Culture versus Salary - a brilliant way to beat market rates

Culture versus Salary - a brilliant way to beat market rates

Culture versus Salary – We don’t all have the chance to “take money off the table” when hiring, meaning to offer a high salary, above market rates. So, we must get creative and communicate another reason why people join a team – culture.

Taking cash off the table is done for three main reasons:

  • To entice people to come and join your company
  • To then retain them because they aren’t constantly thinking they could be earning more elsewhere
  • To out perform the competition – i.e. offer more than them

It’s a good strategy if you can afford to do it.

But salary alone is not why many people join an organisation. In my experience people are willing to trade money for working in an organisation that has an amazing culture.

In this post, and associated video below, I’m going to introduce you to a strategy I always use, whether I work for an organisation that can afford to take money off the table or not.

The Cash vs Culture balanced scales.

Watch the video or read on below.

Money alone does not make your company great

It’s quite common for people to be lured by a big salary only to then leave the organisation a few months later. Why? Because the company is broken and the culture sucks.

Without a great culture, which is nothing more than group habit, most people won’t hang around. Certainly, if they feel they cannot change anything there.

By nurturing a great culture you will attract people to come and work for you, retain your good people and have a lot of fun doing so.

Money rarely makes up for a crappy work environment.

When recruiting, aim to be close to market rates, or a little above if you can, but always approach recruitment knowing another company can afford to offer more for great talent.

With this in your mind, you’ll focus your attention and energy (which gets things done) on the culture side of the scales. If you can’t compete on cash – what can you compete on?

The Scales

Imagine a set of balanced weighing scales. On one side you have cash (salary, pension, health care, etc) and on the other side you have all of the things that make your organisation amazing.

When recruiting you want to accentuate the things on the culture side. Ideally you want the culture side to outweigh the cash side.

When thinking about the elements described later, think about whether they are a selling point for people looking for a new role. After all, you want great people to join your organisation, not just someone who wants a job. So these people have choices of where to go, and it’s your job to entice them to come and work (and then stay) at your company.

So if, when you read the following list you are underwhelmed, embarrassed, doubtful or dubious about listing any of these as selling points, then why is that?

Isn’t that a red flag that you need to work on these elements? Could you do something about that? Yes.

Because when we do something about the following, and make them really great, we’re not only making them great as a selling point for new candidates, we’re making them great for the business and existing staff. And that means we’re making a great business. And with a great business, we can always outweigh salary.


I’ve met very few people who wouldn’t take a smaller salary to join an amazing company. And your goal is to make that amazing company.

Don’t low ball

When I talk about the weighing scales idea it resonates with most and inevitably, I get asked whether this means, because we have a great company, we can offer really low salaries.

No. Don’t low ball. Don’t be so far away from market rates that it’s insulting.

Look at it this way. If the market rate for a role is around £50k, then try to be close to it, if not on it. You can guarantee there will be a company who are offering £60k. So, your competition is at £60k – there are probably companies offering even more. They are taking money off the table. They are keen to bag themselves a great candidate and have deep pockets to pay for them.

Don’t be lowballing in at £40k. Although money can be outweighed by culture, that’s going to take an almighty outweighing to stave off a gap of potentially £20k +.

Be close to market rates – it’s a market rate for a reason.

Get above it if you can. But don’t low ball.

If you really can’t afford to get close to market rates, then lower your expectations and hire someone more junior in their career.

Of course, you may be up against a really great hiring team who can take money off the table AND have an amazing culture. That’s harder work.

The Culture Side

The best way to start balancing the scales is to grab your team and a whiteboard. Virtual or in-person (this was written during lockdown).

On the one side write down the salary, pension, bonus etc

On the other side start writing down the things that are great about your organisation. Try to focus where possible on the behaviours that lead to that great thing.

For example, if you have an amazing delivery process that is rapid and agile then put that down and explore how and why it came to be. What behaviours do people exhibit (here’s a guide to the 10 behaviours I look for)? And then try and codify those into the description.

Vision, mission and values

Let’s start with the big one. People really are willing to trade cash for work that is meaningful. And it doesn’t get more meaningful than changing the world, no matter how small that change may be.

The vision, mission and values of the organisation are important to articulate to candidates. The Painted Picture is really important. It’s what attracts people to come and help you achieve it. It’s what guides your team. It’s the thing that keeps people going when the times get tough.

Market Potential

Are you in a dying market or a growing one? Hard to sell a role if you’re in a dying market, but maybe there is a change of direction and a new path – a recovery plan that might work?

Are you pre-IPO? Are you trying to be the company that owns a certain market space? Are you creating a brand-new market? Are you a start-up or well-established company?

These are all possible elements to add to your scales – to make your company stand out from others.

Ways of working

How does your business operate when it comes to delivery?

Are you fast paced, rapid, agile, demand driven where work flies out of the door? Or are you more methodical and deliberate? There is no right or wrong. People are drawn to different environments.

Make sure you understand yours and have optimised it – then sell that. Plus, you’ll also be effective and productive too.

Location and Office Environment

People can be influenced by the office space. Office environments matter. It may even be a draw to have NO office.

I’m not talking about slides, cereal, free lunch or ping pong. That rarely matters. But are your offices clean, simple, conducive to getting things done, modern?

Or maybe you are an all remote working place. Some people will be drawn to this. Some people won’t.

Management Approach

The way you approach management is key to listing on the culture side. Managers either help people or they don’t. They either help to make the business better or they do nothing. Or even worse, they make things worse.

People want to work for a manager who cares. Explain the approach you have, the techniques you use, the kind of support you give people.

HR initiatives

What sort of HR team do you have? One that is forward thinking and provides managers with great wellbeing and engagement initiatives? Or one that strictly protects the business.

People want to know how they will be cared for.

And maybe your HR team don’t have the initiatives to support you as a manager, but you should therefore be working to understand wellbeing, mental health, diversity, employment law yourself. It’s really important, but I know too that many companies simply don’t have a rock solid HR process in place.


Technology should always be deployed as an enabler, but assuming you’ve done the process improvement, and then rolled out tech to support – it’s worth shouting about. If your tech is old fashioned and antiquated? Then what can you do?

No matter what industry you work in – great tech on top of a great process can really make the difference between being productive or not.

But be careful about rolling out shiny tech without understanding your problems. The wrong shiny tech does nothing but make your problems worse.

Learning and Development

People want to know how work develops them. My view on learning is that it is always down to the individual to guide their own learning, but in well-functioning businesses there is budget, resources, maybe a Learning Management System – and certainly a culture of learning.

Add as much as you can about learning to the scales. Talented people take learning very seriously indeed – and although they likely look after it themselves – they’ll want to know they are joining a company that has a culture of learning.

Communicating with candidates

Once you’ve done this work, and assuming you have plenty of Cultural pieces to outweigh Cash, then you need to start communicating to potential candidates.

If your scales are overloaded on the culture side, then the chances are you have an amazing place to work.

It’s likely your employees are already telling everyone how good it is to work there.

It’s important now to weave the Cultural elements you’ve identified in to your job adverts – make them pop with goodness, not boring old sameness.

Work with your recruiters and ensure they explain how amazing the company is when they’re reaching out to candidates. They are often the first impression a candidate has of your business – work with recruiters to make that first impression impressive.

Use the elements you’ve identified in your recruitment process – talk about them in the interviews, ask questions about the candidate to ensure they’ll add to your culture not detract from it.

Maybe you’ve got brand ambassadors or evangelists for your company – give these people all of this work you’ve done – it is GOLD for them.

Weave it into your social media, conference strategy and communication plan.

By doing this work, by identifying the great things that your company do, you will attract people to your organisation. And by doing the hard work of ensuring you do have something amazing to talk about, you’ll create a great team in the process.

And who doesn’t want to work in a team that knows where it’s going, is full of talented and kind people and a team that is getting things done?