Archive for March 29, 2012

Creativity vs. Conformity – A View of Culture

This week I’m in glamorous trashy flashy Las Vegas attending the Ultimate Connections Conference with a whole bunch of other Ultimate Software users.  Great variety of topics available – ranging from the tech/geektastic to HR practices to employee engagement to User Group meetings.

I attended a session yesterday called “Should Organizations Accommodate Employees or Expect Them to Adapt to Corporate Culture?” presented by Bill Doucette, a VP of HR from Illinois.  He led us through the evolution, and solidification, of culture at his organization over the last dozen years (4 CEOs!). 

During his presentation he spoke about some of the issues his organization tackled such as what are the assumptions that both organizations and employers have about organizational culture (both in general and specifically within their company) and how to connect that employer view and that employee view.  He posed the question – how does one find the right balance between creativity and conformity?

In our speaker’s experience, his organization defined the culture, the values, norms and behaviors that were important and moved down the path to embed that culture.  They were pretty clear in their belief that individuals needed to “actively and seriously look at how they can change to better support the organization’s culture.”  And he made the point that employees need to ‘buy into’ culture at the individual level in order to move it to their work group, team, department and the macro-company level.

OK.  Agreed – it all begins with me. But…….

People are amazing because they’re unique.   They have their talents and their idiosyncrasies; their foibles and their seemingly-super-human powers.   Having the ability to come into contact with and work with a vast array of employees is what excites us and keeps so many of us working in Human Resources. 

When we bring any one of these marvelously unique individuals into our organization, we’re introducing a new fish into our aquarium.  That fish, placed in our fairly tranquil environment, slightly disrupts the water. There’s an initial splash when the fish enters the water.  As he sinks down to the bottom there’s further disturbance, causing the other fish to skitter about frantically, their googly-little eyes darting around until, calmness restored, they settle back into languid leisurely swimming patterns. But that new fish, merely by its entry, changed the environment forever – perhaps imperceptibly, but changed it nonetheless. 

So then imagine what happens when we introduce another fish. And then one more.  Or perhaps we take a plastic baggie full of newbie-fishies and drop in the whole lot at once. 



When I was in 3rd grade I had a black fish with big bug-eyes named Hog who lived in a fishbowl on my bedroom dresser.  I was certain he was lonely all by himself and convinced my mother that he absolutely needed a friend and so could we please, please, please go and get him a companion.  Off we went to the pet store where I picked up a lovely orange-hued goldfish and the next day I went off to school, content in the knowledge that Hog had someone to keep him company.

I came home from school that afternoon to an absolutely horrifying scene of fish carnage.

Goldie (who had yet to have an actual name bestowed upon him) was dead – laying on the dresser outside the bowl.  Hog, seemingly oblivious to the horrific crime scene mere inches from his abode, was happily swimming laps in the fishbowl.

Perhaps Goldie was a poor fit to the environment.  It may have been so awful that he choose to sacrifice himself to the fish gods rather than spend another moment in there.  It’s possible he tried to make some changes but Hog let him know he needed to conform or get out so he chose to make that fateful leap to freedom.  He may have even been given a nudge from Hog that launched him up-and-out…


When we introduce someone new into a work group, a department or an organization are they forced to choose between creativity and conformity?   And how do we know at what point along that creativity/conformity spectrum we are positioned? 

There are certainly areas to which we must expect employees to conform – non-negotiables like working with integrity or embracing a culture of safety.  But how are we reacting to those new entrants into our environment who are ‘creative’ – who are, perhaps, a bit disruptive?  What happens when the sheer mass of the ‘newbies’ exceeds and overwhelms those who have been in place for a while?  Aren’t these newbies, by their mere presence, now impacting and changing that living organism known as our culture?

Do we welcome these people in?  Or do we push them out?

Keeping the Lid on Corporate Communication

Gordon is a typical sales guy who works in the safety industry where he supplies everything from work gloves to hazard signs to respirators.  His customers are primarily the petrochemical plants and industrial sites that dot the landscape up-and-down the Mississippi River.  He generally hits the road at dawn and returns home well after dusk after spending his day visiting his existing customers, calling on potential new customers, and servicing his accounts.  His is not a glamorous job; it’s sweaty and dirty and sticky and steamy.  Gordon’s industry is not one in which customers are wined-and-dined at chi-chi restaurants nor do they make business deals on the lush greens of the local golf course.  Quite often, Gordon considers it a spectacular day if he has the time to sit down at McDonalds and eat his lunch rather than merely pull up at the drive thru window.

Gordon works out of his car and only visits his office once a week.  His trunk is filled with what he calls his ‘portable filing cabinets’ and he regularly battles with the bits and pieces of paper, order pads, legal pads and catalogs.  His is an industry that still uses what some might consider old-fashioned technology methods, but that sure hasn’t impacted the company’s revenue growth.

But naturally, information is vital to keep the wheels of commerce turning, and for Gordon, in his sales role, information can be power.  His customers anticipate that he will know what’s going on in his (and their) industry and that he’ll be tuned in when items hit the news that could/may/possibly affect their day-to-day.  So he tries to keep up – he subscribes to industry RSS feeds, tackles his email inbox before his 6 AM breakfast and after his 7 PM dinner, and reads industry periodicals each night before he crawls into bed, exhausted.   He relies on his corporate office staff to provide him with relevant information  – updates on new products, company-related items that hit the newspapers, and information on big wins.  After all, items that may be of interest to his customers, are certainly of interest to Gordon.

But one day, Gordon shows up for a scheduled visit with Blake, a Plant General Manager with one of his most loyal customers.  Gordon walks in to Blake’s office to find him reading that morning’s paper, a luxury Gordon seldom has time for.  Blake raises his eyebrows and feigns surprise “Well well Gord-o; I didn’t expect to see you here today.  Not with this story on page 1, above the fold, announcing a governmental inquiry into your Qualcot product line.  Compete with quotes from your senior management team.”

Gordon wants to collapse into the floor.


So where does the blame lie?  Does it lie with the overextended road warrior with limited access to technology who still tries to stay up with overflow of information?  Is it his responsibility to extend his day even further and get up at 4:30 AM rather than 5 AM in order to read all the local periodicals in addition to checking his email and other sources?

Does the blame lie with Gordon’s manager for not sharing this news with her team?  Do we even know if Gordon’s manager is herself aware of this news story?  What about the senior leadership team?  The corporate communications group? 

Who knew what – and when?  How was it decided when to share?

And was it the plan, all along, that Gordon and his 84-fellow-road-warriors would learn when they read the news in the morning paper?  Or was it possible that no one even thought of Gordon?


Sometimes, especially in large multi-layered organizations, systemic ways of disseminating information have developed over time.  A small group of people develop, write, and refine the message.  The message is reviewed, vetted, blessed and eventually shared.   This can take hours, days or even weeks.  And it’s important, obviously, to be professional and on point in corporate communications. But why do some organizations insist on controlling themessage to their internal audience to such a degree?   They keep a lid on it to the detriment of their employees – in essence sending them into the big old world without the information they need to do their job.

They forget about Gordon.

The Fever Pitched Rallying Cry for Workplace Flexibility

I was cleaning organizing my office the other day and while re-arranging the bookshelf I happened upon the 2011 Guide to Bold New Ideas for Making Work Work which I had picked up at the SHRM 2011 Annual Conference. (note – the 2012 version is now available)

I spent some time thumbing through the book and reading the employer profiles with accompanying stories about what these organizations have done to implement some type of flexibility.  It’s a topic, interestingly enough, around which I’ve had some recent conversations so I dug a little deeper.  I came across some good resources on the When Work Works website, including a number of toolkits and white papers for both employees and companies. 

The Employee Self-Assessment Checklist can be a great starting point for some of these discussions in any given organization.  The checklist provides an opportunity for an employee to evaluate the whether they and their job are compatible with any one of a number of flexible work options by evaluating the ‘fit’ in four categories:

  • Job Requirements
  • Work Style and Personal Characteristics
  • Personal Expectations and Tradeoffs, and
  • Business Impact on Others

There are also a number of resources for employers including a “Guide to Flexibility” and “Tips for Creating a Flexible Work Environment.”

This discussion that’s been going on for some time and the conversation continues.  The initial question to be answered, however, is how do YOU define flexibility?  As an employer…and as an employee?

The Last Business Trip You’ll Ever Take

While digging around on the interwebz in search of various and assorted nuggets of wisdom, I ran across a company’s HR Policy Manual which contained this little gem:

“If the death of an employee occurs while on business travel, [company] may pay the cost for

transporting an employee’s body to the employee’s headquarters.”


May pay the cost?

Now granted, as everyone who has ever written a company policy knows, it’s safer considered a best practice to use the word may as opposed to the term will.  “You may be subject to termination” vs. “You will be terminated.”   Gives the company/manager/HR Department flexibility and sense that they haven’t bound-themselves to one particular next-step.

But seriously – “… may pay the cost”  to transport the body of a deceased employee?

Why do we allow such inhumane foolishness?