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Every Workplace Has a Culture

Extract #2 from Workplaces That Work: A Guide to Conflict Management in Union and Non-Union Work Environments (Aurora: Canada Law Book, 2006), Blaine Donais

Have you ever heard the phrase “that’s not the way we do things around here”? Workplace consultants should take this statement seriously. Anyone purporting to help a workplace manage conflict should take a careful look at the context in which that conflict exists. Every workplace has a culture. This culture is unique to that workplace. Without understanding this culture it will be difficult to help the workplace make enduring changes to the way it manages conflict.

Culture generally refers to a system of shared beliefs, values and norms that shape behavior. Thus when we think of culture we look to the indicia of culture (like religion, language, fashion, philosophy) and identify similarities among a certain group and differences with other groups.

Workplace culture can be defined as the “way of life” for those in a particular workplace. This has many elements including: laws, language, fashion, authorities, power relationships, conventions, conflict management processes, dispute resolution processes.


Most workplaces generally share a certain body of laws imposed upon them from greater society. In non-union or common law workplaces these laws are an amalgam of statutory minimum requirements like employment standards, occupational health and safety, workers’ insurance, human rights, pay equity legislation and the common law of employment. These are enforced through the courts, commissions and tribunals. In a unionized workplace the common law of employment is replaced largely by labour legislation. Labour legislation creates a number of differences between union and non-union work environments. And while these various statues and common law provisions contribute to the regulation of employer-employee relations in the workplace, other legislation effects how work gets done.

In addition to external laws, there are internal laws that contribute to the culture of a particular workplace. These include workplace policies and procedures governing employee behavior and work practices. These might also include collective agreements in unionized workplaces.


Each workplace has language conventions that distinguish it from other workplaces. For example, a nuclear engineer in a Canadian nuclear power generating station might refer to an SCR (Station Condition Report), or a JRPT (Joint Redeployment Planning Team). And a host at an upscale coffee shop knows a regular latte with skim milk and sugar is called a “Tall Skinny with Legs”. This language is relevant only to the context of the particular workplace – thus making it an element of culture.


Each workplace has a dominant dress code. A male Wall Street lawyer is expected to wear a suit and tie while a gas station attendant might wear a blue shirt with a nametag. A sales associate at a record store is expected to dress in the funky styles of their clients.

Authorities, Power Relationships, Conventions

Every workplace has established authorities, power relationships and conventions. Authority is proscribed by the normal hierarchy of the workplace. In some workplaces formal authorities are vague and elude proper definition. Some workplaces have a director level person with more power than a particular vice president. And the authority itself may be limited to specific purposes. Thus it is important to delve into each workplace to determine what is behind the stated authorities.

Conflict Management/Dispute Resolution Processes

Much can be discovered about a workplace culture by looking at its conflict management and dispute resolution processes. Workplaces with processes that rely primarily upon rights-based or power-based options for managing conflict are likely to be more adversarial and/or individualistic in nature. Those with interest-based processes are likely more purposeful, cooperative and forward-looking.

Situational Determinants

Situational determinants have an impact upon workplace culture. Carefully research your workplace for situational determinants related to industry, sector, and unionization.

Industry: Different industries will engender specific cultural determinants. Manufacturing industries may be more interested in engineered output than the service industry – which would place a high value on customer satisfaction.

Sector: Different sectors tend to engender different cultures. The private sector may place more emphasis on profits while public sector may emphasize service to the public. Non-profit sector workplaces have an entirely different culture than other public and private sector workplaces.

Unionization: A union has a tremendous effect upon the culture of the workplace. First, it is connected to the broader labour movement. The labour movement espouses cultural values for the workplace that may be very different for a non-unionized workplace. The preference for seniority, for example, would be dominant in a unionized workplace, whereas preference for performance may be more important in a non-unionized workplace

Workplace Sub-Cultures

Large workplaces may have sub-cultures. For example, the finance department may have very different values than the sales department. The technology department might be dominated by Ph.D. engineers working in close proximity on an elaborate scientific experiment, while the maintenance department may be composed primarily of skilled trades people working in different buildings. Many large workplaces have more than one union. Each union has its own culture and values. The Teamsters Union, for example, has a very different way of doing things than the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers. When analyzing a particular workplace, then, it is not sufficient to make broad generalizations about the larger workplace. The reader is encouraged to carefully study the subject workplace for its own peculiar cultures.

In Workplaces That Work, there is a convenient check-list and advice to help the analyst reveal the prevailing sources of workplace culture. To learn more, the reader can go to


Blaine Donais

Blaine Donais B.A., LL.B., LL.M. (ADR), RPDR, C. Med., author of Workplaces That Work, published by Canada Law Book, has spent many years working with public and private sector professionals. He is President and Founder of the Workplace Fairness Institute, Conflict Management Solutions. He has represented professionals as a labour… MORE >

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