Corporate Cultures

In the Dark

by Ray Knight and Rob Sanders

Casino Executive - Oct 97Do you know what the culture of your company is? How do you know? 

Casinos are operating companies. Casino executives are by nature primarily concerned with doing things, making things run smoothly and profitably. If they give any thought to corporate culture at all, it is usually influenced by opinions forged from management meeting conversations or casual observations during MBWA (management by walking around). There is a very real likelihood that management's view of a casino's culture is markedly different than the way employees and customers see it.  Upper level executives tend to see their companies in a more positive light than do the line level employees. Understandably. They are successful, well-paid, and respected. They can afford to feel good about the company. 

Employees at lower levels are much closer to the day-to-day realities of what life in a company is really like. They see the company from its underbelly, and what they see isn't always as pretty as top management's view. As a result, their attitude toward the company, their jobs, and the customers can suffer. The corporate culture then suffers. Ultimately, customer satisfaction suffers. 

Increasingly, smart gaming executives are turning to research to find out what's really going on inside their employee's minds. What they learn sometimes surprises them. 

Mickey Caplinger, principal and research specialist for The Discovery Group, has conducted some 4,000 qualitative face-to-face interviews and quantitative surveys involving more than 25,000 employees at 20 gaming properties over the last four years, including properties of four of the top ten gaming companies in the country. Her analysis of this mass of data reveals some common elements that seem to be present to some degree in all gaming operations. 

"Some issues seem to be constants of the gaming industry," Caplinger says. "They appear in all types of venues traditional, emerging markets, and tribal gaming. They crop up with such predictable regularity, they could be called 'universal truths.'" 

These "universal truths" include perceptions that reach to basic human needs or concerns: 

Poor communication - Employees and managers alike almost always complain about not knowing enough about what's going on in the company. The mushroom analogy pops up frequently ("kept in the dark and covered with manure occasionally"). Invariably, "the grapevine" is cited as the most dependable source of information. 

Lack of respect - Employees often feel they are treated as chattels, used at the whims of their supervisors and casino management. The natural tendency is to treat others in the same way they are treated, including customers. 

Favoritism - "It's who you know" is a common indictment by employees who perceive that the best shifts, promotions, raises, and special favors are awarded not on merit but on personal relationships. 

Unfulfilled expectations - Present almost always, but especially pronounced in emerging and tribal gaming, the hard realities of working in a casino environment (unconventional work schedules, numbing repetition, restrictive regulations, constant scrutiny by customers and supervisors, etc.) run head-on into the glamorous expectations employees had of the job. 

Poorly trained middle management - The explosion of the gaming industry in recent years left a serious shortfall of experienced management talent, not enough good people to go around. Promotion from in the ranks was accelerated to meet the demand. Promotions often go to people who are the best qualified at their jobs, but may not necessarily be the most capable managers. With no special training, middle managers have often been left to figure it out for themselves as best they can. Some are better at it than others. 

"It should be noted," Caplinger cautions, "that these are perceptions by employees. Management may contend that facts contradict these issues and others that are specific to a given operation. And that may be. But to the employees, perception is reality. Cliche as that may sound, it is fact to them. If they believe the issues to be true, then until they are given reason to believe otherwise, the issues are true in their minds." 

Are these issues a problem in your company? What do your employees think? What other obstacles keep them from doing their best? How do you know? 

Building a strong corporate culture means knowing not only what you want the culture to be, but knowing what the culture is at any given moment. Management conferences may be valuable sources for seeing the big picture of the culture, but they are limited by the experience of the managers; casino executives don't experience life in the company the same way line level employees do. MBWA observations are limited in two ways: a) few casino executives do it much, and b) employees tend to be on their best behavior when "the brass" is around. 

The only sure way to get a clear grasp of your corporate culture is through systematic research. Employee perception studies on a regular basis provide a database for trend analysis. Areas for improvement become readily apparent, and specific measures can be directed to the issues. At the same time, the positive impact of cultural initiatives can be assessed, identifying what's working so it can be reinforced. Results can be measured and tracked with reliable consistency. Forward-thinking casino executives are doing this semi-annually. 

Forward-thinking casino executives go a step further to find out, through systematic research, what their customers think of the way they are treated. Consumer research is a staple of marketing and advertising to assess image perceptions brand awareness, marketing positioning, etc. Finding out what customers feel about their experience in a casino probes into a different area of consciousness; it goes to the heart of the company's identity what it really is, rather than what it appears to be. There is almost invariably a strong correlation between employee attitudes and customer satisfaction levels. 

The combination of employee perception research and customer satisfaction surveys gives gaming management a powerful foundation of fact-based knowledge for decision making to build a strong corporate culture. It provides hard numbers that can be correlated to bottom line performance. Research transforms corporate culture management from a black art into a scientific profit strategy.

(This article appeared in the October 1997 issue.)