A Denver conversation on corporate culture with, from left, Judith Almendra of TTEC, Karen Niparko of the City and County of Denver, and John Hollander of GeoStabilization International (Photos by Tom Sandner)

When it comes to stating their mission and purpose, companies can put those intentions in writing for all to see. But corporate culture is something different, harder to quantify, intangible.

Yet the culture of an organization is a critical factor in attracting and keeping employees, especially in the tight labor market of today, according to the speakers on a panel at From Day One’s conference in Denver. What should be the key qualities of that culture, from an employee’s point of view?

“I would ask, ‘Do you feel valued as an employee and are you contributing?’ because that is so important,” said Karen Niparko, the chief human-resources officer for the City and County of Denver. “We want our employees to feel that they are highly valued, respected and appreciated. But they also have to feel that they’re contributing, that they’re making a difference, that they’re able to fulfill that purpose that we have for the City of Denver.”

In assessing its culture, a company should look first at the most basic, unchangeable aspect of its reason for being. “First you have to look at ‘What is your cornerstone?’,” said Mark Bishop, senior vice president of associate and organizational effectiveness for Terumo BCT, which develops technologies for blood-cell therapy. “Things that are tried and true, they’re going to be there every day. That’s our passion, that’s our mission, that’s what we do,” he said. “Our baseline has always been, ‘I understand how the work that I do impacts the life of a patient.’”

At GeoStabilization International, an engineering company that deals with landslides and other hazards, the culture is distinctly gung-ho, partly because the impact of the work is so tangible.

“One of the things is, we look at ourselves as first responders,” said John Hollander, the company’s chief people officer. “So, when a rock lands on I-70, we’re there at 4:30 in the morning. When the phone rings at four in the morning, we answer it. We go. We’re there. Because we have a thousand truckers waiting in line to bring goods and services to your favorite Amazon warehouse that’s sitting on the Western Slope and they’re going to be late and you’re not going to be happy.”

Even with a strong corporate culture, however, companies should question the status quo, since the culture outside the company could be changing expectations among both customers and employees. “It’s those things that you create as the norm in your organization that you need to stop and look at and say, ‘Do we want that to continue?’,” Hollander said.

To keep a culture growing in a healthy way, company leaders need to listen closely to their workers, which not only sparks innovation, but sends a message to employees that they matter, said panelist Wendy Barnett, a business partner with Lingo Live, a firm that provides coaching to help emerging leaders communicate better.

“When you look at the folks you have coming in–and everyone has valuable ideas, right?–how do you evolve where that organization is welcoming of challenges to ideas and is receptive to hearing that?” Barnett asked. She stressed that HR professionals must be willing to consider whether their policies are simply photocopies of the past, or are they welcoming of diverse points of view?

To tap into those views, a company should set up structures for open dialogue with employees, said Judith Almendra, vice president of talent management and employee engagement for TTEC, which provides customer-experience technology. To make sure lines of communication are kept open, Almendra said TTEC created a company intranet where employees could share ideas and input across the board, even anonymously if they felt uncomfortable sharing negative feedback.

Letting employees know their feedback is being used to implement changes has been a valuable tool in how TTEC "stays in tune with what’s happening with our business,” she said. “It lets people know we’re not just a bunch of programs. We use it, for example, when we’re going to do a sales pitch … there’s a lot of value in that collective knowledge.”

The full panel, from left: moderator Daliah Singer, Mark Bishop of Terumo BCT, Wendy Barnett of Lingo Live, Judith Almendra of TTEC, Karen Niparko of the City and County of Denver, and John Hollander of GeoStabilization International

Barnett said that’s why her company, and others, should be willing to place a high value on communication. “It’s so crucial to innovation, culture, evolution, everything,” Barnett said. “That’s what we realize passion is, it’s empowering people to share that voice.”

“How do you build an EVP (Employee Value Proposition) and leverage that with culture?” one attendee asked the panel, which was moderated by Denver journalist Daliah Singer.

Turns out, the two don’t exist on their own but are instead intrinsically linked. That’s where many organizations have realized it’s all about building a brand for employees, not just consumers.

“When we built ours, we didn’t distinctly separate that from culture; we married it to the culture,” Hollander said. “So our culture existed first, we built the EVP, we did some market analysis … and we really took a marketing view of our EVP. We started thinking about ‘What’s our demographic?’ and then we built our EVP to reflect our culture. We used that to go to market. We actually hired a marketing firm to help us think about potential constituents or employees as customers, if you will. Our EVP statements are very reflective and heavily embedded in our culture.”

Niparko added that the City and County of Denver also realized that in order to build that value proposition, it needed to develop a brand attractive to the workers it’s seeking.

“Why would you look at a city? What are the opportunities in that city? We really needed to create awareness about what opportunities potential employees could have and promote that city,” she said. To that end, the city hired a marketing firm, which ran focus groups and engagement surveys with employees, candidates, and the public: “What is your view of the City of Denver and would you want to work there?”

“From that, we developed a brand: Be a part of the city you love,” she said. “You’ll see it on buses, at the airport, on billboards; we feature our employees as brand ambassadors, and that’s part of our culture that is about our employees. Then we created, ‘What is our differentiator for Denver?’ One is obviously our strong purpose in serving the public, and from that we built out our value proposition. Now we promote that through all of our marketing materials, social media, etc. We’re out there now in many different ways than we were six or seven years ago.”

Barnett has done research on the separation of personal and professional life and how that contributes to a viable workforce in today’s economy. “If we think about our values, they really come from a personal place,” she said. “We spend eight hours to 14 to 16 hours a day working, so integration of those values of personal and professional life is really critical. We, as humans, are attracted to organizations that reflect our personal way that we wish to live our lives.”

Another attendee asked the panel that for those measuring employee, what would be the one question you should ask? “If you would recommend us as an employer,” Almendra said, “we know we’re doing something good.

Jessica Machetta is a Denver-based journalist who has covered business, economic development, politics, crime and courts in several states and at least three other countries. She has worked for CBS, ABC, the Miami Herald, Bloomberg, the BBC and others