I had the opportunity recently to participate in an employer and student roundtable discussion at a local college. The purpose of this project was to connect business leaders and HR professionals with college students to discuss the perceived and actual gaps in college level curriculum in preparing students for jobs and careers after graduation. In other words, as business and HR leaders, what did we wish students knew, or what skills did we wish they had upon graduation that would make them more valuable contributors to our businesses much more quickly?
The concept of this roundtable was great, and the discussions enlightening for both sides for the most part. But one part of the discussion bothered me, and still does several weeks later; that was the discussion about “business etiquette.”
You see, there was a belief in the room among many of the business professionals that students come into the workplace ill prepared for the realities of the workplace, that they don’t understand how to act in a professional setting. I do think this can be true to an extent, and there’s nothing wrong with setting expectations about dress code, or providing guidelines or reminders that it may be inconsiderate to take a conference call on speakerphone when you’re working in a cubicle situation. There are many appropriate and helpful things that we can do and steps that we can take as employers throughout the onboarding process to help them to acclimate. However, rather than a discussion about learning to navigate corporate culture and/or politics, it became a discussion that I could only describe as a lack of adherence to “work rules.”
The example was raised of a new employee who was found wearing headphones at his desk (presumably listening to music as he worked), and the discussion became a little heated with strong convictions about how new employees need to learn that this is not acceptable. But I question….why this rule in the first place? Are the headphones truly inhibiting productivity? Unless this employee was working in a call center, or the headphones were preventing him from hearing his phone ring, is there really any harm? Is it possible that he does a lot of independent work (writing, coding, etc.) and music motivates him? Maybe his work requires a great deal of concentration and the headphones/music blocks out the distractions around him?
What was particularly bothersome to me is that the professionals who were in the room represented some very highly respected companies. They were all obviously very successful, and offered a multitude of excellent advice in other aspects of the discussion. Yet when it came to work rules, the opinions were clear.
Too often, we as HR professionals get so fixated on the rules or the policies that we lose sight of why those rules are even in place to begin with, and fail to question whether or not they should be. There is absolutely a place for workplace guidelines, and some policies need to be in place to protect our employees (workplace violence, sexual harassment, etc.) Burt why do we continue to be fixated by arbitrary work rules? Because that’s how it’s always been? Because “our” way of working is right and “theirs” is wrong? Why aren’t we talking about teaching and coaching our new employees on the importance of building relationships and internal networking? About how to assess a corporate culture and learn how to navigate politics….and not politics in a bad way, but politics in the sense of learning who knows what, and who your best sources are when you need information, help, etc? Why are we so worried about who is following which arbitrary rule, instead of learning how to get the best and most productive output from our new employees?
My contribution to this discussion and advice to the students was the following: not all cultures are the same. Some will allow certain things, some won’t. Some will be more rigid, some will be more flexible. Not every culture is going to be like Zappos or Google, but don’t think every workplace with be rigid, either. Figure out the level of rigidity you think you would be able to tolerate, and then learn how to research company cultures to find employers where you know you’ll be comfortable and be able to do your best work.
About the Author: Jennifer Payne, SPHR has over 16 years of HR experience in employee relations, talent acquisition, and learning & development, and currently works in talent management in the retail grocery industry. She is one of the co-founders of Women of HR, and is currently the Editor of the site. You can connect with her on Twitter as @JennyJensHR and on LinkedIn.