What is a ‘corporate anthropologist’ and how can one help attract and retain staff?


With the labour market becoming more competitive, employers are turning to anthropologists to create an optimum environment for employee attraction and retention, says corporate anthropologist Michael Henderson

Historically, New Zealand has lagged behind international trends in the use of human scientists from this field, but this is now changing – with demand growing rapidly since the pandemic.

New Zealand businesses are increasingly turning to anthropologists to address systemic workplace cultural issues or help navigate periods of change.

Many sectors of the economy are struggling to attract and retain staff with latest Government data showing a critical skills shortage in the manufacturing and engineering sectors is set to grow by 38% to 40,000 workers by 2028.

The impact of the pandemic has been manifested as a flip in the business model where people have realised they now have the upper hand. Employees now understand they have got the choice of where they work, when they work and what they work for.

As a result, I don’t have a single client anywhere in the world that isn’t under the pump trying to attract new talent in.

While anthropology is the study of humanity with the goal of understanding our evolutionary origins and our distinctiveness as a species, a corporate anthropologist assists companies in better understanding their customers, along with the differing cultures within a business and how to create high performing individuals and teams.

The use of anthropologists is common among multinational tech companies, including Google, Intel, Xerox, and IBM – with Microsoft believed to be the second largest employer of anthropologists in the world.

While we know companies such as Google have almost 50 full time anthropologists on staff, in the Southern Hemisphere it is more common for businesses to work with organisational psychologists.

While psychologists primarily work with the brain and how individual personalities or profiling influences their behaviours, an anthropologist looks at the interactions of individuals and a group – including the unspoken components of behaviours.

The need for intensive leadership is reduced when an organisation has a culture which ensures staff are aware of the company’s strategy.

We know that when people understand the environment they’re operating in, what’s required of them and what’s required of the business in the marketplace, then the need for leadership’s role, influence and oversight is diminished significantly.

While culture can’t be measured, the output of what it delivers can.

The realisation that culture isn’t linear or binary is a big learning for businesses. The first thing we tell organisations is that they can’t apply measurements to an intangible concept such as workplace culture and that while cultures aren’t measurable, they are meaningful.

The primary role of culture is to establish what is meaningful for us and what motivates us to behave in a certain way.