Working with leaders to create high performing cultures of engagement while maintaining true to the owner’s vision for her company AND staying on the right side of ever-restrictive employment law is not without the occasional, small challenge. If I wrote a book about my real life stories and experiences, no one would believe me. In one day alone, for example, I was coaching an HR Director about some challenges she’s having with her employer – a company owner who insists upon interjecting in every employee relations issues and in using workplace gossip as his primary source of information – and wanting to act on it (for example…John J, who I really like, told me that Edgar E is a bad employee. So let’s fire Edgar E!) That same day, I stepped into a mini-minefield after participating in an online discussion forum about bible study at work. It brought home for me just how very complex the ‘culture’ question is when it comes to employment. Besides just HR legalities, discrimination and all that there are also a host of factors inherent in a positive or less positive company culture that make it a very difficult field to navigate.
A lot of times, company owners feel frustrated and resentful that they can’t just run their company the way they want and the way that makes sense for them. Some comments I’ve heard along these lines are:
· I’m a private company, why can’t I have bible study if I want to?
· I need someone to work a very physical job. If they come in limping, or appear to be too old to do the job, why can’t I ask them about it?
· I would much rather hire friends and family than strangers. I know I can trust them.
· I don’t want to create job descriptions, because things change too fast and I don’t want people telling me that’s not their job description.
· Why don’t my managers care about all the wasted time and money these mistakes are costing me?
· I think a dog friendly environment is awesome and I want everyone to bring their pet to work.
These may seem like different concerns but at the heart of it is the same issue. The business owner has a vision and a dream for their company. Not everyone’s vision and dream is the same, but everyone who starts a business has a picture in their head of what it’s going to be like. I have never met a company owner or leader who consciously had malicious intent (well, maybe one but that’s another story). Everything they do is either for a good reason, or is the result of an oversight. Unfortunately, a lot of times what starts out as a great idea can go awry. Some organizations that had the very best of intentions have elicited employee comments like these:
· After I told the COO that my religion was (insert different religion than COO’s) I noticed I stopped getting invited to events with all the other managers, and soon after that I was laid off.
· I don’t go to the company bible study, and one time someone left a note on my desk telling me I should start attending. I feel like I’m getting singled out.
· My supervisor is my boss’s cousin. He’s very rude to me, but there’s no point complaining because he’s already told everyone he’s got a ‘job for life’.
· I have no idea what my job here is. My duties have nothing to do with my title, and I haven’t had a review in 2 years. I just do what I’m told every day and figure that no news is good news.
· I’m allergic to dogs and I think it’s disgusting to go into the break room and find animal hair on the floor.
Hearing the disparate comments from managers and employees is far more the norm than the exception! In response to what is sometimes horrific discrimination and unfair treatment, legislators have enacted workplace laws that sometimes feel chafing or even devoid of common sense at times. It sometimes seems impossible that workplaces can have personalities anymore. So what can be done?
Obviously, the fix is more complicated than a paragraph in an article. If you own a company, a great starting point is to make sure you are completed connected with your vision. Sometimes we can get hung up on the how’s and forget the why’s. Do you really want a dog-friendly environment to be the hill to die on, for example? Or is allowing pets at work HOW you get to something bigger? By thinking of the WHY, you are more likely to come up with a solution for the talented, creative, non-dog-lovers on your team. Remember that no matter how passionate they are about something, a good leader will take care not to create an environment that excludes people for anything other than lack of performance (because the management consultant in me is happy to inform you that as of today, you can still fire people for doing a terrible job). And not to enflame an already touchy situation, but if the result of your bible study is that people feel judged and hurt you just may be missing the why. Just maybe.
Company owners may argue that in this day and age, everyone is always getting their feelings hurt, and it’s impossible to please everyone. I suppose, but I have found that most people, on an individual basis, are pretty reasonable and just want to feel included, accepted and that they are able to contribute to the best of their ability and be recognized for that. Surely there is room in your vision for that! And, as an extra bonus, you will reap unbelievable benefits in performance and loyalty once you’ve made that intentional.