Free lunch and ping pong don’t make a culture
By Raymond Hwang
This post also appears on LinkedIn.
I never wanted to be one of those people that took pictures of their food and texted it to others. But while interning at LinkedIn this summer, I became one of them. It started slowly … a picture here to my family, a picture there to my classmates. But soon my addiction to culinary-related sharing was out of control. Everyone had to know about the sushi I ate for lunch, all playfully captioned with “did I mention it’s free?”
Such a shameless parading of perks is fun, especially when you work in technology for the summer. But when does the glossy finish of “free” begin to fade? The answer is quickly. Free lunches and ping pong alone do not create a culture — at least not a great one and not by default. I’ll give you three reasons why that’s the case.
1. Entitlement aka “I hate how used to this I am”
When I first arrived at LinkedIn, I was thrilled by the arcade games, foosball, and the quality (and quantity) of food. I laughed condescendingly when I first heard someone say to me “the lunch today is terrible.” I swore those words would never come from my mouth. After all, who complains about free lunch? Well, the answer is me. I complain about free lunch. As of last week after a “below-average” lunch, I have officially joined the entitled club. Unfortunately, the norm, no matter how wonderful, quickly becomes ordinary. For better or worse that’s human nature, and if you expect the perks alone to cause you to skip joyfully to work each morning, you’re in for an unpleasant surprise.
2. Perk escalation aka “Everyone else is doing it”
The thing about the tech industry is that top companies are in a constant battle for top talent. As such, when one firm begins offering a perk, pressure is immediately placed on others to offer something similar in order to maintain parity and continue to attract the best people. Maybe those free yoga lessons means the company is dedicated to your wellness, or maybe it’s just that they’re trying to keep pace.
3. Presence vs. presents aka “Let’s buy him an iPhone and call it a day”
As a kid I was lucky to have wonderfully caring parents. But I had friends whose parents were largely absent and to compensate they would buy their kids the coolest toys. I was jealous at the time but looking back I was quite fortunate. From what I’ve seen in parenting, presence matters much more than presents. A similar principle holds true here. I have friends and classmates who are interning at wonderfully sexy companies with perks aplenty who honestly hate their jobs. A great sushi station can only go so far in making your 14-hour day and crappy team bearable.
So if not perks, what makes a good culture? Well perhaps it’s best to first take a step back and define “culture.” I love Jellyvision Founder Harry Gottlieb’s definition of culture as “the sum of all interactions between employees and customers.” In short, culture is a byproduct of consistent behavior from every member of the firm. In LinkedIn’s words, it’s “the collective personality of an organization,” and like people, that personality can be vicious, caring, exciting, and so on.
So what is it like at LinkedIn?
All of this brings me to my summer at LinkedIn. The perks are aplenty here — just ask my parents and annoyed friends. But while I’m beyond thankful for the many perks that surround me, what I’ve enjoyed most, and what I believe truly sets this company apart, is a culture that is compellingly authentic and joyfully modeled by the employees of this company.
Here at LinkedIn we have a codified culture statement and a set of values. While those can be empty words in other organizations, it works here because senior leadership didn’t sit in a board room, define our culture, and then announce it from a stage. The culture and values of the company were defined bottoms up, then incentivized against, hired against and fired against. Leadership is committed to our culture, models it day in and day out, and the vast majority of the employees I’ve worked with do as well.
Personally, relationships matter came to life for me when this summer my family went through a difficult season and my manager, director, and HR all worked together to give me time off and make sure I prioritized family. Our members come first proved to be more than a platitude when in several meetings I saw leaders decide not to move forward with an additional monetization option because it would hurt the user experience. Take intelligent risks was displayed when one of my projects as an intern was presented, operationalized, and launched in less than two months. The wonderful thing is, there are plenty more examples I could give.
Culture is either reinforced each day or eroded each day. Each small, seemingly minor, individual act adds up to a much greater whole that becomes a company’s culture. Perhaps that’s why act like an owner is also one of our values. Each day, every employee can act like a founder and decide to grow a spectacular culture or simply take without giving.
My encouragement to those seeking new opportunities in the near-future is to find a place where culture is not lip-service; a place where you not only enjoy the culture, but can imagine enthusiastically helping to grow it; a place not just about perks but about people. In my opinion, that’s what truly matters most in the end.
P.S. Please don’t take free lunch and ping pong away.
Raymong Hwang is currently a second-year student in Kellogg’s Two-Year MBA Program. While at LinkedIn he is interning on the Product Marketing team. At Kellogg he is a leader in both the Marketing Club and High Tech Club. Prior to Kellogg, Raymond worked at General Mills in a cross-functional rotational program.