. Chevron ensures that their employees take part in safety training and actually follow safety protocols. They also insist on regular breaks during the workday, and are open and honest with their employees. Their goal is to make employees feel valued.

  4. Provide a path for promotion. Don’t drop employees into the job with no clear path for their career. Nextiva, who I mentioned above, gives support and a clear career path for employees at their company. Chipotle, the popular burrito restaurant, provides a path for hourly crew members to become managers. When selected, the employee gets a one-time bonus and stock options. Employees want these kinds of perks more than a ping-pong table or a fridge full of beer.


Perks won’t make up for a bad company culture. If your culture is bad, you’re still going to have problems attracting and keeping the right talent. Those employees that you do have will be less productive than they could be in a better environment. Rather than spending company money on free food and other “cool” perks, use it to ensure that your company culture is one where people actually want to come to work and will be productive when they do.

hiring for cultural fit

Mark Rogers Mark Rogers was a digital marketing expert at PSI who specialized in human resources and leadership content.