Keeping a Leash on Pet Peeves

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A Credit Union President implemented a policy that prohibited personal items in employee workspaces. No family photos, no drawings done by their kindergartners, no bobble-heads. His reason – to protect his employees from kidnappers.

Huh?

Let me get this straight. John is a Member Service Representative at the credit union. He opens accounts, corrects errors, etc. A Kidnapper abducts John’s 12 year old daughter and threatens not to release her until John brings the Kidnapper tens of thousands of dollars from the credit union’s vault. And all this started because he had a picture of his daughter on his desk.

No matter that John probably can’t access cash, and certainly can’t walk away with that kind of money without someone noticing. If the Kidnapper really wanted to know who John’s daughter was, the lack of a photo on John’s desk wouldn’t stop him. Two minutes on the internet would probably tell the Kidnapper all he needed to know.

Even Virgil Stockwell from Take the Money and Run (you know, the guy who played the cello in the marching band) couldn’t come up with a plan so inept.

I did a Web search on kidnappings related to bank robberies, and found no situation in which a financial institution was robbed under these circumstances. I’m not saying it could never happen, but it’s highly unlikely. So why did the president impose such a rule?

In my office, I’m surrounded by photos of my wife and daughters, of my dear departed dogs, who passed away last year after good long lives, of the new pup we recently adopted (and who keeps me on the hunt for my shoes each morning). There are drawings and artwork my girls have made for me, which I keep in constant rotation as they continue to give me new ones. My pen and pencil holder was had drawn by my eldest daughter a few years ago, and I have no doubt I’ll still be using it twenty years from now.

All of this makes me feel at home in what would otherwise be a bland space, fluorescent lighting highlighting inoffensive landscapes on the beige walls. I generally like my job, but at those times when I’m not sure what I’m working for, all I have to do is look around me and I know.

I’m guessing that this particular president made this particular rule for one of three reasons. The first is that he didn’t like what some employees had in their workstations. Dealing with those individuals could be awkward. Perhaps they had posted the 10 Commandments or shrine to Johnny Depp with lots of paper flowers surrounding his autographed photo. Rather than address these employees individually, the president took the easy route and banned all personal items.

This is not uncommon. Managers often send out blanket emails about an issue to address one person who did something wrong one time. Or rather than making a judgment about something, let’s say like the 10 Commandments are not appropriate in the office because it may offend non-Christian customers, they just ban it all together.

There is a second, and in my view, more insidious possibility. And that is that this president simply does not like personal items on desks. He has no good business reason for this, it is his personal preference. But damn it, since he’s in charge, he’s going to impose this preference on everyone.

It’s a pet peeve. We all have them. Some are more harmless than others. Some of the best bosses in the world have them. I knew a manager who was fixated on punctuality. His blood would boil if someone was even two minutes late. He actually wanted to fire someone for tardiness, but was prevented by more level-headed people above him. The total time the otherwise high performing employee missed in a month – less than 10 minutes.

I’m not innocent in all this. When I first started managing bookstores, I was told that discount stickers needed to go in the upper right hand corner of books. It didn’t matter if they covered up important pieces of information like the title or author. This was the rule and it was going to be followed. I often had books re-stickered that were done incorrectly, taking up a bookseller’s time for something the customer could have cared less about.

In researching this post, I did a search to look up pet peeves, but found that most people seemed to have no clear understanding of what the term means. They described office pet peeves as things like a lazy employee or one who is always negative. But these are real work issues that can effect productivity and the work atmosphere. Pet Peeves, on the other hand, are minor annoyances that someone finds highly objectionable even though there is no evidence that it causes any harm.

Like personal items in workspaces. As I said, while this can get out of hand, there is no evidence that a few photos or a trinket or two causes any harm (or leads to kidnapping). In fact, just the opposite. If an employee comes into my office and sees photos of my daughters, it makes this HR boogeyman more human.

That brings me to the third and final reason this president may have banned personal items from work place. Despite common sense and evidence to the contrary, he may actually believe it dramatically increases the possibility of kidnapping.

And if that’s the case, his credit union has bigger problems than a few cluttered desks.

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