Buying a business that has a culture problem

Have you bought a business with a culture problem? How do you know?

There are a few key areas of a business that will indicate a culture problem. There is, of course, the feeling you get in your gut when you walk into the business. A lack of eye contact from staff, a lack of laughter, problems serving customers in a retail or hospitality business (havoc on the floor) – these will all be easily-recognisable indications of a business in need of a makeover.

You can also dig a little deeper to see the extent of any issues. Consider conducting interviews with staff, or anonymous surveys, while making sure you show that you want to work with staff to help any issues with their work culture.

Finally, look at outside sources, such as online reviews for hospitality and retail businesses, as well as business partners and wholesalers, who can provide you with an insight into the specific challenges a business faces. You will soon see a pattern when you cross-reference interviews with staff, reviews, conversations with wholesalers etc. Remember that every business has problems, but you will soon highlight the core issue that is causing all the various complaints staff and customers may have.

What causes a culture problem?

The size of a company can have a strong influence on its culture.

Small start-ups often benefit from an ‘all-in’ attitude from its employees. Often, those within the company have a financial interest in the company’s success, and this work ethic and positivity can often translate into the work culture. Of course, a start-up can also suffer from its own size, with less breathing room and a higher chance of people forming close ties with one another at the expense of the few. It is important to be aware of this from the very beginning, as personalities play such a significant role within small companies.

Medium-sized companies (40+ employees) have their own set of challenges, the most important being their bottom dollar. A medium-size company may not have the finances to fund an HR department, or the many perks that large companies provide their employees, while they may also suffer from legacy issues that come back to bite them, compounding any existing culture problems.

Office workers in a skyscraper


Large companies have the greatest wiggle room when it comes to a company culture. They have the resources to really drive healthy work practices, engage with staff one-on-one and create programs that drive the development of a positive culture. The departmentalisation of a larger company may pose challenges, as departments begin to act as mini companies in their own right, which is one of the major causes of discontent within a large company.

As for the precise causes of a culture problem, these can often seem quite nebulous. A combination of factors may cause issues in a company, such as a lack of wage growth, career development, micromanagement, or compounding pressure from the top down.

How to approach the issue?

As the new owner of a business facing these challenges, the only way you can move forward in addressing any cultural issues within your workplace is to address them head on, with your staff. It may be that your management style completely refreshes the workplace, or it may be that issues are more deeply seeded, in which case employing an HR professional to work with you in developing surveys and programs intended to identify and remedy issues is the best way forward. For instance, clearly setting out your expectations in an employee handbook can be a great way to bring everyone on board with a shared understanding of where the business wants to go.

Read more on keeping your employees engaged and happy in the workplace.


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