Hammer Time: The HR Dress Code Game

hammer timeJeans. Jeans with holes or frayed edges. Dark denim. Light denim. Skirts that are too short. Cleavage that is too prominent.

Underwear. No underwear. Dreadlocks. Hair that’s not a “color found in nature.” Facial hair. Hair on men that extends below the collar. Earrings that are too big. Earrings on men. Piercings in places other than ears. Piercings in places other than ears that shouldn’t be visible through one’s clothing…but are.

Tattoos. Visible tattoos. Excessive tattoos. Tattoos of questionable subject matter.

Flips Flops. Open toed shoes. Athletic shoes. Pants that are too tight. Pants that are not held up with a belt. Shirts tucked in. Shirts not tucked in.

A dress. A skirt. A pant suit (a la Hilary Clinton). A skirt suit (a la Carly Fiorina). Cardigans with pockets. Cardigans without pockets. Pantyhose. Bare legs. Flats. 3” Heels. Boots. Boots with zippers. Ankle boots. Rain boots.

Muted colors. Ties with tasteful designs. Shirts with a collar. Khakis. No more than 4 pockets. Cargo pants. Parachute pants.

Hammer time.


In the late 1980’s, in my first in-house corporate HR gig at a bank, I was asked to review and rewrite the HR Dress Code Policy. The existing policy was 7 pages long.

After I drafted the revisions and we held numerous meetings with The-Powers-That-Be, the policy was successfully streamlined. To 5 pages. Yay HR!

I fondly recall my greatest victory of this months-long skirmish.

The SVP of retail banking (he was over the entirety of the branch network) was adamant – ADAMANT – that tellers in the drive-thru windows wore either blazers or cardigan sweaters that had no pockets (note: we did not supply uniforms; employees were expected to dress in business attire).

This issue of pockets on sweaters drove this man absolutely crazy; he was fixated. He also wanted to ensure that women did not have pockets on the back (buttocks) of their pants or skirts. Why he was looking – I don’t know. That was another matter all together.

Now mind you. This was in Wisconsin; cold, frigid Wisconsin. Wind chills below zero numerous mornings and evenings during the winter. And these tellers, working in the drive thru, were getting hit full blast by frigid air with each and every transaction. Since they couldn’t wear gloves (hard to count the money…ya know?) a nice sweater with pockets was often a necessity. Unless they wanted to look like Bob Cratchit in every single production of “A Christmas Carol” wearing those gloves with the cut out fingers. (Note; I love those gloves).

Yet here’s why I think I remember this hard-fought battle of something that, in the scheme of things, really amounted to nothing: common sense ultimately prevailed.

Eventually all The-Powers-That-Be realized that they countless hours they were spending arguing the minutia of the dress code (arguments over inches of hemlines… I’m not kidding) were so inconsequential and, at the end of the day, way below their pay grades.

They agreed – finally – to let managers manage.



But this ancient game of the battle-of-the-dress-code has not gone away. Somewhere, right this moment, I guarantee you some HR professional is fretting over a “Dress Code Policy” issue. He’s diving deep down into the most mundane and useless details that, let’s face it, have nothing to do with how someone is performing their job.

A few weeks ago my friend ‘Amy’ (we’ll call her Amy) shared a recent experience she had interviewing for the Executive Director position with a local non-profit agency. She was one of two finalists brought in to interview with the agency’s Board of Directors; a board that, since it’s here in my town, is undoubtedly filled with boring corporate executives from the same 20 companies that dominate every board and numerous ladies-who-lunch and fill their busy days with tennis lessons at the Country Club and Junior League activities.

Amy, an extraordinarily accomplished and experience Executive Director/Non-Profit leader, dressed conservatively; dark pant suit with blouse, tasteful jewelry, and sensible pumps. She had a great interview; confidently discussing her experience and bona fides. Alas, the other candidate got the job offer.

During a follow-up call with the recruiter who ran the search Amy probed for feedback. “The Board truly had a difficult decision to make,” he told her. “Both of your backgrounds were very well suited.”

“Did you get any specific feedback?” she asked. “Any things I could adjust in future interviews?”

“Well there was one piece of feedback” said the recruiter. “One of the female board members noted that you wore a pants suit instead of a skirt or a dress with a jacket. She didn’t think that was appropriate.”

The game continues.


What if your HR Lady was Amish?

Lancaster_County_Amish_02I’m spending the next several days in the Lancaster, Pennsylvania area which is the home to the largest and oldest Amish community in the US.

I am fascinated beyond belief.

I took a trip to this part of the country a few months ago for the first time and, as luck would have it, had a few hours to spare. I was able to drive about the countryside on a personal quest to see actual Amish people driving buggies and walking up and down picturesque country roads. I popped in at a heritage center type place and stopped at an “Amish Village.” The latter was somewhat disappointing; it was clearly designed to entice tour buses full of tourists from foreign lands to spend ridiculous amounts of money on ‘handmade’ soaps and jellies/jams made in local factories.

Capitalism and ‘Merica at its finest.

But I didn’t mind because I enjoy exploring the history of religions and religious groups and the story of the Amish is fascinating. After the Reformation period (16th century) the Anabaptist movement led to the creation of three “plain” communities: the Amish, the Mennonites and the Brethren. While there are similarities, the Amish are the most conservative and have an emphasis on humility, family, community and separation from the non-Amish world. The Amish began as part of the Mennonite group (named for Menno Simons) but later splintered off, in 1693, under Swiss bishop Jacob Amman. In the early 18th century, members of this group arrived in Pennsylvania in order to escape persecution in Europe where they were being declared heretics – and put to death – by both Catholics and Protestants.

These three Anabaptist groups share the same basic values and differ primarily in matters of dress, language, forms of worship and the extent to which they allow the use of modern technology/conveniences. Primary cornerstones of the Amish faith include humility, patience, obedience and conformity. There is a great emphasis placed on preserving the group identity and downplaying personal aspirations.

No wonder they have to eschew modern conveniences.

How would the Amish value of humility play in our world of selfies and Facebook posts? While Rumspringa may be an option for some Amish youth to head off and live amongst “the English” for a period of time not all Amish adolescents have – or take – this opportunity. And, based upon many things I’ve read, upwards of 90% of the teens that do head off and live-another-life return to the community and get baptized. Forever eschewing the world of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” Adele, and Zac Posen.

So…I got to wondering.

How many organizations, despite their stated intentions to the contrary, are replicating Amish values within their organizations? Where preserving group identity (conformity) is more important than personal aspirations or desire. Where obedience (follow the rules! adhere to HR policies!) is desired above all else.

Not that long ago I got a resume from an HR professional who stated he was responsible for ‘New Employee Indoctrination.” And, believe it or not, in this day and age of personal branding and authenticity, I chatted with an HR Leader from a major brand who told me her desire was to hire employees who did not promote themselves but rather exhibited humility.

No ninjas, rockstars or gurus there.

Huh. Maybe there’s a niche for Amish HR after all.


What to do BEFORE the “Engagement Survey”

darkedinburgh_couple2Gather ‘round and let me tell you a story about employee engagement. This is a simple tale. When you hear it you’ll realize it required neither the purchase of shiny new technology nor the services of a high-priced consultant. No project plan and no additional dollars budgeted for tchotkes in an attempt to curry favor with the masses. Not even a strategy map.

Engagement, of course, is not a strategy. Rather it’s the outcome after implementing steps designed to accomplish some fairly specific things. Organizations usually set out with the intent of creating a better work environment, promoting trust, increasing collaboration, or strengthening an organizational culture that aligns with their values and vision.

Google “engagement” and you’ll uncover numerous definitions (and find yourself the victim of retargeted ads from any number of vendors and service providers trying to get you to spend money money money!). Most pundits are in agreement, of course, that engagement is not the same as employee happiness or employee satisfaction. Although I venture to guess many of us who’ve worked in hellish companies would have traded our souls for a few days of happiness or satisfaction. Am I right?

Nevertheless, most people who worry about this sort of thing concur that engagement means emotional commitment. It refers to employees who care about both their own work and performance and the organization. They go the extra mile. You never hear an engaged employee utter the phrase “that’s not my job.” Stuff like that.

This doesn’t remove an expectation of some quid pro quo such as the psychological contract concept as developed by Denise M. Rousseau which refers to the mutual beliefs, perceptions, and informal obligations between an employer and an employee. If there’s a contract “breach” around pay or working conditions Sally Employee may walk out the door. But Sally, dare I say, also isn’t going to extend a whole lot of discretionary effort while she’s an active employee if the CEO is a mythical creature and her own manager is a tool.

My personal definition of engagement has long been “the extent to which employee attitudes, actions, and behaviors demonstrate a commitment to and alignment with the goals of the organization.”

So why do organizations fail in devising actions and strategies when they’re hoping for an outcome of enhanced engagement? When they desire that alignment and commitment?

I’ll tell you why.

The buzzword bandwagon pulls up, everyone hops on, and before you know it Joe CEO is attempting to measure something with a lack of internal clarity on work factors or conditions. He lacks the rudimentary knowledge about the critical drivers of trust, collaboration, cultural alignment or yes…even the basics of the psychological contract. Comments like “people seem unhappy” or “turnover is increasing” or “we’ve lost our collective mojo” can very quickly lead organizations, at the behest of Joe CEO, down the path of collecting annual survey data with no underlying rhyme or reason.

So now to the story. (Finally. Am I right?)

An organizational leader was recently hired to take the reins of a mid-sized operation. Along with all the necessary stuff to sort out – “Are we efficient? How are our customers being served? When is my laptop going to arrive?” – he knew that employees (people! human beings!) were the foundation to everything he might plan for the future.

So he held some roundtables. Easy peasy, to some degree; most every new leader, unless she or he is incredibly anti-social does something similar. Usually.

Here’s the cool thing though; the point of this particular tale. This new leader spent the first several months working in every department and in most every job across the organization. Full shifts. Days, nights, weekends. He donned the appropriate uniform and worked side-by-side with employees with 20+ year tenure and newbies who had just landed the gig themselves. And no; not in some Undercover Boss bullcrap-for-the-camera sort of way.

He gained clarity by walking the walk and demonstrating a willingness to fully and completely understand what-people-do-and-deal-with before launching any snazzy sexy consultant-sold initiative designed to increase excitement, motivation or innovation. Absent surveys and measurements and “scoring.”

Is gathering data – through a feedback mechanism or an engagement survey tool – somewhere in his future? Sure it is.

But it will launch with understanding and on a foundation of human connections. It will be real-time. It will be integrated and holistic …not a stand alone checklist. It will reinforce support for employees; support that has already been demonstrated.  Deep-in-the-gut things that can actually impact attitudes, behaviors, and actions.

Survey or not.


Collaboration: Motivation and Ability

IMG_0974Organizations that purposely embark upon initiatives to increase collaboration do so because they’ve successfully identified the reasons why the time and effort will be of benefit. Efforts are also more successful when there’s a deliberate plan in which leaders assess when collaboration is appropriate, define desired outcomes, and commit to understanding and removing the barriers that may currently exist in their organization.

The first step, before anything else kicks off, is to assess the existing attitudes and behaviors of the people in the organization to determine if people ready or if, perhaps, they are either unwilling and/or unable to collaborate.

Barriers to collaboration will either be due to motivational issues or ability issues and understanding what currently exists allows leaders to either take action that makes people willing to collaborate or take action that enables motivated individuals to collaborate throughout the organization. 

Motivational Barriers 

There may be various reasons that individuals choose not to collaborate. What individual behaviors, attitudes or cultural practices exist that may foster  unwillingness in individual or groups of employees?  Some common reasons are:

  • Protection of self-interest
  • A belief in self-reliance
  • Fear of being viewed as unknowledgeable or weak
  • Competitive relationships (sometimes self-imposed, sometimes institutional culture) such as department vs. department of desire to “own” results
  • Perception that collaboration takes ‘too much time’
  • Organizational power struggles
  • Company programs (i.e. HR compensation, incentive or recognition programs)  that reward employees primarily (or only) for their individual work and not for helping others

Ability Barriers

Individuals may desire to collaborate with others but are unable to do so for any number of reasons:

  • People are unable to find the information, resources or individuals that can provide assistance
  • Large organizations, in particular, may have vast resources spread across wide geographies or systems and there are insufficient networks to connect people
  • Sharing tacit knowledge with other, whether that knowledge is in books, brains or technologies, is often difficult
  • Lack of trust, respect and relationships with potential collaborative partners

Once organizational leaders understand if people are either unwilling (motivational) or unable (ability) to collaborate, solutions can be devised to break down those barriers. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways including recruiting and hiring people with an inclination/desire to ask for help and share with others; appraising employee performance on not just individual performance/results but also the employee’s contributions and willingness to assist others; and eliminating the ‘stranger’ problem in the organization by encouraging relationship building.


Visit the blog tomorrow when we’ll be discussing Collaboration: The Role of the Leader. View yesterday’s post in this series on collaboration. 


Collaboration: Why Culture Matters

kid underwaterOnce you, as a company leader or department/functional leader, decide to focus on increasing collaboration in the workplace the first step is to assess readiness. This involves exploring a bit of cultural reality. What’s really going on? What are the true values, beliefs, traditions, norms and behaviors in your company? What’s the environment like? How does stuff really get done? Where, let’s face it, are the skeletons buried? For that matter, whose skeletons are they?

While there are many areas to explore and understand (and if you’re in HR you hopefully have a good grasp on these things already) there are three questions I find helpful when evaluating the current state of readiness:

Question 1:  Do you operate in the relay race model or the rugby match model?

If you imagine a team working on a project the group that employs the relay race model operates by having each function complete its work and then pass it on to the next function. C follows B follows A.

A team is chartered and roles assigned but the process lumbers along as … the marketing group conducts research and sends the results to the product design group, which then, only when finished, passes the results along to the engineering group which, when done, passes the information back to marketing. Slow and lumbering. Waiting for one group/person to get their work done before the next group/person takes over.

In the rugby model however all players take the field at the same time and intend to stay active for the duration of the game.  There’s constant interaction as the team moves toward its goal and, as is the case in a rugby match, different players take the lead or employ a stronger approach at various stages throughout the game.

The difference from the relay race approach is striking. In the rugby model the entire team is in the game for the whole time; all players participate in decisions and understand the status of the match at all times. Operating in this manner means that constant communication is crucial. Not in a “let’s plan an update meeting to draft the agenda for the next meeting” type of way but rather in a manner that’s ongoing, spontaneous and ever evolving.  As the dynamics of play change or as the momentum shifts, the entire team adjusts and takes action.

Question 2:  Is the organization task oriented or relationship oriented?

While stuff needs to get done and people need to “make the donuts,” task completion can’t be the only thing emphasized. After all…people need strong relationships in order to work together effectively and allowing them to cultivate them is crucial.

There are still organizations where it’s frowned upon for employees to get up from their cubicle and wander across the aisle to ask a colleague a question or interact for a few minutes.  Why? Well, there are some leaders, managers, and HR professionals (yup) who have decided this means employees are ‘wasting time.’  Hello? These are colleagues sharing tacit knowledge, seeking clarification or even getting to know the people with whom they work.  Relationships are important. Does your organization view them as such?

Cultures that support relationship building understand it’s a necessary (and beneficial) component in meeting business goals.

Question 3:  Do leaders exhibit behaviors that affirm the importance of relationships?

Place and environment are elements of your culture and often reflect the types of relationship building with which leaders are comfortable.  Do leaders hide behind closed doors on a separate floor? Are work groups segregated?  Do managers discourage their staff members from visiting other departments? I’ve worked in those sorts of companies.

Several years ago when the Royal Bank of Scotland constructed a new headquarters building the CEO made sure it included an indoor atrium; this “Main Street” design included shops, picnic spaces and an athletic facility. The design encourages all employees to interact daily with a goal of fueling relationships across boundaries/silos in order to assist with collaborative efforts in complex teams. Everyone, including the C-Suite bigwigs, strolls down Main Street each and every day.

If the goal of collaboration is better business performance it’s important to ensure you’re launching initiatives in a receptive environment. If you’re not ready…you’re doomed to fail.


Visit the blog tomorrow when we’ll explore Motivation and Ability and take a look at the barriers that prevent employees from collaborating. View yesterday’s post in this series on collaboration. 


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