Association Culture: What Not To Do

Written by Anne Nevel on June 4, 2018

What does a healthy workplace culture look like? It can be hard to picture your ideal working world. But I bet we can all think of what we don’t want in a workplace. I’m going to relay my experience of working for an organization that got culture wrong, in the hope that we can all learn from their mistakes.

Red flags

I noticed some red flags before I went to work there. For a small organization, there were many positions open at once. I had to wait longer during the interview process than I would usually expect. But I was optimistic about the organization and saw a lot of opportunity in my potential new position there.

When I started work and some issues became apparent, I decided to be a part of fixing it. Early on in my time there, they conducted a staff survey which seemed like a good sign that they were taking their problems seriously. However, soon I heard talk from staff that this had been done before with negligible results. People were skeptical that it was even anonymous, and worried that if they wrote anything negative they would be cornered about it.

The results of the survey came out a little skewed. I spoke to a board member and he said the results indicated that people were mostly concerned about the disappearance of free oatmeal from the staff kitchen. I realized then that they were ignorant of the bigger picture. It was all about communication. The oatmeal was there one day, then gone the next, with no warning or explanation. The oatmeal was symbolic of a larger lack of transparency.

Taking action

In meetings with the management team and leadership, I tried to bring up the issues I saw around me. I referred to my experiences with similar situations in other organizations and how they improved culture. No one else expressed interest in taking my ideas and running with them towards solutions, so eventually I took the lead.

To start, I sent out an email to the entire staff explaining my plan and how it would be a fun initiative to get involved in. I had interesting responses and put together a diverse group of staff from various departments and levels. One person turned up at my office and asked, “Is this where we get to complain about everything going on in the organization?”


When we got together for meetings, some great ideas came up. We started sharing our ideas at staff meetings. People responded well to begin with, and praised our ideas, but when it came to taking action there was no support. Pushback started happening from other parts of the organization, like the HR department, who didn’t want us to pursue certain projects.

For example, the group decided we should start celebrating staff birthdays. One department was already doing it, so we brought this simple idea to the leadership with a view of expanding it outwards. They were reluctant to follow through. They created obstacles by saying we should put out a survey to find out who wants to participate. On one hand, they encouraged us, but in the end it never worked out.

Stepping back

Ultimately, I realized I was fighting an uphill battle. Sometimes you might do all the right things and be passionate and rally the right players. But if there is a deep-rooted lack of trust, and a leadership culture that values lip service over walking the walk, you won’t be able to make the progress you want.

This organization was not willing to admit they had a problem. They had a higher turnover rate than they reported. I could have continued working there and kept my head down and let things go, but that’s not my style. Soon enough, I got a call from a recruiter about a position with another organization in my state and called it a day.

Anne spoke in the “Getting Clear About Culture Change” session during SURGE Spring, an interactive virtual summit hosted by on May 2nd-4th. Click here to watch the sessions on demand.