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When picturing HR departments, most people think of compliance—not creativity. But that's a sorely outdated notion, according to Denise Domian, SVP of HR at the Bon-Ton Stores.

As Domian put it at Cornerstone Convergence, it's the responsibility of HR to "be the light, not the lampshade," on company culture. Which means being a bridge between tradition and innovation, and maybe even doing a little rule-breaking. She demonstrated this philosophy powerfully in 2006, when The Bon-Ton Stores acquired the Northern Department Group from Saks, Inc.

The acquisition doubled store numbers and tripled sales, but it also led to a watered-down cultural identity within the company—inspiring Domian to launch a campaign to redefine her workplace culture.

Her successful initiatives included a combination of traditional and creative approaches. Her team conducted an in-house culture survey and used that data to pinpoint key issues. They also rolled out Emotional Intelligence training launched a company-wide online community, allowing employees to interact with one another even if they don't work together on a regular basis. When you have 24,000 employees, it's easy to feel disconnected, she says.

"The key was for HR to highlight and guide, but allow others to help drive the solutions," says Domian. "If it's only an HR initiative, it's not going to succeed. It has to be a company initiative and for that you need to have others involved."

We chatted with Domian to find out more about why she sees HR as the watering can to every company's cultural sprouts—and how others can follow her lead.

What's your definition of "culture" and how it applies to HR?

Culture is the collective personality of a company and the illustration of the values you espouse. Illustrating these values is essential in HR in order to build trust and integrity. Like a plant that needs the elements of sun and water to grow, we have to nurture our culture to ensure it grows and evolves, yet stays true to these values. HR should be at the heart of ensuring that the company continues this pattern of growth. If we don't, then like the plant, our culture can suffer and whither.

What are some unique, outside-the-box ways HR leaders can approach company culture?

I felt the best approach we took was to use cross-functional committees to tackle certain areas of opportunity. This way, it wasn't just an HR initiative, but a company initiative.

What is "outside the box" probably depends on the company. For example, we wanted to add an element of fun to the organization. So, we painted certain walls with chalkboard paint, where volunteer artists can draw artwork... [or] people can write on them regarding a certain topic. This was innovative for a traditional department store, but probably wouldn't be for Google. I think you have to tailor the approach to the organization and how they'll relate to it.

How do you measure the success of company culture within an organization?

Success is when people feel engaged and fulfilled in their jobs. There is a lot of focus on big data and the use of measurements on everything we do in HR. I have an accounting background, so I think the use of data is very powerful and telling. But there are even more obvious ways to measure how you're doing.

For example, how are people relating to each other in meetings or in daily interactions? Or what's the level of participation you're getting with various activities? Are people completing training? Or when you have a company function, are people attending?

What if a company can't afford perks like nap pods and ping pong tables? Can culture be changed in a cost-effective manner?

The first step is to recognize that you have an issue and start talking about it. It's about being the light, not the lampshade. Don't try to ignore or dress it up as something else.

Be honest and people will want to be along for the ride to ensure that they can be a part of the change. And as far as being cost effective, we are the poster child of cost effective. It mostly just takes time and commitment. It can cost very little—you just need to utilize the people and the tools you have available to you.

Photo: Shutterstock