Organisational Culture and the GASP Phenomenon

Gasp. Most literally!

Today’s Karen Gately blog examines last week’s  Gasp clothing viral phenomenon. In what amounted to a perfect storm of social media disbelief, horror and disapproval, a Gasp customer posted an official company response to her immediate network and an ensuring Facebook maelstrom began. Here, we dig deeper and look at how the core values of a brand can filter down with unexpected results to their customer front line. Here’s Karen!

Over the past few days social media has been abuzz with discussion of an event that has left people across Melbourne bemused and outraged. I’m talking about the case of Keara O’Neil vs GASP fashion retailers. The short version of the story is this… Keara O’Neil and her future bridesmaids walked into a Melbourne-based GASP store on a Saturday and were treated in much the same manner as Vivienne a la Pretty Woman. Unlike Vivienne’s Richard Gere-fuelled fairytale, the GASP shop assistant in this fable did not receive their comeuppance. Instead, O’Neil was further insulted when she received an unsatisfactory response to her complaint from the store’s head office. For the full story, including the offending emails click here.

It’s understandable that the public are incensed by GASP’s unorthodox response, but it does begs the greater question – where does this type of corporate behaviour come from? In my experience it undoubtedly comes down to the culture of the organisation, and culture is created from the top. Leaders in every workplace talk about ‘organisational culture’, that mysterious catchphrase that characterises a working environment.  But what is it? How is it created?  And most importantly, why does it matter?

On a basic level, culture is the ‘personality’ of an organisation. Values and beliefs create the foundation of any organisational culture, while behaviour is the observable and measurable manifestation of culture. People bring their own values to an organisation and can choose how they behave. They can choose to behave in a manner that is consistent with the organisation’s values, they may attempt to influence and change the organisation’s culture or they may become a disruptive influence.  Most individuals are driven to ‘fit in’, and people do this by reading signals that identify what is valued, what is considered to be important and what others do to ‘fit in’, to be accepted or to succeed in the environment. Individuals who are (for one reason or another) unable to ‘fit in’ ultimately leave the organisation.

Workplace culture is primarily represented in the organisation’s language, symbols, stories and daily work practices.  Whilst culture can evolve naturally, to ensure a positive culture exists and is fully leveraged it needs to be effectively managed. This can be done by guiding and monitoring the behaviour of staff and the decision-making of leaders.  To provide a consistent basis for both, an organisation should define what it stands for in the form of corporate values and assign behaviours to these values which can be managed against.

So, at the end of the day – why does any of this matter? Ultimately I’ve observed that commitment, effort, creativity, ambition and performance are all directly impacted by workplace culture.  There is evidence to suggest that one of the greatest drivers of poor performance and job dissatisfaction is a lack of fit with organisational culture.

Back to GASP…  I am left wondering, is the behaviour of their staff aligned to the organisation’s values and reflective of their culture?  We’d love to know what you think about this interesting case. Can you think of any experiences that you’ve had where corporate culture has surprised or bemused you?


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