CEO Insider

Tips for leaders on how to create an employee-first culture

Stephen Angel

Why You Should Create an Employee-First Culture

For the first time in years, and perhaps decades, employees have unprecedented leverage in the workplace. Call it the Great Resignation or the Great Reshuffle, many employees are reevaluating everything from their work-life balance to the work they do for businesses. This reprioritization has employees looking to realign themselves with companies that reflect their own values around social responsibility, empowerment, and good governance. 

For businesses looking to attract and retain today’s talent, they will need to reassess their culture to make sure it aligns with both current and prospective employee expectations. Is compensation fair and visible? Are schedules flexible to accommodate caregivers? Do company priorities incorporate a greater purpose in addition to profits? Identifying, evaluating, and incorporating these elements will come to define what it means to be a successful company. The way to achieve this is through the creation of an employee-first culture. 

Lead by Putting Employees First 

An employee-first culture puts the employee at the center of every business decision. This isn’t to say that it supplants the customer; rather, it elevates the employee to the same level as the customer and recognizes the individual as a person outside of their job. Business decisions then not only become about the bottom line at all costs but about the impact that it has on employees. In an employee-first environment, team members are seen, heard and valued, which is just as important as the company’s mission. A successful and forward-looking business centers on both what is best for the customer and employee in its decision-making policies. 

Building an Employee-First Culture 101

Creating a business or changing one to an employee-first culture sounds relatively easy on its face: make sure employees feel valued. Traditionally, this has been done through compensation and a bundle of competitive benefits or unique incentives. But it is more complex than adding language to the company’s mission statement. It requires actively working with employees and incorporating them into decisions that impact a company’s operations. A few actionable tactics employers can implement to create an employee-first culture include:

  • Know what your employees are thinking and feeling. Make sure to use feedback mechanisms and listening sessions to truly understand where they are coming from. 
  • Conduct stay interviews. These are invaluable. Leverage the findings from stay interviews to understand what would make an employee stay at the company and what would make them leave. Waiting until an exit interview for this information creates a drain on talent and a missed opportunity. 
  • Communicate…constantly. Make sure that employees’ concerns and feedback are heard by communicating it back. Also, make sure that major business decisions are communicated and given the space to be considered. 

How to Overcome Barriers 

Not all companies, leaders, or employees will readily embrace an employee-first culture. Leaders may experience some resistance. Most of these barriers result from the inability to break away from old habits or previous business culture where profit comes first. This is even more true for companies that have shareholders or investors. It’s not always natural for company leaders to put their people first, or at least on the same level as profit. Annual meetings, quarterly reports, promotions, and performance for many managers revolve first around profit. 

While profit will remain a motivating factor for many companies, it’s important to start elevating culture and people into the conversation. Start to tie managerial compensation to employee retention and involvement as well as profit. Having an engaged workforce that feels heard and part of the organization will drive innovation, retention, and performance – which in turn will create happy customers and drive future profit. 

Outlook: Long-Term Strategy and Success 

Companies sometimes see employees as a drag on company success, eating into profit margins. In times of economic uncertainty or even recession, headcount is usually the first to be sacrificed to maintain profitability. But this is counterintuitive. While it may sustain short-term profitability, it can have lasting negative repercussions for long-term growth. Talented employees may be let go and others might leave the company due to a ‘toxic’ environment. 

Taking an employee-first culture not only positions a company for success during a downtrend but also creates a stronger culture to take advantage of during economic upswings.  Deloitte recently reported on the Global Human Capital Trends survey, which showed that 79% of respondents, said a “sense of belonging in the workforce” aided in company success over the next 12-18 months while 93% believe it “drives organizational performance”. 

This type of culture reduces attrition, retains great employees with the business, and helps to recruit better employees in a tight labor market. At the end of the day, when leaders build an employee-first culture they can ensure a company’s success when times are lean or excel when times are prosperous.


Have you read?
6 keys to building a happy, connected global team by Cynthia Dearin.
Where Purpose Meets Planning by David R. York.
Can Artificial Intelligence Defeat Heart Disease by John Farquhar.
Why leaders need to embrace uncomfortable growth by Rowena Millward.
Does your Presence Allow Voice by Tracey Ezard.
The Benefits of a Flat Organizational Structure and How to Make the Switch by Rhea Ong Yiu.

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Stephen Angel
Stephen Angel is the Founder of People First Companies – an organization dedicated to elevating businesses as a better place to work for and buy from. With 25 years of professional experience, he has a history as a successful business owner in Colorado. Stephen began his career as an entry-level carpenter and went on to build his own multi-million-dollar business. As an entrepreneur and leader, he is committed to doing business better and honoring People First principles in his company.


Stephen Angel is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Connect with him through LinkedIn.