Talent Canada
Talent Canada

Features Culture Recruitment
‘One person can’t change a culture’: Kelly MacCallum’s viral tale of a bad fit holds lessons

Avatar photo

December 7, 2023
By Todd Humber

Kelly MacCallum, founder of Stay Talent.

“One person can’t change a culture.”

That post, shared by Kelly MacCallum, struck a chord on LinkedIn — generating more than 8,000 likes, nearly 600 comments and north of 500 reposts. In it, she shared her story of being hired less than 24 hours after a job interview with company she genuinely admired.

“There was a little itty bitty voice in the back of my head that said, ‘This particular employer might not be a fit for me,'” she said, noting a level of bureaucracy in the organization. “But everything else looked fine.”

The employer raved about her qualifications, said she was “unconventional” and “refreshing” and that they were looking for someone who was ready to challenge the status quo.


“Essentially I was the unicorn they had been looking for,” said MacCallum, the founder of Stay Talent who has more than 30 years’ experience in employee attraction, recognition, and retention.

But after joining the company’s ranks, things went downhill. They didn’t listen to her guidance, told her she was too passionate and punished her for being different.

“Did the organization lie to me? No, they didn’t,” she said. “They in fact did need all these things. So what went wrong? They were victims of their own culture, and completely underestimated what it takes to change culture, even for a unicorn.”

Lessons learned

She stuck it out for four years, learned a lot and made some great friends — so the experience wasn’t all negative. But it got her thinking about what she could have done differently.

One critical thing is to truly understand what culture is — she called it the “collective personality of the organization.”

“It’s reflected through policies, it’s reflected through personalities, it’s reflected through something as simple as the office furniture,” she said. “Of course, you don’t have the benefit of any of that before you go in.”

She’s a fan of using employer review sites, like Glassdoor, to peel back the corporate mission statement and get a reality check on the organization. If she had read the Glassdoor reviews on her previous employer, she would have asked more questions, she said.

“Like, I read a lot about the theme of bureaucracy on Glassdoor. Can you tell me about how that operates day-to-day and is that going to impede my ability to come up with new ideas or decisions?”

LinkedIn is a also a good resource for jobseekers to get an understanding of the real culture.

“You can easily look up an organization and see people who work there or who have worked there,” said MacCallum.

She’s a big fan of exit interviews, and finds people generally willing to talk, so it can be worth a conversation with them to find out the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Stalking the social media profiles of employers can also reveal useful information.

“If they say on their website that they’re all about people, and then you go to their Instagram page and there’s nothing about people? There’s a disconnect, right?” she said. “You can kind of see whether they walk the talk.”

Putting all those pieces together can provide a bit of a picture, and more clarity, on the organization.

“At that point, you’re probably going to have a hunch or a gut feeling as to whether or not this is going to be a good fit,” said MacCallum. “And you can go into the interview with really strong questions.”

Tips for employers

While exit interviews are important, it’s more useful for leaders and HR to conduct stay interviews, she said.

“You’re being proactive. Ask people what do you like about your job? Why are you staying here?”

Find out what you’re doing well as an organization and where you might have some blind spots. Then, the conversation can venture into what employees want to see changed about the culture.

“If there’s trust in the organization, people will be transparent. If there’s not, you’re going to hear crickets,” said MacCallum.

It’s important to understand your culture because a metric like turnover may not be the best indication that everything is going well.

“People like to stay at some jobs because they’re easy. They have good benefits. They have work-life balance, maybe they have a nice pension — and it’s not necessarily about being inspired to come in and give their best performance,” she said. “It’s more about sort of the lazy factors, as I would call them, and if I’m a CEO that’s not the reason I want people coming to work every day.”

And while it’s cliche, the support for culture change has to come from the top. If the HR team wants to drive change it will go nowhere without buy-in from top leadership, she said.

“If people at the top are not interested in changing the culture, because they have to walk it — they have to model it — then people will behave the way they behave,” said MacCallum. “It’s human nature. We’re going to see what’s happening at the top and we’re going to protect ourselves.”

The bad CEO

MacCallum discussed a personal experience where the CEO, in front of a room full of senior leaders, called her idea “stupid.”

“That’s not good. Nobody else is going to want to say anything. Then it kills innovation and it kills creativity,” she said.

Thinking back to the misfit role that led to her viral post, she would have asked to be speak with a senior leader to truly understand if they wanted the culture changed.

“If my role was to change culture, specifically, I would say, ‘Hey, are you looking to do culture change?’ And you’ll know really quick,” she said. “Body language would immediately tell you if they’re open to you or not.”

Hierarchy of needs

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is very applicable in today’s workplace, she said. In that context, basic needs — like salary — are fundamental. Without fair compensation, staff will be stressed and have a negative workplace experience.

“It’s going to ruin your experience because all you can think about is compensation,” said MacCallum. “I’m not saying you have to make a zillion dollars. But it has to be fair.”

The next level is safety, which includes trust and psychological safety. The lack of trust also hampers everything, as trust is crucial for a positive organizational culture, she said.

Building trust is challenging; a single breach can significantly damage it, and it’s even more difficult to rebuild trust within an organization, she said.

“If you have those in place, then you can do a lot,” said MacCallum. If she was CEO, building and maintaining trust would be her number one priority.

“It would take a lot of very intentional behaviour, and they’d have to repeat it,” she said.

Print this page


Stories continue below