How employees learn culture

Culture is transmitted to employees in a number of forms, the most potent being stories, rituals, material symbols, and language.


Rituals are repetitive sequences of activities that express and reinforce the key values of the organization — what goals are most important, which people are important, and which people are expendable.

One of the better-known corporate rituals is Wal-Marts’s company chant. Begun by the company’s founder, Sam Walton, as a way to motivate and unite his workforce, “Gimme a W, gimme an A , gimme an L, gimme a squiggle, give me an M,A, R, T !� has become a company ritual that bonds Wal-Mart workers and reinforce Sam Walton’s belief in the importance of his employees to the company’s success. Similar corporate chants are used by IBM, Ericsson, Novell, Deutsche Bank, and Price Waterhouse Coopers.

Material Symbols

The headquarters of Alcoa doesn’t look like your typical head office operation. There are few individual offices, even for senior executives. It is essentially made up of cubicles, common areas, and meeting rooms. This informal corporate headquarters conveys to employees that Alcoa values openness, equality, creativity and flexibility.

Some corporations provide their top executives with chauffeur-driven limousines and, when they travel by air, unlimited use of the corporate jet. Others may not get to ride in limousines or private jets but they might still get a car and air transportation paid for by the company. Only the car is a Chevrolet (with no driver) and the jet seat is in the economy section of a commercial airliner.

The layout of corporate headquarters, the types of automobiles top executives are given, and the presence or absence of corporate aircraft are few examples of material symbols. Others include the size of offices, the elegance of furnishings, executive perks, and attire.

These material symbols convey to employees who is important, the degree of egalitarianism desired by top management, and the kinds of behavior (for example, risk taking, conservative, authoritarian, participative, individualistic, social) that are appropriate.


Many organizations and units within organizations use language as a way to identify members of a culture or subculture. By learning this language, members attest to their acceptance of the culture and, on so doing, help to preserve it.

The following are examples of terminology used by employees at Knight-Ridder Information, a California based Data Redistributors: accession number (a number assigned to each individual record in a database); KWIC ( a set of key words in-context); and relational operator (searching a database for names or key terms in some order).

If you’re a new employee at Boeing, you’ll find yourself learning a whole unique vocabulary of acronyms, including: BOLD (Boeing online data); CATIA (computer graphics-aided three-dimensional interactive application); MAIDS (manufacturing assembly and installation data system); POP (purchased outside production); and SLO (service level objectives).

Organizations, over time, often develop unique terms to describe equipment, offices, key personnel, suppliers, customers, or products that relate to its business. New employees are frequently overwhelmed with acronyms and Jargon that, after six months on the job, have become fully part of their language. Once assimilated, this terminology acts as a common denominator that unites members of a given culture or subculture.

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