In 1788, Edward Gibbon set forth in his famous multivolume work, "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," his ideas about why that great civilization withered and died. Surprisingly, it involves moral decay, both societal and individual, just as much as it does political dysfunction. While most of us have little control over the global situation, we do have some control over our personal lives, starting at home and moving on to the workplace. Studies have consistently shown that salary is not the most important factor when considering where one works — it's corporate culture.

Maybe this is why corporate culture is one of the hottest topics in business today. People want to work for businesses that focus on terrific employee culture.

What is corporate culture?

Corporate culture is what we call the pervasive values, beliefs and attitudes that characterize a company and guide its practices. To some extent, a company's internal culture may be articulated in its mission or vision statements. Elements of corporate culture include a company's physical environment, human resources practices and the staff itself. It includes hierarchy, innovation, competition and community involvement.

It's no surprise that Fortune's Best Companies are many of the same listed as the best places to work. Companies that are concentrating on culture are seeing the biggest payoffs because they are putting their employees first.

According to an article in Forbes magazine, traditional companies like Aetna are now heavily focused on culture. Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini has raised wages, improved health benefits and introduced yoga and mindfulness training to his entire company to improve staff retention and culture in the call centers. Their $100 million-plus employee turnover problem is rapidly going away, and he claims to have already improved the bottom line by 3 to 4 percent.

Corporate culture is consistently listed as an important factor in retaining employees. In a nutshell, while making money is important, the potential to make a life that matters is even more important. In other words, no one wants to check their personal values at the company door.

Do you know your organization's culture? Management expert Richard Hagberg on asks the question and says many managers often base their views on hope rather than objective fact.

In order to ground your assessment of your workplace culture in reality, he suggests you ask these questions:

• What 10 words would you use to describe your company?

• Around here, what's really important?

• Around here, who gets promoted?

• Around here, what behaviors get rewarded?

• Around here, who fits in and who doesn't?

Hagberg says the reality is that whatever management pays attention to and rewards are pretty strong indicators of the culture.

Strong leadership is central to engendering a positive cultural environment. If you are in charge of a team that is not functioning properly, it's probably your fault. You need to take a good hard look at yourself and take responsibility for the situation so you can repair it.

Corporate culture extends far beyond employees. Your customers, vendors and competitors are watching too. Who wants to do business with an organization that can't be trusted or respected? I'll tell you who — no one. Your public face reflects your internal face. The mirror doesn't lie.

Mackay's Moral: Your corporate culture is like a petri dish — make sure only the good stuff grows.

Harvey Mackay is a Minneapolis businessman. Contact him at 612-378-6202 or e-mail