April 2018

Welcome to the April edition of the HR Advisor Newsletter. This month we examine a concrete and practical approach to workplace culture—and what you can do to create a workplace that runs the way you want it to run. Our “Tip of the Month” has some good advice in keeping shared spaces clean and orderly. Finally, we remind you about recent employment law news. Thank you for reading!

What Is Culture, Anyway?

When you belong to an organization, there’s usually a reason, right? Whether the organization is a business, club, or other group, something about it appealed to you, and you chose to associate yourself with it. You personally identified with it and felt like you would fit in, so you joined. Alternatively, you may have considered joining an organization, but decided against it because it didn’t feel like a good fit. Or you joined for a time, but then decided the place wasn’t for you.

What creates this sense of belonging or not belonging to an organization is the organization’s culture. Every organization has a culture, and every culture has three components. These are the organization’s rules, traditions, and personalities.

Rules
The rules of an organization are the beliefs, norms, values, and attitudes that have been codified by the organization’s leadership into expectations, policies, and procedures. They tell people what they’re supposed to do and how they’re supposed to act and interact. You typically find these rules in official documents like the employee handbook, operations manual, and statement of corporate values. Sometimes, though, rules may be “unwritten,” for example, an expectation that employees load their dishes in the dishwasher or not use emojis in communications with customers.

Rules pertaining to safety and security are typically required rather than merely encouraged, as are the rules governing general business operations, such as dress codes and time-tracking procedures. Generally, when these kinds of rules are violated, discipline ensues.

Some rules, however, encourage behavior rather than require it. Values statements often fall into this category. Employees are recognized and rewarded for exemplifying these values, but they’re not formally disciplined if they don’t happen to measurably live up to them on a given day.

The kind of culture you have as an employer will depend in large part on the kinds of rules you have. If you want a culture marked by specific values, such as honesty and respect, you need rules that tell people that these values are important and that motivate employees to exhibit them in their work. You also need to make sure that your rules make sense given the kind of culture you want to have. For example, if you want your culture to be friendly and fun, you probably don’t want to prohibit employees from chatting while they’re on the clock. On the other hand, if you want to establish a culture of strict professionalism and attentiveness to customers, then minimizing chit-chat might be a good idea.

Traditions
While rules tell employees what they should do and how they should act, traditions give employees the means to work together and build relationships with one another. The traditions of a workplace are its ongoing and recurring practices. They are its conventions, customs, rituals, ceremonies, activities, and physical workspace arrangements.

The traditions of a workplace might include grand events like award ceremonies or annual retreats, but they also include mundane things like everyday meetings and standardized communication methods. When a company has meetings, for example, it brings people together and gives structure to their discussions. When a company has a peer recognition program, it provides an opportunity for employees to offer praise and gratitude. It’s through workplace traditions that people ultimately build and maintain professional relationships.

To have an effective culture, you need traditions as much as rules—and your traditions and rules need to align. Workplace problems often arise because traditions and rules are in conflict. A company might have a strict anti-harassment policy (rule), but an ineffective system for reporting and investigating (tradition). When rules and tradition don’t align, the culture becomes chaotic, and this chaos creates uncertainty, confusion, and distrust.

Personalities
Let’s turn now to the third basis of workplace culture—the individuals who work there.

If you suddenly replaced everyone in a company, the company might be the same legal entity, but it wouldn’t be the same place or have the same culture, even if the rules, traditions, operations, and strategy remained the same. People matter. A lot of what accounts for the character of a workplace is simply who the people are as individuals and the free choices they make.

Everyone in the workplace has their own personality—their own ideas, perspectives, attitudes, and behaviors. Think of the employee who always has a spring in their step, the manager who regularly takes their team out for coffee, the go-getter who’s eager for a promotion, or the employees who are sure to chat about the latest episode of The Bachelor.

A culture may be rooted in core principles, but it also moves and changes. Your employees will change the culture simply by being themselves. Encourage them to improve it! By involving them in the development of your culture, you’ll increase their sense of belonging and engagement.

Developing Your Culture
Because your culture depends, in part, on the people who work for you, you will never have complete control over it. Nevertheless, culture isn’t something you should ignore. If your company has rules, traditions, and people working together, it has a culture, and that culture affects your operations and strategy—as well as how employees and customers perceive your company.

The kind of culture you should strive for depends on the nature of your business. Not every culture will be or should be the same, and what works well in one workplace may work poorly in the another. That said, cultures that are conducive to long-term success are typically defined in a clear manner, understood and embraced by employees, aligned with the mission of the company, and stable through times of growth and crisis. When establishing or assessing rules and traditions, keep those characteristics in mind.

This article is Part 1 of our series on workplace culture. In the next installment, we’ll show you how to identify the culture you currently have so you can evaluate whether it’s the culture you truly want.

HR Tip of the Month

Messy shared spaces, like bathrooms and break rooms, can be a serious sore spot in any office. Although we’d like to think that adults can be trusted to clean up their own messes, expectations and reality don’t always jive. You may have even found yourself posting notes on the walls with such over-the-top messages as, “Dirty dishes in the sink will be thrown away at the end of the day.” Although the nuclear option cannot always be avoided, ideally, we’d like to get ahead of these problems before they start (or at least before they blow up).

Scheduled reminders—like a monthly email or posting on the fridge—can be a good way to communicate your expectations for everyone without looking like you are reacting to a particular person or situation. It might also make sense to assign certain tasks on a rotating basis. For instance, all employees might be assigned copy room straightening or fridge clean-out duties. Depending on the size of your organization, this might mean that an employee is only asked to do this task every few years.

However you decide to tackle the issue, focus on regularity and shared responsibility. And if your expectations have been communicated clearly, hold employees responsible for their actions rather than taking a passive aggressive (or simply aggressive) approach to solving the problem.

News Brief

Second Circuit Rules Sexual Orientation is Protected by Title VII

In February, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals became the second federal appellate court to rule that under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the word sex includes sexual orientation. The first was the Seventh Circuit, which we reported on last April.

The Second Circuit Court’s ruling affects only New York, Vermont, and Connecticut. All three of these states already prohibit discrimination in employment because of sexual orientation, so the ruling does not have a significant impact on employers there. It does, however, ensure that it is possible for employees who feel they have been discriminated against based on sexual orientation to sue under both state and federal law.

Between 1979 and 2012, most of the circuit courts of appeal ruled that the term sex in Title VII did not include sexual orientation, including the Second Circuit in 2005. But in February’s decision, the court acknowledged that legal doctrine evolves. The court reasoned that although Congress may not have contemplated that discrimination “because of sex” would include sexual orientation when it drafted Title VII, that fact need not limit the court’s current interpretation of the statute. The court also pointed to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s position (held since 2015) that sex includes sexual orientation as support for its ruling.

Although circuit courts of appeal often try to align their rulings with the decisions of the other circuits, and most circuits still do not currently recognize sexual orientation as part of sex, the two most recent decisions may indicate a shift in perspective and encourage other circuits to follow suit, overruling their past decisions in favor of a broader meaning for the word sex. The circuits’ conflicting decisions also make it more likely that the Supreme Court will accept a case on this issue soon.

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