Have you ever heard about people behaving badly and, when outsiders hear about it, they wonder, “How in the world could that have happened? Why didn’t somebody stop them? Why didn’t somebody do something?” In spite of having conducted more than 300 workplace investigations and having been in the workplace as an employee for many years before that, I have to admit that I’m still sometimes taken aback by such behavior. That’s why I’ve thought a lot about this issue.
Nationally syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts had some of the same thoughts when he saw the footage of the four Marines urinating on Taliban bodies. And, he has an explanation: he says war is insanity, and so people behave in war (and think it’s normal) in ways they’d never behave otherwise. I think he’s right – but I think there’s more to it than that.
We know that every workplace has its own culture. People who work in that culture for a long time – or a short very intense time –sometimes behave in ways there that they would never behave elsewhere. They sometimes seem to forget the norms of the ‘outside world’ and adapt to and adopt the norms of their workplaces. I expect this is really a survival mechanism, and I’ve seen it time after time:
- The office where everyone shares very private aspects of their lives and the newcomer, who might ordinarily keep those to herself, joins in in order to become accepted – telling things she doesn’t even tell her best friends.
- The crew where new hires are regularly bullied and mistreated by those who have been around a while until they become senior and bully the newcomers – even though they’re nice people who wouldn’t hurt a fly in other environments.
- The work group where vendors regularly bring a fifth of Scotch to share with the group on a Friday afternoon before they all get in their cars to drive home – even though the same people always have a designated driver when they go out.
- The Wall Street employee who wouldn’t dream of cheating at cards with friends but practices insider trading because that’s just how everyone does things at his firm.
It’s very easy to lose sight of the forest when you find yourself sitting under a tree – and to forget that what looks normal from under that tree may be totally warped from a quarter mile away. It’s important to maintain touchpoints outside the workplace with which you compare what’s going on inside, and to look critically at those behaviors that seem normal in that setting but would be unacceptable elsewhere.
Have you ever found yourself in a situation where the workplace norms were very different from your own values or acceptable behaviors outside? How did you handle it? Let us know! ~Daphne Schneider