Culture. If It Ain’t Broke…

Workplace culture is not a given. Some companies strive to create a culture for their employees – be it one of diversity, casualness, open concept, technology and any other myriad of issues that workplaces grab onto.

But what is workplace culture? Let’s look at the recent purchase of WestJet by private equity firm Onex for $3.5 billion as an example of how fleeting culture can be.

For the life of the company, WestJet has branded itself as a fun airline, where staff and flight attendants conveyed a sense of enjoyment through their work. Jokes and games were played onboard and customers seemed to identify with the free-spirited nature of the airline (and of course its ability to compete on price with higher-cost airlines).

Enter Onex. Immediately, the ownership of the airline (no longer employee-owned, as it used to claim) is in the hands of a single investor. His goals, his risk/reward options, his reasons for wanting to own an airline will all surely differ from the current culture of the airline. Of course they are in business to make money and compete, but now that it will no longer be a public company, and will be in the hands of an investor with his own agenda, that fun culture will likely slip away.

I’m not suggesting one culture is better than another. If Gerry Schwartz, who runs Onex, wants to buy an airline and run it his way, he is entitled to do so. But it does raise an interesting question of why company cultures exist, how it helps or hinders a company and its workers, and how it evolves with management changes. Mr. Schwartz can do what he likes but would be well advised to look at the culture he is inheriting and see what works for the airline before doing anything drastic.

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