Culture Matters

by Jess Nolte-Cerchio

Culture Matters. I’m sure you’ve read this before… quite possibly many times. Company happy hours! Wear jeans to the office! “Flexible” schedules! But are these the things that truly make up a company’s culture?

Something that I rarely see included in a company’s description of their culture is how their employees (especially from the top down) communicate on an interpersonal level. Are the leaders of a company genuinely concerned with the well-being of their employees? Or are the culture perks listed above all about a return on investment? Does my employer really give a shit about me, or am I just a walking dollar sign?

I can honestly say that, at Differential, culture does matter. I knew this from the first time I spoke with the partners before I was even hired. Yes, the unlimited vacation and freedom to work from wherever I wanted, made possible by a transparent and high trust environment, were important and attractive to me. Yes, working on projects that matter to us and that focus on healthy and fun client partnerships made me jump for joy. But I could tell, right off the bat, that these people really valued their employees - not just as worker bees, but as a whole. During my first year at Differential, I knew this to be true. But if I had any doubt that my company cared about me, those doubts were erased when my husband Andrew passed away suddenly in the summer of 2016.

In corporate America or office environments, we’re used to talking about parental leave (though as a whole, the United States is pretty bad at providing adequate time and support in this regard, too … but that’s another conversation): time taken off when new life occurs and families grow. But what about time taken off when a life close to one of your employees ends? A lot of companies have “Bereavement Policies,” though, in my experience, the language of such policies is cold and impersonal. “You get this many days off for a death that is this many degrees away from you.” Differential doesn’t have a formal bereavement policy. What we do have, that I unfortunately and fortunately got to experience and continue to experience first hand, is this: a whole lot of compassion, empathy, and willingness to adapt and change with and for the employees that they so value.

Much of what happened in the days following Andrew’s death are a blur to me, but I do remember handing my phone to my neighbor and asking her to call Tim. It was one of the first things I did - not because I was afraid I’d get in trouble for not showing up to work, but because I knew my coworkers would rally around me.

And they did. I was consistently told, “anything you need.” My coworkers picked up the work I was unable to do. They fed my family and me on numerous occasions. They sent me a gift card to my favorite nail salon. They gave me the contact information of people they knew who had been through similar circumstances. They invited me over for pizza and beer just so I could experience a sliver of normalcy. They showed up, both behind the scenes and in person.

I was out of the office full time for at least a month and returned on a pretty sporadic “whatever I could manage” schedule for weeks more. Even when I was back full time, my productivity was greatly diminished. I couldn’t focus on anything for very long and I cried in the bathroom for at least an hour a day. But instead of having expectations placed on me, Colin and I decided to meet once a week for the first few months just to check in and to see what they could be doing better for me. I was asked to grab coffee or lunch during the day or a drink after work just to chat (which I could have declined, but I like to talk, so…). I received quiet reminders on Slack and in note form: “Don’t forget that I’m right across the room if you need someone.” “You’re doing great, Jess.” These may have seemed like small gestures to the people offering them up, but they impacted my life greatly. “Hey, these people are opening themselves up to me, so it’s safe for me to be vulnerable here.”

What many company cultures don’t take into account is that there is not a specific amount of time that can be allotted for bereavement. Sure, extended amounts of paid time off are likely unrealistic, but employees can and should be afforded an environment that doesn’t expect them to be “back to normal” when they return to work after their loss. To this day, I continue to receive support from my coworkers surrounding my loss, the events that inevitably followed, and my life in general. They are part of a group of people that I like to refer to as my cheerleaders, and I’m extraordinarily lucky to have them. I realize that this is not the case for everyone, and that many people experiencing loss re-enter a workplace that feels uncaring or even hostile and threatening.

Death is part of the human experience. In western culture, we tend to sweep it under the rug and encourage a stiff upper lip, but it is something that everyone will inevitably have to deal with at some point in their lives. It’s more bearable when people in our communities are willing to walk (or sit, or crawl) through it with us — including our employers. Thank you, Differential, for walking through it with me.

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