[Article] Candy-Coated Promises: Workplace Culture and Policy

Workplace culture is an abstract concept. It becomes actualized through thoughtful policy creation and management.

We hear it all the time, don’t we - that wherever people work, they want it to have a good workplace culture. Good workplace culture, we’re convinced, is the key to healthy and functional employees, and makes coming to work a feasible endeavor (most days). The attractiveness of good workplace culture is so widely known that it’s almost always highlighted in job advertisements:

    Come work at Kenzie Kat Industries*, where we put the fun back in funding portfolios!

While usually more sophisticated than that, you get my point. The excessive and often distorted marketing of  good workplace culture has caused a real run on credibility. Job seekers now view campaigns with a weary and critical eye. Employers aren’t trusted - more often they’re viewed as the professional equivalent of the candy-promising stranger inviting you into an unmarked van.

(Do NOT get into the van.)

Striving for good workplace culture is an important first step and usually reflects genuine desire on behalf of the employer. But first they must consider two things:

What culture do I want?
What policies support that culture?

To Thine Own Self Be True: Finding Your Workplace Culture Personality

Employers must know what culture they want, and be honest about it.

Workplace culture and the policies it relies on are not 1-size-fits-all, even though the marketing of workplace culture tends to be very cookie-cutter. If the policies you prefer are a mismatch to the culture you market, you’re sure to have a confused and disappointed staff.

(Employees: This is a 2-way street: if the culture is healthy and happy but you still aren’t, either amend your attitude or consider finding another job. It’s not all on the employer, and you know what they say about 1 rotten apple.....)

Don’t feel self-conscious if you don’t want a “Google-like” culture (but don’t seek a Kim Jong-un culture).  There’s more long term success in honesty than ill-fated mimicry. You might have fewer applicants, but you might have longer retention. There are demographics for any (lawful) workplace culture. But you can’t promise candy to job seekers and give them brussels sprouts** and disillusionment instead.

Decide what kind of workplace you want, and decide what types of employees it will take to create or sustain your ideal (yes, types - it takes all kinds). You won’t actualize your dream workplace culture if you don’t consider the wants and needs of the people there. If you can, teach your managers to trust and to communicate. Invite employees to get to know one another and to be honest about how they work best.

A Pinch of This and a Dash of That: Creating Policies to Support Culture

Once you know what culture you want, create and nurture policies that match and support it. You can’t actualize what you don’t work at - practice what you preach.

One way to encourage a healthy workplace culture is to implement agile rather than rigid policy (“good” is highly subjective, but healthy is a bit easier to agree on).

The goal of basic workplace policy (flexibility of work hours, dress code, etc) should be to clarify expectations, not induce fear. Good policy allows employees to breathe a sigh of relief, as in:

“phew, now that I know where my company stands on accepting gifts from clients, I will politely decline that ball of yarn! Kenzie Kat Industries is a great place to work!”

But policy should not increase anxiety or cause catatonic immobilization, as in:

“it’s 3:10. If I go to the bathroom now, my boss will think I’m taking a third break and I’ll get in trouble. I’ll just hold it till I get home at 6:30.”

Similarly, if your policy asks staff to deduct time from their break because they used the washroom or ran to their car to get their asthma inhaler, you’ve probably gone too far.

It may take some trial and error to find that policy “sweet spot”. Luckily, you aren’t married to your policy, and since culture isn’t stagnant, even good policy should expect revision from time to time.

If a workplace is experiencing a high volume of issues with an employee, it’s possible the issue is isolated. Maybe there are problems with the team dynamic, unresolved frustration about a project, or maybe the person just isn’t a good fit for the company***.

But consider this: If there are issues with several employees, or the quality of work being produced, maybe it’s related to the rigidity of the policy and health of the culture.

For your average workplace, rigid policy increases anxiety, creates potentially damaging dynamics between the levels of the hierarchy, and paints an employer as tyrannical.

A very wise and worldly friend of mine once said, “if it was me, I would ask: “is the work getting done? Is it good quality?” That is what’s important at the end of the day”.

Before you get excited: I’m not calling for a policy-less, hedonistic workplace. Don’t encourage your employees to work only when inspired**** or to eat nothing but frosting for lunch. I’m only suggesting you err on the side of agility rather than rigidity.

When you can, consider gifting to employees an opportunity to work under one of their ideal conditions. I know a director who does this really well; she has an employee who just isn’t a morning person. So they have an arrangement, he comes in a little later (30-60 minutes) and cuts his lunch down, or stays past 5pm. There’s nothing radical about that, it’s just good people and policy management.

You’ll be surprised to see that a little goes a long way. If the employee is high-quality, you’ll see the benefits - a good attitude, cooperative, and productive. You’ll get a healthy workplace culture. If the employee is more of the discount-bin variety, you’ll soon realize that by calling their bluff - give a little and if they don’t give back, they probably never will.

The Point

Be honest about who you are, and match your policies with your culture. If you can’t implement a lot of agile policy because of the nature of your work, or you don’t want to, then don’t promise it. Why compete to attract a workforce you don’t really want? CSIS probably doesn’t have policies that allow staff to create their own hours. (“seeking Surveillant: choose your hours and work from home!”) But maybe they get a higher volume of suitable long-term candidates who are attracted to the culture they have. That may not be candy to you, but it’s not brussels sprouts to them.

*As far as I know, Kenzie Kat Industries is a fictitious company I just made up (unless my cat has begun dispensing financial advice in the wee hours of the night). Any reference therein to an actual company would be coincidental only.
**Incidentally, I really like brussels sprouts. They’re like miniature cabbages and there’s an inherent joy in miniature food.

***Shocker: interviews are NOT entirely accurate at predicting the day to day behaviours and attitudes of a potential hire. Nor are they great at revealing the genuine operational behaviours of management. If they were, we’d all be in the perfect-for-us workplace. Interviewing is just not a perfect process.
**** See my last blog on procrastination!

Write a comment

Comments: 4
  • #1

    Vickers (Monday, 18 November 2013 08:08)

    Terrific advice for employers and people in general. Never misreprent yourself. But, of course, that's what advertising is all about....selling a product, service or place of employment....no matter how good or bad.

    And, let's be honest. Even when employers do as much as possible to accomodate staff and to make work a pleasant and happy place, there are still complaints. It's virtually impossible to please everyone.

    Also, work can't always be fun or easy....because, it's work. The main focus at work is getting the job done, getting it done right and in a timely fashion. Those factors make it inherently stressful. Stress causes anxiety and, sometimes, misery...even with the BEST workplace culture.

    If job hunters expect that their workplace is going to be a perfect Utopia, their expectations may be too high.

  • #2

    eleventhhourconsulting (Monday, 18 November 2013 08:26)

    I agree Vickers - work is a contract between the employee and employer - that's why employees have to participate and be honest about their individual impact on a workplace, and their responsibility therein - the "1 rotten apple" issue.
    Good policy isn't about about creating a Utopia. Good policy is about trying to match action to attitude to support employees in doing a good job. How an employer manages "rotten apples" probably requires its own article!

  • #3

    Vickers (Monday, 18 November 2013 10:53)

    Agreed! Looking forward to the "Managing Rotten Apples" article. Coincidentally, my breakfast apple was rotten this morning. But, I'm not going to let that ruin my day OR anyone else's because that's what rotten apples do. ;)

    Keep the amazing articles coming chick. I love your writing style.

  • #4

    Svenny (Wednesday, 27 November 2013 16:33)

    Great article! This ought to be required reading for policy-makers. I think the problem with a lot of personnel-related policy is that the managers, who are probably great at the actual job, don't necessarily have the interpersonal skills for management (eg. 'You are a great accountant with lots of experience, therefore we will make you Manager of Accounting', while overlooking that the accountant isn't actually managing the accounting, he's now managing the other accountants).
    In many workplaces, including mine, the standard response to the "rotten apple" is to create a new policy. Now management doesn't have to deal with the problem on a personal level, they can just point to the policy manual.
    In addition to creating a culture of anxiety and resentment, this makes the problem circular. When people are treated like children who need a list of rules to behave properly, they start to behave like children; complaining about the teacher around the watercooler instead of at recess, sneaking into the washroom to check their phone or do whatever they've been told they're "not allowed" to do.
    I agree with Vickers! Your writing is engaging and amusing, keep it up! And I'd also be interested in your ideas on dealing with the Bad Apples.