How Employees Learn Culture?

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

Some cases:

During the days when Henry Ford II was chairman of the Ford Motor Co., one would have been hard pressed to find a manager who hadn’t heard the story about Mr. Ford reminding his executives, when they got too arrogant, that it’s my name that’s on the building. The message was clear: Henry Ford II ran the company.

Nike has a number of senior executives who spend much of their time serving as corporate story tellers. And the stories they tell are meant to convey what Nike is about. When they tell the story of how cofounder (and Oregon track coach) Bill Bower man went to his workshop and poured rubber into his wife’s waffle iron to create a better running shoe, they’re talking about Nike’s spirit of innovation. When new hires heard tales of Oregon running star Steve Prefontaine’s battles to make running a professional sport and to attain better performance equipment they learn of Nike’s commitment in helping athletes.

Stories such as these circulate through many organizations. They typically contain a narrative of events about the organization’s founders, rule breaking, rags-to-riches successes, reduction in the workforce, relocation of employees, reactions to past mistakes, and organizational coping. These stories anchor the present in the past and provide explanations and legitimacy for current practices.


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-Mart’s company chant. Begun by the company’s founder, Sam Walton as a way to motivate and unite his workforce, “Gimme a W, gimme and A gimme and L , gimme a squiggle, give me an M, A, R ,T !” has become a company ritual that bonds Wal-Mart workers and reinforces 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 Pricewaterhouse coopers.

Materials 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 to 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 a few examples of materials symbols. Others included the size of offices, the elegance of furnishings executive perks, and attire. These materials 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 culture or subculture. By learning this language, members attest their acceptance of the culture and, in so doing help to preserve it. The following are examples of terminology used by employees a Knight – Ridder Information, a California based data redistributor: accession number (a number assigned to each individual record in a database); KWIC (a set of key words-in-context); and rational operator (searching a database for names or key terms in some order). If you’re a new employee at Boeing you will 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.

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