It is said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Thus stated, the road to litigation is often paved with the remnants of “good ideas” gone astray. I learned a long time ago the importance of, when confronted with a seemingly good idea involving any function of human resources or staffing, test driving it with the corporate counsel or “paying the piper” and having an outside attorney with an HR/staffing practice to review it. One of the more interesting approaches is to have that attorney review the concept and then come to your office and “depose you” based on a potential litigation spurred on by your idea gone astray. Or to bring an actual transcript from a real case based on a related or similar practice gone astray somewhere else. It’s amazing how quickly you can trip over your own good idea. One day in court (maybe or maybe not): Plaintiff’s Attorney: I understand that you take great pride in your corporate culture, and not only advertise it in your recruitment efforts but also instruct your hiring managers to look for those qualities in candidates. XYZ Recruiting Manager: Yes, that’s correct. You see we feel that… Plaintiff’s Attorney: Just answer my questions. It is your actions we are looking at today, not your intentions. You state that one of the qualities you seek in your applicants for full-time work is compassion. How do you determine if a person is compassionate? XYZ Recruiting Manager: Well, that’s a pretty universal concept. Plaintiff’s Attorney: You are telling this court you do not use tested, standardized behavioral questions with consistent anchors, used and documented uniformly, to insure your hiring managers are not using this subjective concept as a means of “working around” fair hiring guidelines and practices to reject objectively qualified candidates who fail to meet your so called “corporate profile”? XYZ Recruiting Manager: Well, no. You see, these are more “value ads” than strict requirements. Plaintiff’s Attorney: Oh really? Can I reject a candidate in your process for lacking “compassion”? XYZ Recruiter: Well, yeah, but you see… Plaintiff’s Attorney: In your process, is a person who served in the Peace Corps more compassionate than a person who gives their annual tithe to charity, or the person who participates in walks for animal rights? XYZ Recruiting Manager: In any of those cases, it would be easy to consider any of those applicants compassionate. Plaintiff’s Attorney: So, an inner city applicant, who had to work her entire life to save for college because Mommy and Daddy couldn’t foot the bills and never had time for altruistic activities, would appear as a non-compassionate person to you? XYZ Recruiting Manager: No, of course not… Plaintiff’s Attorney: Thank you! Now, returning to my previous question: do you have tested behavioral anchors with measurable and enforceable test standards for fairness to ensure your “corporate culture” is not just another word for “boys club,” or maybe even “young, attractive, hot in gym trucks, cute in miniskirt, European-descended, white boys or girls club?” XYZ Recruiting Manager: Look, all we were trying to do was ensure that certain qualities were recruited into the company that we feel contribute to the corporation’s success… Plaintiff’s Attorney: Were these qualities included in the initial job description as critical skills needed to be successful in the position? Can you quantify the process used to measure the presence of those qualities, and was it applied evenly and fairly in the determination of each candidate’s application? Can you prove that the process that developed these screening tools was not developed to deny jobs to minorities, females, physically challenged, senior, or other “non-corporate-culture” applicants? XYZ Recruiting Manager: No, of course not. These were not hiring requirements, these were pluses… Plaintiff’s Attorney: …for which your process would consider rejecting a candidate, based on your concern that despite their professional skills and demonstrated career accomplishments the candidate might not “fit in with the gang.” You have no scientific way of verifying that my client’s color, gender, religion, sexual orientation, previous military experience, or other non-country-club attributes were in fact the reason you felt they were not of “your culture.” XYZ Recruiting Manager: Look, we thought it would be a good idea to develop a set of standards… Plaintiff’s Attorney: Did you really think that we would enforce EEO/AA regulations, but ignore made up corporate requirements for “yuppified” candidates? Do you also require ski racks on Volvos with “We support junior league soccer” bumper stickers as proof of fitting in? The plaintiff rests their case your honor. Judge: The defense can call their first witness. Defense, you may call your first witness! Hello! Defense, are you there? XYZ, do you have a defense? XYZ Recruiting Manager: Could I have a glass of water please? Kind of harsh? Sure. Tilted in favor of my own argument? Of course. Totally fiction based and not likely to occur in the real world? Not a risk I am willing to take. You? I have never worked at a company or on a consulting assignment where at some point, early in the interview or negotiating process, some executive did not wax and wane about their unique and special corporate culture. It usually went something like: “We seek aggressive, intelligent, energetic, spirited employees with a young outlook on business!” I often wondered if there was a company out there equally proud of their culture consisting of, “Mealy mouthed, lackluster employees who strive to merely get by another eight-hour day without falling asleep.” Or does everybody make up the same or similar list of superlatives? Despite all the fuss and bother in the board rooms and corridors of power, I rarely, if ever, saw the impact or results of the korporate kulture concept survive all the way down to where the “worker bees” dwelled. Oh, they had their little empowerment tee-shirts and “we really care about you” mementos, and those about to interview a candidate were reminded to also make sure the person would fit in with the group. But it seemed to always stop right about there. The “Korporate Kulture Klan” has always struck me as a fairly harmless waste of time, as long as nobody truly believes it or takes it to heart in the hiring process (or documents it!). When corporate America seeks to set the personal standards for morals, ethics, and subjective attributes, watch out! Just what I want in my life: subjective behavioral guidelines from a CEO under suspicion of insider trading. Aside from the obvious potential for abuse of fair hiring practices under the thinly veiled mask of Korporate Kulture, I have some other fundamental issues:
- Proclaiming a fact not yet in evidence. Many korporate kultures are born in the HR/staffing conference room. They are as much based on wishful thinking or the search for snappy ad copy as reality. It’s not unlike Monet or Van Gough signing a great work of art before bothering to paint it. Having created the myth of completion, they invariably move on to “other agenda items.”
- Elitism. In your efforts to define what a “good” quality is, you are also defining what it is not by omission. In other words, if you define intelligent, you are also defining unintelligent. That is the function of objective skills, tangible and measurable skills. How do you quantify “a felling”? In one company I worked with, they only considered candidates from Ivy League colleges, since they “felt” that it was part of their elite kulture of highly intelligent employees. We rejected a “summa cum laude” from U. Mass for a 2.7 GPA from Harvard ó a belief in standards that exceeded facts in evidence.
- Creating the impossible dream. In the effort to “pig pile” one superlative after another into the korporate kulture stew pot, companies run the risk of creating an impossible goal ó thus dismissing good candidates in pursuit of the Holy Grail and failing to either obtain their goal or a reasonable alternative.
- Non-Essential needs elevated to essential. Should a customer service person have, let’s say, compassion? Sure, why not. But is it a required job skill? No. I prefer well-trained and effective customer service people, well practiced in their role and understanding the parameters of their job. If my printer is under warranty and broken, I want the rep on the phone to tell me how to get it fixed, not offer to bake me cookies. As a matter of fact, angry and upset customers have an adverse reaction to overly salacious responses. So, compassion or good people-handling skills as defined by previous experience with the public in problem resolution situations? Hmmm, let me see…
- Myopia. When a corporation decides it has cornered the market in the korporate kulture arena it tends to become very narrow in its focus. Why? Because if everyone “fits in” and “gets along,” where does the energy for change come from? Is that an essential part of a corporate culture? Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) and Wang were very into the culture concept, and see how far it got them.
- No instant culture. I am descended from the Celts and have a real cultural history that is over a millennium in development. With turnover rates of 10-20%, the average company rehires itself every seven years on average. Can you truly develop a culture with traditions and standards in that kind of turmoil? Is the original culture architect still with the company? Has anybody kept track of the metamorphosis? Can you have instant culture like it was pudding? If you think yes, then I recommend taking a quick trip to the dictionary and revisiting the definition of culture.
- None of your business. Nobody I know works harder, with more dedication or loyalty, than myself. But if any corporation ever wants to call me “one of them” by matching me up to their culture, they are going to get a face full of my Irish. My mother and father, aunts and uncles, friends, neighbors, teachers, and a couple of Marine drill sergeants can take all the bows they want for the impact they had on helping me define who I am and who I wish to be. Corporate America, if anything, has more often than not sought to corrupt or challenge those principles, not enforce them. To this date, the average corporation lists stock assigned to their 401k plan as a corporate asset, even through they know it is assigned and destined not to be controlled by them. But by so doing this accounting jumble inflates their value and hence their stock prices. And this is considered ethical.
- Timing. Considering that the average American currently considers Enron the “poster child” for Korporate Kulture, maybe this is not the best time to focus on the “feel good” aspects of human resources and staffing and get back to the basics of being good, consistent, and successful employers and enforcing ethical standards, human qualities, and best practices before seeking them in candidates. First, develop a culture in which the current staff does not have to worry about their 401k plans disappearing or being stopped on the way out the door by a camera crew from 60 Minutes. The average worker needs to be given insight into correct culture by a corporation like a dolphin needs swimming lessons from a camel.
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I am proud of who I am. If a corporation does not feel I have the knowledge, skills, ability, or objectives to successfully participate in their future, c’est la vie. But if they chose to decide that I do not measure up to their korporate kulture klan profile then I am grateful to be rejected. One thing I will not do for a job is change my value system or sense of self-worth to conform to a monolithic self-deluding perception thought up in a back conference room just before the debate on new printers and right after the decision to eliminate free bagels on Friday. I cannot believe a forward-thinking, success-driven company would want employees who would. If you want a corporate culture statement, here is one I recommend: “Look, we don’t want to be your mother, father, brother, aunt. or uncle. We do not want to help you be a better person than you are right now. We do not want to enrich your life by taking on the role of life guardian. We are an employer, not a spiritual leader. You are the master of your soul and your destiny. We are still hiring today and not having layoffs because we decided we would rather be a responsible employer with an eye to the future, which includes the people who contribute to making that future happen. We are an employer of career professionals who understand that their real family is at home. We are just the people who help you provide for them. Do you want a feel-good sense of personal value, or a future?” Now that I think of it, there is one corporate culture I highly regard. It is the Columbo corporate culture. Of course, I am referring to the culture they use to make their yogurt. Have a great day recruiting!