Work Culture

Trick or Treat: What Skeletons Are Hiding in Your Company Culture Closet?

by Deborah Hartung on October 29, 2018

Its Halloween season, and kids everywhere are excited about their costumes and all the candy they’re going to be feasting on after trick or treating. Scary stories are being told, and cobwebs and spiders are decorating public spaces. What horror stories are being told – or worse even, lived – in your company right now? And what cobwebs do you need to clear in order to see the four skeletons in the closet killing your culture and fueling high staff turnover?

Halloween is widely believed to have originated in Celtic times with the annual harvest festival of Samhein. Celtic communities would light large bonfires and wear costumes to ward off evil spirits who they believed might damage their harvest in the coming year. They’d make sacrifices. They’d say prayers and attempt to tell each other’s fortunes. It’s all very fascinating really, learning about ancient civilizations and the beliefs they held. The myths and stories and legends. The lack of science or logical explanations for weather patterns and pestilence.

Fire – shining a light – is always central to warding off the perceived evil, and now is as good a time as any for us to shine some light on the evils that may be lurking within your corporate culture and contributing to fear and unhappiness among your people.

The Deal with Culture

To some of us, company culture is arguably as mythical as unexplained weather patterns and pestilence were to ancient civilizations. There’s always that element that we just cannot describe. Something intangible. Something you don’t necessarily see with the naked eye, but you’re acutely aware of.

Company culture, in its essence, is the ‘personality’ of a company, and this is dependent on the values, behaviours, vision, mission and ethics of an organization. It’s as much about what people do as it is about how they do it, and maintaining a healthy corporate culture is the Holy Grail in terms of ensuring that you have a happy, healthy and engaged team at work.

Danger: Toxic

Signs that something is ‘off’ are actually all around you in an unhealthy or toxic workplace culture – all you need to do is pay closer attention to how people behave. Sure, we can use culture surveys and gather and analyze data to tell us what’s wrong, but a simple observation of the teams within your office will provide you with clues as to whether there’s a toxic culture brewing.

If there is a lack of laughter, healthy banter and chit-chat, it could mean everyone is in their flow and at their most productive. Alternatively, something much more sinister may be lurking in your corridors. You see, happy, healthy, engaged and productive employees are visible from space! They’re happy at work, and they actually enjoy chatting and laughing with colleagues during the workday. They openly show appreciation for the efforts of others, and they readily provide praise and recognition.

Similarly, if you notice that nobody seems to ask questions or speak up, you’ve got a problem.

Employees don’t feel it’s safe to speak up, disagree with management or push back on ridiculously impossible targets. In open forums or meetings, when asked for feedback or comments, there’s a deathly silence that fills the room. It’s not because your employees are shy or having flashbacks to 8th grade debating contests. They’re too scared to speak up for fear of reprisal – and that’s a really, really bad sign for you as an employer.

Zombies and Vampires Running Wild

You might think it doesn’t matter that your top-performing sales person is a dick, or that your CIO is a nightmare to work for, as long as they’re getting results. Or maybe you think the ‘nice guy’ manager in the corner, who isn’t great at his job but at least isn’t causing any problems at work, deserves another salary increase. This is outdated and shortsighted thinking of the worst kind.

Corporate culture is shown very clearly in who we hire, fire or promote, and both types of manager described above actually contribute to a toxic workplace culture. Our definition of ‘high performance’ in the modern world of work needs to focus equally on what an employee does (output and results) and on how they do it (value-congruent behaviour).

Personally, I’m a big proponent of the performance values matrix by Dr. Cameron Sepah, and specifically of rating not only ‘output’ but also value-congruent behaviours, as part of overall ‘performance’.


In an article for the Harvard Business Review in 2012, Eric C. Sinoway shared a classification of employees that he and his mentor, Professor Howard Stevenson, had created in order to identify the employees who help advance corporate culture and those who harm culture and wreak havoc.

  • Stars are the employees who are not only performing well, but also doing things that actively support the company culture. They are doing the right things, in the right way, and they are the ones we should really be nurturing and developing.
  • High Potentials are people who are a great culture fit but need a little help developing their skills. With a little bit of help, development, support and time, they become future stars.
  • Zombies are neither of the above. They’re basically ‘dead wood,’ because their performance is nothing short of mediocre, and their behaviour isn’t advancing corporate culture. They may not actively be doing anything to damage your culture, but they generally lack credibility and are very bad at making decisions or taking a stand.
  • Vampires are the real threat. They are those ‘assholes’ Dr. Cameron Sepah speaks of – the ones who perform really well at a functional level, but do so in a manner that is completely out of step with the desired values and behaviours within the culture. Unfortunately, over time, these people acquire power and amass followers in the form of zombies who are aspiring to better performance. Soon you have an army of vampires and zombies running wild, sucking the life and joy out of your stars and high potentials, and creating that environment where there is no laughter, banter or any kind of transparent communication and feedback.

Halloween is as good a time as any to take stock of what is really going on in your organization, and to clean out the cobwebs and the skeletons. It’s time to slay some vampires and starve some zombies, and to start actively building the culture that you wished you had. Your stars and high potentials will thank you for it and repay you not only with outstanding performance and output but also with reduced absenteeism and staff turnover.


Deborah Hartung

Deborah Hartung -

Deborah Hartung is a Consultant, Coach, Author and Speaker based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

She has spent almost 20 years advising corporates on matters relating to employee relations, corporate culture and leadership development. Deborah is passionate about people and technology, the human experience in the workplace and the opportunities for the advancement of humanity in the digital age. 

Especially popular with young or first-time leaders, entrepreneurs and women in leadership, Deborah encourages all those she meets to align with their purpose and to be brave enough to be authentic in all their interactions. She writes about life, love, leadership, workplace culture, the future of work and the importance of making the world a kinder, more tolerant place.

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