A while ago, on a bulletin board that can remain nameless (to protect posters’ identities, and as its actual digital whereabouts is irrelevant to my point), someone started a thread that commented on their rootless, international upbringing and asked the simple question “Where do you call home?”

The answers were intriguing. Although some were geographic or family based (ie home is where yougrew up or where your parents live, if they still do), many were not and explored what we mean by ‘home’ – not the same word, or the same associations, as ‘heritage’. Some responses mixed the two, for example:

Aberystwyth, on the Welsh coast, where I lived for five years as a student and lecturer and whose faded Victorian beauty, rugged surroundings and adorable people make me feel instantly secure and integrated the second I go back, which I do at least four or five times a year.”

Others were far more concerned with what ‘feeling at home’ actually feels like and the different ways we can experience it:

  • Wherever i feel safe and comfortable.
  • Anywhere that contains George, some plants I have grown and a pile of books could be home.
  • There used to be an old Goth/Alternative club […] where I worshipped weekly back from the early till the mid-nineties. Until now I’d forgotten just how safe and happy I felt there with all the sights, sounds and of course the lovely people within. It’s a place that helped shape my formative character just as I was part of what shaped its. It was home and I miss it.
  • […] Which, presumably, is why we refer to favourite bars, clubs, cafes and the like as ‘homely’ – we don’t really mean ‘domestic’, we mean ‘comfortable’ in the truest sense: places we feel like we belong. It can even be somewhere you’d never been before – I’m thinking of a tapas bar in Perpignan and a now long gone art gallery in Leicester. Home is a connection we feel through more than just our feet.

Home – in this sense – is also a place that even a workaholic might like to linger. Which is, in a way, my point. Places that depend on attracting those that are most likely to enjoy their particular culture, style, values – call it what you will – are those most likely to make at least some effort making them immediately obvious.

The ultra-chic restaurant will painstakingly apply visual indicators that announce that it is not just bang on trend (to use a phrase that such a place certainly wouldn’t), but that it is upmarket, culinarily fashionable (for a single sheet of paper, the menu board often speaks volumes) and understands the importance of either discretion or visibility, depending on which audience it is seeking. The hipster’s bar will be visually incomprehensible – or unattractive – to those too uncool to enjoy the experience of stepping inside. The local folk musician’s pub may not expend all its energies on visual preening: the audience will value authenticity, a lack of showiness and a sense of tradition.

(There’s also the critical distinction between the high-fashion establishment and the truly high class: service in the latter will be exceptional – as that will be expected – while it could be chilly, disdainful or lacking in the former, where the clientele have come to be seen as much as they have to actually enjoy the ‘experience’.)

In the sense of organisations where we feel at home, this is a topic we’ve explored to some extent before, looking at the challenges of creating and maintaining a sense of engagement in a labour market where transience is a more prevalent pattern than long service.

While talent managers and HR directors address the challenges of talent retention, there is ‘cake and eating it’ scenario here: retaining people with one hand while removing the job for life or the security of long-term roles on the others. Employees wind up simultaneously both valued and disposable, and often left to come to terms with the contradiction for themselves.

Hence the value of the employer brand. Just like the pub that sends the right messages before we cross the threshold, we know that we are staying for the second pint from choice but realise that we’re more likely to in a place that we feel in tune with. Our individual custom will not make or break the business, but a bedrock of regulars is something any business – and not just a much-loved local – will tend to enjoy. By positioning its culture and values carefully in its recruitment activity – which means more than just the advertising – an organisation can send a clear message that will help to attract (or equally, to repel) those most (least) likely to enjoy the experience of recruitment and what follows. The latter, of course, depends on the organisation following through on the promise that its employer branding has made.

The most unhappy working experiences in others that I’ve witnessed have all been around cultural fit – a skilled man from a large corporate who loathed (and was loathed by) a small IT enterprise; a pioneering “young turk” in a very traditional setting that was resisting the current century more than it was accepting it; a highly motivated woman with a strong commercial sales record in a large public sector organisation where it was never entirely clear whether it couldn’t understand her or if it understood her perfectly well but didn’t much care for her argument. Moreover, these experiences were miserable for all concerned: unhappy colleagues are an unhappy experience all in themselves.

Cultural change is the hardest and slowest change, and this is true of the individual as much as the organisation. But where an organisation changes culture, it does so (or at least it should do so) collectively and with each other’s support. The individual adapting to a new culture does so on a much more lonely basis. And a home that makes us feel lonely is no home at all.

But, as we said before, generating a sense of inclusion is a task for more than just HR. As in so many things, the single biggest influence on atmosphere is probably the line manager. Where the line manager has a particular working style or preference, try to take it on board when recruiting: the new recruit will need to work with it, as well as with them. Where the organisation has no clearly defined culture but values particular skills, encourage line managers to be accepting of a broader range of behaviours so that skills may be retained long enough to create value. People can – and will – leave, and mostly because they choose to do so. Giving them more reasons to make that choice may not be the smartest move, let alone the most welcoming or encouraging.

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