Commentary: Culture is king. Just about every employer we work with is focused on creating an organizational culture that enables employees to thrive and therefore increase productivity. Of course, their effectiveness varies widely.

Some organizations have good self-knowledge, know what’s important to them, and make decisions based upon an understood set of values.

Other organizations don’t have that self-understanding; they say one thing but value something else. The classic example is Enron, which listed its corporate values as “integrity, communication, respect and excellence,” laughably off the mark when it came to defining what was really important to the company’s top executives.

Also see: Workplace culture a benefits differentiator

Here’s why culture is considered to be so important: When there is a disconnect between what an organization says is important and how it behaves, people get confused. Whether they’re employees or customers or another interested audience, they become unsure of what’s important. This often leads to them guessing at the action they’re supposed to take. Internally, this can create chaos.

When it comes to setting and reinforcing an organization’s culture, the health care benefits you offer play an important role. If you’re saying that the health and well-being of your employees is important to you, but you offer substandard health insurance, employees are going to lose some faith. A successful employee benefit program has to be in harmony with the culture of the organization.

Here’s a real world example: We recently visited a company with a sterling reputation. However, internally they were struggling. We discovered that their insurance coverage was sub-par: they had a high deductible plan and were contributing very little to employee health savings accounts. They also had very poor participation in their wellness initiatives. Their insurance coverage completely contradicted the image the company was trying to portray. It’s fair to say that employees were confused and somewhat disheartened. Now, we’re working to institute a program that better aligns with the company vision.

Also see: 8 signs your workplace culture needs a reboot

Why do employers fall out of harmony? The two main problems are conditioning and communication.

Employers have been conditioned to look at health insurance in a certain way. Very often, benefits are viewed by business as a necessary evil, rather than an opportunity to reinforce what an employer believes is important. This almost always revolves around the cost of health care.

The upshot is that we’ve allowed benefits to “wag the dog,” to dictate how the organization operates and how it is perceived, rather than claiming the upper hand and selecting the health insurance that suits the culture. If you’re going to spend such a significant amount on benefits (and we’re guessing that it’s the second or third line item on your budget), perhaps it’s wiser to view them as an investment, rather than a pure cost.

After all, a benefits program that as aligns with company culture is a clear sign to the troops that management truly believes in what it says is important, and can go a long way towards creating the culture management wants. 

Quite frankly, much of the blame for this conditioning goes to benefits consultants. Through the years, consultants have often focused on price alone as the determining factor as to whether or not a client got the best benefits for their organization. As many people in business can tell you, it’s wiser to focus on value than cost.

Also see: How to build an intentional culture

The second factor in the disconnect in the lack of harmony for organizations is communication. To find the best possible fit for an organization’s benefits, the benefit consultant needs to ask the right questions to properly understand the client’s culture. The client also bears some responsibility for knowing its own culture and understanding what will be the best reflection of that culture.

Increasingly in this free-agent economy, employers have to establish a strong culture in order to attract the right talent. Employees choose to take jobs based at least in part upon culture. Without the right talent, a company can struggle to succeed. It’s an indication that we need to shift focus away from the cheapest benefits solution to find the best fit.

Robert Stumper is a senior benefits consultant with Corporate Synergies.

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