The best (and worst) of supportive workplaces

What’s the right balance between an appropriately friendly/supportive workplace, and a too friendly/supportive workplace?The best (and worst) of supportive workplaces

The Great Company, Inc., started some years ago as a small, forward thinking company. They were like a family: employees and management supported each other through the joys (births, weddings) and trials (divorces, illnesses and deaths) of life. Employees spoke freely with each other about what was going on in their lives. Formal support from management included flexible scheduling, accommodating employee tastes in clothing and cubicle decoration, great training for upward mobility – as well as a sympathetic and compassionate listening ear. As the company was successful and grew, new employees were hired, aspects of this culture remained…and others evolved.

Fast forward a few years. Over several months, top management has been receiving some complaints, and they are concerned:

  • Several employees complained that they can’t get the work hours they want, while other employees are granted the hours they want. They allege favoritism.
  • One employee complained that she doesn’t want to hear about the issues in her coworker’s marriage, especially the more intimate ones, but says that the coworker keeps over-sharing.
  • Another employee was interested in what a coworker was telling him about his father’s health issues (he was dealing with his own father’s issues), until the details of his malodorous intestinal troubles became too much. But his coworker wouldn’t stop talking about his dad’s troubles.
  • A new employee complained (very reluctantly, for fear of losing his job or being labeled a troublemaker) that a coworker kept asking him about his tattoos, which he didn’t want to discuss because they are from an earlier part of his life of which he is not very proud. He says the coworker just won’t stop asking.
  • Some middle-managers complained that no matter how much they try to help and support their employees, it never seems to be enough. They feel they are taken advantage of, and end up agreeing to things that may not be in the best interest of the company.

What is happening here?

It is not at all unusual for small companies to start out feeling like a family. However, as the company grows, structures and parameters need to be put in place, even as a culture of compassion and caring remains. Some of the people who were there at the beginning, and who knew the founders, leave or retire. New employees are hired who don’t necessarily understand or share those early values – and who seem to always want more and more and more. The culture of sharing everything, like a family, ends up being very difficult to maintain in a positive way with all the new employees who are hired and have no history.

What to do?

The Great Company, Inc, needs to do a number of things to keep the culture and values on which they were founded, but clarify appropriate behavior as they continue to grow:

  1. Define and share their values with all employees. Regularly discuss these with employees at staff meetings to ensure common understanding. Talk through difficult or challenging ethical or other situations that have arisen.
  2. Define expectations for employee behavior. These should include expectations for appropriate levels of workplace conversation about personal matters or controversial issues. Such conversations should always remain PG (from the movie rating): no sexual topics, no violence, no “adult” themes, no swearing. Regularly discuss these expectations at staff meetings. Bring up any concerns or difficult situations that have arisen. Create scenarios for discussion. Build common understanding over time.
  3. Work with management to define acceptable parameters for employee conduct, attire, decorations, benefits, etc. to ensure clarity. Frequently discuss these issues at manager meetings until common understanding and consensus are reached. Then discuss them at staff meetings with employees.
  4. Ensure that managers use criteria to grant requests for flexibility and other perks, make sure those criteria are known to all and that they are equitably applied.
  5. Teach all employees how to tell coworkers they don’t want to discuss a topic or hear about a topic – without being offensive or offended. Make it acceptable to tell someone you don’t want to discuss a particular topic, whether it’s because personal, political, religious or for any other reason.
  6. Act quickly when concerns are brought to management, and document those actions.
  7. Teach all employees how to intervene when they witness inappropriate behavior, without being offensive.

It takes work to find the “sweet spot” between supportive/flexible values and expectations, and allowing a workplace to drift into oversharing of personal experiences or opinions and overindulgence in response to employee wishes. It takes practice, regular conversations, and an ongoing recognition that these tough issues will continue to come up. Management must be willing and able to address them without becoming either too lenient or too defensive, and they may also need to gain the skills needed to have the hard conversations.

Have you been at The Great Company? What did you experience? We’d love to hear. ~Daphne Schneider


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