Month: January 2014

If Work is Fun, You’re Doing it Wrong

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“How was work?” my Dad asked me.

I was sixteen. I’d been on my feet all day, cashiering at a local retailer. “It was okay,” I said.

“Well, if work was fun, they wouldn’t have to pay you for it,” He replied.

My Dad was a man of few words, but what he did say usually made a lot of sense. To this day, I don’t come into work expecting to have fun. Apparently, I’m in the minority. One study found that 88 percent of millennials and 60 percent of baby boomers wanted a fun work environment. They want parties at lunch and social hours after work. They want prizes and games and funny hat days. They want coworkers to become their best friends, or better yet, their second family.

Not me. Of course, I’m an Xer, so statistically, I don’t count.

In an attempt to attract and retain workers, many companies have embraced fun in the workplace. is a perfect example. They have regular costume parties and parades. Every department is decorated with a theme (Elvis, cheerleaders, etc.) and their own “fun” way of greeting visitors. They refer to themselves as the Zappos family (for my thoughts on workplaces being like a family, see my pervious post).

Don’t get me wrong. I like to make jokes and laugh at work. I try not to take the job too seriously, and encourage my staff to do the same. I want everyone to get along, to care about each other as people as well as coworkers. The occasionally birthday party or pot-luck or group outing is all well and good. What I take issue with is having fun forced upon me, like it was not only a job requirement, but the reason for dragging myself into work every morning. The Zappos Family, will show you the door (or not even hire you) if you fail to indulge in their “fun” atmosphere. If I worked there, I’d be in the bathroom trying to slit my wrist with a letter opener after the first day.

At least, in this, I’m not alone. One Australian Study found that being obligated to have fun at work can put undo pressure on those who just want to come in and do a good job.

Perhaps the difference between my view and those of the majority of workers is the definition of fun. Thomas Edison said, “I never did a day’s work in my life. It was all fun.” I’ve seen this quote used numerous times by people who do not understand what he meant. They think by fun, he must have meant all those things that Zappos and other companies are doing – social events and games and free doughnuts every morning. But that wasn’t it at all. For him fun came from thinking of new ideas, an experiment that succeeded, discovering that new invention.

I used to hire civil engineers, a job made easier by the company for which I worked. We were able to attract some of the best. When asked why they came to work for us, they almost always pointed to the work. Due to our reputation for quality, we worked on big projects – bridges and interchanges and highways – the type of projects civil engineers went to school for, the types of projects they found exciting.

Not one of them mentioned anything about fun.

“Writing is not fun. Whoever tells you so is a liar. Writing is fulfilling.” These were the words from one of my college journalism teachers. It’s not only true for writing, it’s true for most of what we call work.

Fulfillment is what I want out of work. I want to leave at the end of the day knowing that I did all I could to make the organization a success, make employees’ work environment just a little bit better, be supportive and helpful.

Perhaps that’s why companies like Zappos have to force fun on its employees. To distract them from the fact that they work is not all that fulfilling. That, at the end of the day, all they do is sell shoes and clothing that no one truly needs.

In the end, there is the question of whether making work fun accomplishes much of anything at all. A Penn State study found that while fun at work decreases turnover, it also decreases productivity. I once worked in the warehouse of a book retailer. One manager would foster fun by having his employees sit in a quiet room and read (fun for any book lover, which most employees of bookstores are). Staff loved it, and loved him. Meanwhile, boxes from publishers weren’t getting sorted and stores’ orders weren’t getting filled. Parties and contests and even sitting quietly all take away from getting work done.

If fun, not productivity, is the goal for these companies, they could save them a lot of time and money. Quit planning games and activities and theme days – just bring in a couple of kegs of beer and a few jugs of wine.

What Makes A Good Employee Handbook

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For years, Nordstroms provided the following to its new employees on a 5×8 inch card:

Welcome to Nordstrom

We’re glad to have you with our Company. Our number one goal is to provide outstanding customer service. Set both your personal and professional goals high. We have great confidence in your ability to achieve them.

Nordstrom Rules: Rule #1: Use best judgment in all situations. There will be no additional rules.

Please feel free to ask your department manager, store manager, or division general manager any question at any time.

That was it. Their entire employee handbook.

Today, they do supplement this with a booklet of rules and regulations, but the above remains their over-riding principal.

According to the HR Consultants and Employment Attorneys who make a small fortunes from creating employee handbooks, Nordstroms should have fallen apart years ago, the company flooded with lawsuits from disgruntled employees.

But to the contrary, Nordstrom’s employees highly rate their job satisfaction, and the company is renowned for its service. Why? Because it has a simple message that is easily communicated to its employees and to which everyone adheres.

So, should we dump our handbooks in favor of some single page golden rule? Not quite. As Nordstrom’s has learned, some written policies are necessary. Still, a handbook should not simply be a collections of policies. Below are some steps for creating the ideal handbook:

Make it Fun
Take a look at Disney’s old handbook: The Ropes at Disney’s . Yeah, it’s sexist, but you can’t say that it isn’t entertaining. Sure, we don’t all have world-class illustrators and writers at our disposal, but still, playing with the language and the layout, and having a style that reflects your organization will help your message stick with your employees.

Make It Clear
Below is a passage from a sample handbook put out by the Society for Human Resources:

Under this policy, harassment is verbal, written or physical conduct that denigrates or shows hostility or aversion toward an individual because of his/her race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, age, disability, marital status, citizenship, genetic information or any other characteristic protected by law or that of his/her relatives, friends or associates, and that a) has the purpose or effect of creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment; b) has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance; or c) otherwise adversely affects an individual’s employment opportunities.

That’s all one sentence, no doubt drafted by lawyers or taken directly from the legal discription of harassment. A handbook should not be a legal document, written to protect the organization from employee law suits, but a guide created to provide employees with useful information. Employees would be much more likely to get the point of the above sentence if it simply said: Don’t be an asshole. Maybe that’s extreme, but at least this passage could be rewritten in simpler language with bullet points instead of as one sentence.

Begin with a One Page Statement
As I’ve said, employees don’t read the handbooks, but they might read a single page. Instead of starting the handbook with a bunch of disclaimers, start with a simple list or statement describing what your organization expects from its employees, and what your organization will provide them in return. If you can’t put your company’s values on a 5×8 card like Nordstrom’s did, you probably don’t know what your expectations are.

Provide Flexibility
I was on the phone with a manager the other day who said one of his employees asked for the following day off. He said okay, but that he would consider the absence unscheduled because it was given less than 24 hours before the time. The employee responded with saying that rule isn’t in the handbook.

No, it’s not. We provide managers with the flexibility to make their own rules regarding how they run their departments from day to day, so long as they are within legal compliance and are making decisions for sound business reasons. In this case, the manager has this rule because his department relies on its employees to be in the office and on time to serve customers. In other departments, this may not make a difference. Avoid hard and fast rules. Make it clear that situations and circumstances may change.

In the end, keep in mind that while a handbook may be a reflection of your organization, it is still just words on paper. How people are treated on a day to day basis is what matters.

Employee Handbooks: Not Worth the Paper They’re Printed On

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untitledI recently came across an Employee Handbook from Disney Studios printed in 1943. The Ropes at Disney’s will probably make you cringe with its blatant sexism and draconian regulations (you need a pass to leave the premises). But if you take into account that this was written Pre-Madmen, and that the Studio had to follow certain regulations because it was involved in “war work”, it’s not a bad publication. It’s only twenty-six pages long, written in plain English, has a sense of humor and fantastic illustrations.

Content aside, I wish all handbooks were written this well.

In 1978, Pine River State Bank distributed an employee handbook to each of its employees. Drafted by the bank president, it was almost entirely based on a sample handbook provided by the American Bankers Association.

In 1980, a loan officer with the bank, Richard Mettille, was fired for poor performance without notice. He sued the bank, claiming the bank did not follow its own disciplinary procedures as laid out in the handbook. The bank argued that Mettille was an at-will employee, and so could be fired at any time without cause. In 1983, a ruling came that was later upheld by the appellate court agreed with Mettille. In essence, the handbook was an employment contract.

Employers across the country started shredding every last copy of their handbook. No handbook, they reasoned, no contract. They were now free to treat employees in an arbitrary manner.

But without handbooks, the employees also had no written rules to follow, and managers had no guide for how to run their areas.

Over time, a compromise was later worked out in most states. Today, an employee handbook is not a contract as long as it includes a disclaimer stating that it is not a contract. Most employers have employees acknowledge this disclaimer with their signature. Only in the legal world is someone required to sign a contract stating that they are not receiving a contract.

After years of writing and rewriting employee handbooks, I’ve come to the conclusion they need to change. Here’s why:

They are Poorly Written
Handbooks are usually written by HR professionals and attorneys. Let’s face it, we aren’t known for our creative writing skills. Most of us like it that way. The purpose of the handbook is not to give you something enjoyable to read before bedtime. They aren’t even written to provide you with valuable information. They are written to protect the organization from a lawsuit in case they have to fire you. Light, fun, easy to read prose takes a back seat to making sure all the legal ‘i’s are dotted and the ‘t’s are crossed.

No One Reads Them
I hope this fact doesn’t come as a shock to those who write long and dry handbooks, but rarely do employees read them cover to cover. In my company, we have an online handbook and an electronic process for signing the acknowledgement. We require this every couple of years from all employees. We can see when someone first opens the acknowledgement and when they sign off on it. Most of them don’t have it open long enough to read the one-page acknowledgement, let alone the entire handbook.

They Don’t Reflect Corporate Culture
I once worked for a company were almost everyone was upbeat and cheerful. The managers fostered a positive environment, and people were committed to working together towards common goals. So I was shocked when I read the Employee Handbook, one of the most negative I had ever seen. It was filled with lists of all the ways you could get fired. It had strict rules about attendance and punctuality in a company which was mainly made up of professionals. In essence, it assumed that everyone was a bad employee which was just the opposite of the atmosphere in the company itself.

They are Bound to Miss Something
If you were to try and cover every issue that could ever arise in your organization, your handbook would be 300 pages long (I’ve actually seen some like this). Every situation is different, so the best a handbook can do is provide general guidelines about how situations should be handled. In the end, however, it is up to leaders to determine how to apply those guidelines.

Putting It in a Handbook doesn’t Make it So
One manager recently had an issue with employees talking over their cubicles in loud voices. This disturbed other employees, some of whom were on the phone with customers. She wanted a specific policy that prohibited talking over cubicles. As if, if I just have a well worded document that states what everyone should do, sew it onto the stars and stripes and run it up the flag pole, they’ll all salute and keep their voices down. We didn’t need a policy. We just needed that manager to talk to the employees, explain why their behavior was inappropriate and request they stop.

They Provide No Legal Protection
As I said, companies create handbooks because they believe they shield them from law suits. The problem is this only works if every manager in an organization follows the handbook to the letter. Not only is this unlikely, but not recommended if you are trying to grow an organization. Strong mid-level management is necessary to success. But if you have a tome full of rules that must be followed, otherwise innovative people will feel their hands are tied. They will be more concerned with following the rules than in doing what’s right. And for what it’s worth, I’ve never had any legal action taken me by an employee for acting in an ethical manner.

So should we dump our handbooks all together? No. When done well, they provide vital information in a way that enforces an organization’s values. Instead, we need to rethink our handbooks and make them true resource for employees.

How we do this? More to follow.