HR Through a Culture That Works

The following is an excerpt from The 50: HR Leaders Reimagining the Filipino Organization. Authored by Pancho Dizon, this chapter is titled, “HR Through a Culture That Works.” In it, Kathleen Ang, the Human Resources Manager of Ikea Pasay City, is interviewed about how the organization executes its strategy in taking advantage of technology and adjusting training.

When one mentions Swedish home furnishings retailer IKEA, the most typical images that come to mind are spacious showrooms full of couches, chairs, tables, cabinets, and other furnishings that make a comfortable home. The company has achieved success in selling its products worldwide at low prices without sacrificing quality. 


Nevertheless, IKEA Pasay City’s HR Manager Kathleen Ang pointed out that there’s something else the company should be known for: its unique company culture, which touches everything within the organization, from the way it recruits its employees to how it operates its business.


It’s all too often that the word “company culture” only conjures up images of the occasional pizza party or casual Fridays. Yet IKEA shows it is much deeper than that. 


In IKEA’s case, the company’s culture already comes into play as early as the recruitment process. In the organization, they don’t just look at your technical qualifications―more importantly, they want to see what kind of values you personally have, and if these match the values of IKEA. What this means is that you may have all the right qualifications and work experiences, the best degree from a top university and stellar grades, but if you aren’t what IKEA deems a “cultural-fit”, then it’s best to look somewhere else.

Ang, of course, was no exception to the Swedish company’s unique hiring process. She shared that when she first showed up, she was prepared to sell herself based on her technical qualifications and answer the typical interview questions: “what would you do in this sort of situation?”, “what are your strengths and weaknesses?”, “where do you see yourself in 5 years?”


Yet the first words out of her interviewer’s (her current manager) mouth quickly turned that on its head. 


“The fact that you were shortlisted out of almost three hundred candidates means that you’re technically competent so let us not talk about that. Instead, I want to learn all about you as a person so you can talk for an hour―anything you want to say or share with me about yourself,” her interviewer said.


While she talked, her interviewer used that time to draw a tree diagram on a piece of paper and categorized the things she said into different branches. At the end of her soliloquy, she was given an IKEA product catalog and was asked to explain why the cover photo was the company’s picture of choice. 


“I was blindsided by that. I thought ‘oh no, I’m HR―not marketing!’” she laughed.


Though it may at first seem incredibly eccentric, Ang explained that she later saw the logic behind all this. 


“My boss was trying to see if I saw where IKEA was going or what IKEA is all about,” she explained, “So it doesn’t matter what position you’re applying for, what matters is whether you have the personality or passion that would benefit IKEA. We’re of the view that technical competencies can be taught but attitude can’t, so we want people with the right attitude off the bat.”


This understanding of what IKEA is about is so important that everyone―from co-workers to management―spends equal time learning about its culture and the ins and outs of an IKEA store.


Another way the company determines whether a person is a proper fit for the company is a licensed product called the Predictive Index. This online tool assesses a person based on four personal drives: their introversion or extroversion, openness to change, need for stability, and aggressiveness levels. The results from this index help a hiring manager pick out who they believe would be best for the role.


But it's not always a given that the “best” match on paper is selected. 

 

“Ultimately, the tool is just a guide,” Ang said, “Somebody may be a 10/10 match for the role based on the index, but the hiring manager could end up going for someone who’s a 5/10 in match in the interest of diversity. Either way, we do make sure that they still have the basic technical qualifications to be able to perform in the role, and the rest can be taught.”


“Diversity is important at IKEA, so we want to make sure we’re not hiring the same personality profile over and over again. When you’re diverse, two people who wouldn’t usually end up together can bring out the best in each other.”


With that in mind, IKEA also makes sure to reach communities that may not be traditionally on the corporate radar. The persons with disabilities (PWD) community, for example, is one that Ang would like to bring into IKEA’s fold. “We’ve recently started an initiative to start reaching out to PWDs online, which is where they’re quite active,” she said. 


The pursuit of diversity also brings big opportunities for those already working in IKEA. According to Ang, the company is structured so that applying to work in different IKEA stores around the world is as easy as applying at the company website and being considered for the role.


“My boss is an expat and he’s been with IKEA for more than thirty years already. He has worked in different countries in Europe, and is now in the Philippines,” she recalled, “Anyone in the company can replicate that sort of global and multicultural career. When we try to sell the company to a candidate during interviews, this is something we highlight. You don’t have to just grow here in the Philippines―IKEA can take you anywhere!”


IKEA’s company culture has helped them even in the face of COVID-19. Though the pandemic forced its Philippine operations to delay the opening of their first store in the country, it didn’t mean operations have stopped completely. 


“Hand-in-hand with diversity is the value of flexibility. Crisis will show you just how important it is to be quick on your feet, very adaptable, and willing to go outside your comfort zone.”

For IKEA’s HR, this meant taking advantage of technology and adjusting training, onboarding, and more. Those who were hired just before the pandemic, for example, were onboarded through the use of Microsoft Teams. 


Even the practice of sending employees out to stores to learn about the business had its digital equivalent through virtual training. The company also made sure that there was a wealth of materials regarding the company’s practices and operations available online, effectively creating a makeshift online school for incoming employees.


“It’s definitely a challenge,” Ang said, “But I can say even just working from home, we’re able to make things work.”


Indeed, IKEA is the perfect example of a company that’s found what it really means to make a culture and have it work for them. The body of work advocating for a strong company culture is vast: from pieces that argue it is an invaluable prerequisite to high performance to the wonders it can do for employee retention, “company culture” has become a buzzword that can’t be ignored.


But if you really want to do it right, you only have to look to IKEA.

To get more insights from other HR leaders like Kathleen Ang, please check out the full book, available for purchase here


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