Startups often employ lots of young people – with limited money you can’t afford anyone with more experience so by definition and necessity, many or most of your people are young, just out of college in their first or second jobs.
In those days culture seems all about drinks, parties, and having fun on a Friday night. Reward Gateway was no exception and for our first five years, Friday evening office parties were legendary. Music would go on, a huge drinks cupboard would open full of spirits, staff would spill onto the office balcony and girlfriends, boyfriends, and flatmates would descend for an all expenses paid drink-a-thon.
Often on a Monday morning I would hear our then CFO Charlie Murphy on the phone to Westminster Council Environmental Health dealing with the noise complaints from our neighbors.
As we grew the parties became a little less frequent, they became more organized and moved to off-site. They were still great fun and included entertainment, free-flowing drinks, food, and unique venues. But as this aspect of work changed I realized that drinking and parties didn’t define our culture, our culture was defined by something far more important.
Company culture has little to do with parties and everything to do with how you treat your people every day. How you treat people, whether it is written in an operating manual or employee handbook, is visible and has a huge impact on your culture and levels of employee engagement.
When other people are being seen to be treated fairly and with kindness it re-enforces the bonds between the organisation and the employees. Where people are treated unkindly, harshly or without humanity, a feeling of unfairness is quick to take hold. Unfairness and inauthenticity are Kryptonite to employee engagement they can kill years of hard work in months.
Your staff will judge you not on how you treat the most senior director, but how you treat the most junior. They will judge you less on how you treat the star performer in sales, but more on how you treat the person who is struggling.
At Reward Gateway I’ve always been obsessed about how we treat our cleaners.
Corina Aparicio was our first permanent office cleaner at Reward Gateway’s original head office in Notting Hill, London. She juggled several jobs working dawn until late evening to send money back to Bolivia for her son who lived with her sister. Working for us weekday evenings I remember the first time she told me why she loved her job :
“I’m visible here, I get seen. People know my name and they say hello, they smile. In other jobs me and my friends, we walk around but people look through us, they don’t see us, we are like ghosts”
We treat Reward Gateway staff well with good employee benefits, good employment terms, good perks and recognition. But when we don’t want to afford those terms to our cleaners we can end up sending the message that they are somehow not valuable enough – sub-human, or unworthy of the same treatment of others.
Like many companies, in our early days we used a sub-contractor for cleaning until the unfairness of that hit me one day. We quickly agreed buy-out terms with the agency and Corina joined us on staff so we could give her the same treatment as everyone else, including our employee share plan.
My favourite story of our first employee share plan is Corina’s
It was December 2010 when Inflexion Private Equity bought a majority share in Reward Gateway for £25 million. With 90 staff owning 5% of the business between them, they shared just over £1m.
Corina’s shares paid out just like everyone else and with the money she bought a plot of land back in Bolivia and built a house on it for her family and her son.
“ I’m the first member of my family to ever be a landowner”, Corina told me. “ I never thought this day would be possible. This has changed my life and my family’s life.”
In 2011 Corina moved back to Bolivia and she lives there now with her son. We keep in touch on Facebook.
We now have Erika as our daytime housekeeper at our new London HQ. She loves her job. You should see the pride with which she keeps the office clean and tidy against the will of nearly a hundred messy millennials! When we moved in she told me:
“I never dreamed I’d get to work in such a prestigious place, to keep such a beautiful office clean and tidy. I’m very proud to work here.”
Everyone knows Erika. She’s also in our employee share program, she gets the same benefits, perks, and terms as me and everyone else. She joins in our company all-hands meeting every quarter and when we’re having Christmas lunch or a party she is there too.
How you treat people is what defines your culture. A nice office – that’s the cherry on top.