Keep Your Culture From Becoming the Cult of Personality  

This is likely a no brainer to most, but it can be tricky, so worth exploring.  I am a big, big advocate for the concept of culture in the workplace.  What does cultural advocacy mean?  It means I believe:

  • The way people work around a place is indeed a culture
  • Culture is the appropriate word to describe that phenomenon
  • Organizations (and their leaders) who understand their culture have a higher chance of achieving corporate goals

I have been fortunate enough to work in HR Leadership roles for companies who have embraced the notion that creating an employee-friendly culture has increased the likelihood of corporate success. I have been very lucky in that regard for any alternative culture probably would not have been a fit for me.

But cultural excellence (for lack of a better word) is hard to navigate.  Very quickly a culture can indeed tiptoe into a cult. So, what is the definition of a cult?

Cult:  a misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular person or thing.

 Some examples:  Steve Jobs, Starbucks coffee, Apple products, Spanx, Micro-brews, Vinyl records, Ben Platt (look him up), organic vegetables, Scientology/Tom Cruise!

All agree the connotations of the word “cult” is bad.  HR Pros, here are some tips to help ensure your culture remains out of the cult category.

  • The culture cannot be defined by the CEO (or other powerful leader or board). The CEO must advocate for the culture, but cannot be the one to define it. Many well-intended leaders confuse creating an authentic culture with creating a culture where everyone acts like her/him.  This elevates the cult status to level 10.
  • The culture must be multifaceted. It needs to include understanding how all levels of employees “work”.   How the west coast office works, how the corporate office works, from how the security guards work to the C-Suite, all need to be understood to eliminate cultish-ness.  Easiest way to understand this: ask people!  Survey monkey – super cheap, super easy way to get an understanding.
  • Third party help is highly recommended to stay clear on what the culture is, especially as a company grows. Corporate growth is the biggest impediment to understanding culture mainly because the change happens so fast. This is a time where focus is most important; you may need help to do this. Google corporate culture audit, corporate culture consultants, culture survey…. You’ll find some.
  • Read exit interviews. This includes reviews on Glassdoor, etc.  If the word “cult” is coming up a lot, don’t poo-poo it altogether.   
  • HR must be courageous. Your job (hopefully) is to be the heart-beat of the company.  Speak up if employees don’t understand the culture, if leaders don’t remain focused on understanding the culture, or if a few leaders forget the culture is broader than them.

Hopefully these tips will keep all focused and grounded in understanding the many dimensions of your corporate culture and keep a cult of personality at bay.  The last thing your organization needs is another Tom Cruise…

This post is sponsored by the recruiting pros at Jobvite, who, each month, let FOT write about a topic that will help recruiters raise their games via continuing education. Be on the lookout later this month for the FOT video series called “No Scrubs”—also brought to you by

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Dawn Burke
Dawn Burke is an HR Leader, speaker and writer, specializing in new HR practices, engagement and workplace culture.  Her HR career has spanned the last 20 years, most recently serving as VP of People for Birmingham, Alabama's award-winning technology company, Daxko. That’s right – the very DAXKO that our very own KD is an alum of, because there are only so many people in the big B’ham who are worthy of a VP of People title. A true Generalist, she’s done a little bit of everything, but recruiting and training is where she gets her mojo. She’s based in the good ol' blogging capitol of the south, Birmingham, Alabama, where you can frequently find her listening to the Beatles and REM, watching Breaking Bad reruns (and Snapped and Dateline), enjoying serious amounts of coffee (and cheese, but not together!), dreaming of where she will travel next, and wondering how in the world this theatre grad ever got into football or HR…Check out her blog at or talk to Dawn via emailLinkedIn, Instagram or Twitter


  1. Karin Wills says:

    I will add Elon Musk to the cult list, possibly more so than Steve Jobs.
    I agree that culture is important and so is culture fit.

    It really depends on whether you define ‘fit’ as someone who will thrive in the culture or is the organization trying to Stepford profile the people hired. Is your culture one of inclusivity? Is diversity and marketing tool or the true culture in the organization?

    • Dawn Burke says:

      Elon a definite add!

      Yep— all gets down to getting clear on what the definition of culture is. If you don’t know what is valued and how that relates to success then the cultural default is usually the top leader. Which leads to Stepford profiling…..

  2. John Ludike says:

    There is also crowd at Yum Brands ( KFC, Pizza Hut ) ex CEO called David Novak who even writes and publishes loads around their special brand of pixie dust.

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