Christmas Party Crimes

Office Xmas Party Drunk“2014 has been a spectacular year for the business. That success has not come easily and I really appreciate your hard work and commitment. Because of your individual and collective efforts we now serve more customers than ever before – and they just keep coming!

As you know, next Friday is our annual Christmas party, and I am looking forward to seeing you all there, relaxing, celebrating and enjoying a much deserved night out with your friends and colleagues. Thanks again for your contribution to the company’s continued growth and unrivalled reputation.

Please note that fighting, excessive alcohol consumption, the use of illegal drugs, inappropriate behaviour, sexist or racist remarks or harassment and comments about sexual orientation, disability, age or religion will not be tolerated at this year’s Christmas Party. Disciplinary action may be taken for unacceptable behaviour.”

Phew! Thank goodness for that last bit, I must remember not to fight or take drugs at the party this year. Silly me, there was I thinking that our Christmas Party had an exemption wrapped around it that means the laws of the land and the high standards of behaviour expected of me as an employee didn’t apply…

Ok, this is not real. I made it up. Apart from that final paragraph, which is actually based on recent advice published by the Institute of Internal Communication.

Every year the prospect of Christmas party crimes biting the hand of those tasked with organising them sends us scuttling off to the lawyers in search of sanctuary. Then, shock horror, the lawyers’ stamp their own particular brand of demoralising bumph on a communication that could and should have been positive and uplifting. They mean well and I love them dearly.

My own advice may not be to their liking, but seriously, the risk created by treating your people with a criminal lack of respect far outweighs the possibility that the legalese in your party invitation will actually protect the company if the wheel ever came off.

Employees typically have an employment contract of sorts with an attendant ‘code of conduct’ setting out what comprises potential disciplinary offences. Most cover the spectrum of ‘crimes’, ranging from minor infringements like using obscene language, to the more weighty matters like conviction for a serious criminal offence.

Let’s leave criminal damage, driving whilst under the influence of drink or drugs, violent conduct, and sexual assault to the experts; the local police. Any member of staff who behaves in a manner that leads to arrest and conviction of such an offence deserves what they get, and because they did this at or after a staff party does not necessarily make the employer complicit in that offence. That would be like saying that an employer should be held responsible for an employee who uses some of his wages to buy an Uzi to shoot down his noisy neighbours on his day off.

Absolution for the employer for Christmas party crimes is likely to be determined by their actions in planning and delivering a safe, responsible event, rather than issuing stale words of warning, which will have no effect on changing anyone’s behaviour.

We don’t feel the need to warn responsible adults about their conduct at weekends, or when they’re on holiday, or any other time when they are absent from the workplace. We rightly assume that as members of a civilised society, they understand the law and don’t need to be reminded not to break it.

We are all adults and we all know how to behave. If I fail to live up to my own standards of behaviour, Christmas party or not, I understand and accept the consequences.

Give them enough rope

nooseIf you give someone a length of rope, do you have a responsibility to stop them using it to hang themselves? Of course not, that would be ridiculous.

Now apply the same logic to the introduction of social functionality on the company intranet. Is the answer still no? Not so long ago I’d have said exactly that.

After all, if someone wants to be a knob in full view of the company, more fool them. Far better they expose their lack of judgement, poor behaviour or surly attitude out in the open so that it can be ‘managed’. Let’s face it, if they are silly enough to let themselves down in the full gaze of their peers on the intranet, you can bet your bottom dollar they’ll be doing so in far less noticeable places, like down the pub, under the smoking shelter, and on Facebook. Only they will get away with it for much longer.

And then something happened to help me look at things a bit differently. Someone, partly in jest and partly in blissful ignorance posted a comment on an internal news story that made me feel a bit uneasy. The feeling morphed into discomfort when I overheard people around me suddenly turn into haters.

I quickly reached out to the guy and explained that his comment was not going down very well and invited him to post a quick follow-up comment both by way of apology and explanation. He was aghast that his question had been so badly misinterpreted.

Clearly our hapless commentator had meant well. In his mind all he had done was to ask an obvious and seemingly harmless question, and crowned it with a slightly clumsy attempt at humour.

During our conversation it became obvious that several exacerbating factors had combined to create a situation of epic misunderstanding.

  • He worked several hundred miles from the location of the incident.
  • English was not his native language.
  • He had no way of knowing that local emotions preceding the ‘incident’ were running sky high.
  • He had no way of knowing that emotionally, the most senior people in the company were also heavily invested in the story.

I felt sorry for the guy. Taken the wrong way, and certainly not the way he had intended, his comment could potentially turn into a career breaker. I felt sorry for me. I had told people who had never wanted me to open the floodgates of anarchy in the first place that such behaviour on a company intranet was the stuff of fiction.

That’s why these days I believe that as an intranet manager you do have to accept some degree of responsibility to the individual and to yourself if you have provided people with the opportunity to inadvertently hang themselves in public.

Reflections on grief

In 2003, Detective Constable Stephen Oake was stabbed to death as he carried out an immigration raid in Manchester. His killer was arrested at the scene and subsequently locked up for life. One of the remarkable aspects of this tragedy was the incredibly dignified way his father dealt with the loss of his only son.

When ex Isle of Man Chief Constable Robin Oake faced journalists at the press conference following the murder, he was asked what he felt about the man who killed his son. His reply took everyone by surprise: “I don’t know the man or the circumstances but from my heart I forgive him.”  Mr Oake later went on to write a book called Father Forgive: The Forgotten ‘F’ Word

I knew nothing of this until I heard Mr Oake being interviewed on the Radio last week in connection with the killing of two police officers in Manchester the previous day. I was struck by his measured tone and dignity as he empathised with the families of the two murdered women. He spoke of the difficult journey ahead and the importance of forgiveness as part of the healing process.

ImageIn stark contrast, a week earlier the Hillsborough report was published and our newspapers and TV screens were dominated by stories of cover-up, culpability and injustice. One recurring sentiment expressed by friends and families of some of the 96 people who lost their lives 23 years ago was the need for justice.

They wanted those they considered responsible for the deaths of their loved ones to be brought to book. Not a single word was uttered about forgiveness.

So how is it that a man can pray for the killer of his only son and forgive him even before he’s been convicted, while hundreds of grieving relatives almost a quarter of a century on cannot see past blame and retribution?

It’s because the relatives of the 96 were denied the opportunity for closure due to misinformation, cover-up and not being listened to. They have never had the opportunity to forgive because instead of embarking on a search for the truth, those in positions of high power sought to evade any sense of personal or collective responsibility.

The irony is I don’t believe justice will ever be done. What happened at Hillsborough on 15 April 1989 was the crashing together of a series of errors in human judgment that each in isolation would in all likelihood have been inconsequential. Decisions made by the FA, Sheffield United FC, stewards, police, the ambulance service and yes, dare I say it, some of the fans, all collided that day in a way that nobody could possibly have predicted.

There was nobody left holding a bloodstained knife. Nobody standing there with a smoking gun. No tangible killer to blame. The misinformation that followed and the desire by certain people to exonerate themselves rather than accept their contribution to the series of events that resulted in catastrophic loss of life is the real crime here.

I’m not sure if there is a communications lesson here or not.

There is most certainly evidence of the devastating damage to people’s lives that can be caused by those who we all rely on to act with honesty and integrity don’t.

And given the person being held up as the biggest villain of the piece is Kelvin MacKenzie, a lifelong professional communicator who was nowhere near Hillsborough that day, nor could he be held in any way responsible for the chain of events that led up to the tragedy, I think there probably is a communications lesson in here somewhere…

RIP Stephen Oake and the Liverpool 96.

Communication builds trust

Tony Hsieh is the kind of boss everyone wants. Since I first wrote about him in March 2010 I have followed his career with interest and I am a huge fan of his people-focused approach to running a business. The story of Zappos is the ultimate story of how corporate culture can drive commercial success.

Core value number 6 on a T shirtAt the heart of Zappos lie ten core values:

  1. Deliver WOW Through Service
  2. Embrace and Drive Change
  3. Create Fun and A Little Weirdness
  4. Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded
  5. Pursue Growth and Learning
  6. Build Open and Honest Relationships With Communication
  7. Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit
  8. Do More With Less
  9. Be Passionate and Determined
  10. Be Humble

As an Internal Communicator, number six is obviously my favourite. Zappos believe that open, honest communication is the best foundation for any relationship. They even put it on a T shirt.

They don’t need to spell out if they mean internal or external communications, because for Zappos they are one and the same. Zappos employee communications are conducted in public, in full view of their customers and fans.

On 6 June 2012 Tony Hsieh sent an email to Zappos staff about a very significant corporate development. At the same time he sent a link to the email to his 2.4m followers on Twitter and posted it on http://www.zappos.com.

Most companies sending this kind of all-staff email hit the send button and sit back, hold their breath and wait for a disgruntled employee to leak it to the press. Not Zappos.

It’s an interesting email. Not just because it demonstrates Zappos fusion of internal and external communications. It also contains some lovely pointers towards a corporate culture that has become legendary in employee engagement circles and shows that none of the lustre has been lost by the constraints of plc ownership since Amazon paid $1.1bn for the company in 2009.

I love the fact that Zappos don’t call their Executive Management Team “EMT”, “SMT”, or “ExCo”. No, Zappos call it FACT, after Fred ‘no title’ Mossler , Arun Rajan (CTO), Chris Nielsen (COO & CFO), and Tony Hsieh (CEO – he’s the one with “Zappos” tattooed on his head).

Plc’s have to be very careful about making foward-looking statements outside of the regulatory financial reporting regime. Most companies opt for an easy life and keep schtum. Zappos “create fun and a little weirdness” (core value 3) to ensure their staff get the picture:

As many of you know, we already are operating two physical warehouse buildings and will soon be out of room in those buildings due to our growth. As we started looking into the possibility of opening up a third warehouse building in Kentucky to hold our inventory, we realized that Amazon was already running 69 warehouses around the world. I’ve been *reminded* by our lawyers that I’m not allowed to make forward-looking statements because Amazon is a publicly traded company, so let me phrase things this way: In the next 10 years, if Amazon continues its rapid growth rate, they will be running over 69 gazillion warehouses across the entire universe.”

Despite being CEO of the world’s largest online shoe retailer, I don’t believe Tony Hsieh sees himself as a shoe seller. I think he sees his job as the architect and curator of a unique company culture. A culture where employee empowerment and happiness creates a very powerful virtuous circle where happy staff equals happy customers and happy customers equals even happier staff. And on it goes, leaving investors, shareholders, founders and owners very happy bunnies.

Tony Hsieh is the kind of boss everyone wants. Tony Hsieh is also the kind of boss every shareholder wants.

Trust me, I’m a CEO

The essence of a great place to work is trust. Thirty years of experience working with the most successful organisations in the world leads the Great Place to Work Institute to conclude that the foundation of every great workplace is trust between employees and management.

In another interview with Erin Lieberman Moran of the Great Place To Work Institute, Mark Ragan recently asked about the role of social media today in Internal Communications. Erin’s response was that the best companies are using it to enhance and strengthen workplace relationships. She went on to say:

“In lousy workplaces, organisations are monitoring the blogs to make sure that there aren’t human resource violations. In high trust environments where leaders trust the people that work within the organisation, they are just letting those conversations continue because there is an understanding and an appreciation that by opening up those vehicles they have insight into what people are thinking and experiencing.”

My regular readers will not be surprised that I concur.

These conversations will still be happening. Employees with an axe to grind will still hold court in the coffee room or the corridor. It’s just that the leadership team won’t have the benefit of knowing about them nor the opportunity to engage with the issues.

Earlier this year, Giam Swiegers, CEO of Deloitte Australia gave a fascinating interview on the use of Yammer within his organisation. Among other things, it gives him the opportunity to personally engage with people out in the open, not only to challenge misconceptions but also to accept responsibility for organisational shortcomings and take speedy remedial action. It’s worth a watch if you are interested in this stuff.


It seems to me that this kind of leadership approach must make a positive contribution to the creation of a high trust environment in the workplace. I’d love to hear from any Deliotte people who could provide any insight into how much emotional credit Giam has managed to accumulate through his approach to Social Media.

Social Media is not everyone’s cup of tea and in my opinion it can only ever be part of a multi-channel approach to employee communications. In some respects the real value of encouraging staff to blog and contribute to cross functional discussions using tools like Yammer is as much symbolic as it is practical.

As long as they are trusted to do so without heavy policing and censorship.

A nice cup of e and a biscuit

Office workers who walk away from their desk to make a cuppa or have a chat with a colleague – even those who sneak out for the occasional ciggy are not robbing their employer of wages.

The idea that presenteeism should be used a baseline for productivity is not just crazy, it is pernicious. Peddlers of such nonsense need to be put straight immediately to stop them causing any more damage to their companies.

Most employers accept this and don’t seek to curtail it. They realise that short regular breaks are good for maintaining focus and mental agility. Unlike the occasional piece of ludicrous ‘research’ there is simply nothing to be gained by adding up the time taken by employees to clear their heads and regain focus.

However, remove the tea from the equation and all of a sudden, things look somewhat different.

Tea breaks pale into insignificance when compared to eBreaks. One survey last year suggests that nearly 2 million British workers spend over an hour every day on social media websites. More than half of the UK’s working population now accesses social media whilst at work, with a third of those (roughly six million) are spending more than 30 minutes on the likes of Facebook and Twitter.

Is this any worse than the good old fashioned tea break? Clearly many employers think so. According the Mark Ragan, 57% of US companies block employee access to social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. But I bet they don’t have such issues with the humble tea break.

Well I think they are making the wrong call – and so does the Great Place to Work Institute. The essence of a great place to work is trust. Thirty years of experience working with the most successful organisations in the world leads the Institute to conclude that the foundation of every great workplace is trust between employees and management.

The organisational and financial benefits to any organisation of being a high trust environment are well documented. Companies that appear in the annual 100 Great Places to Work consistently outperform their peers. And according to Erin Lieberman Moran, senior VP at the Great Places to Work Institute, these companies are not blocking staff access to social media.

In a recent interview with Ragan Lieberman Moran says:

“If you are hiring great talent then you need to trust them to make the right decisions. If you’re holding them accountable to their performance, when and how they get their work done should be less important than the actual results they are delivering to the organisation”.

Brings us back to presenteeism. If you trust people and manage them well – and by that I mean keep them busy with challenging and meaningful work – their value should be measured by their results not by their presence.

I take quite a few eBreaks during my working day. OK, so my working day may be extended by a few hours beyond those stipulated in my contract in order to ensure my work never suffers, but that is my choice and quite frankly, I would not have it any other way.

I love my job, I love my profession and I love my company. Without my regular eBreaks, I suspect I’d find it difficult to maintain this level of intensity and I’m sure our relationship would suffer.

Censorship feeds the dirty mind more than the ‘f’ word ever will

Believe it or not there are still companies out there that lack the confidence to allow staff to participate in open conversation through internal forums, blogs or just simple comment functionality on the intranet.

The majority – those that have embraced the joys of Web 2.0 internally (or Intranet 2.0 if you want to be really picky) are reporting plenty of beneficial returns; cross functional collaboration, increased knowledge flow, faster communication, better decision making, more innovation, less duplication of effort, improved allocation of resources – I could go on…

Obviously this has also been my own experience, otherwise I wouldn’t be banging on about it. I have also noticed how user generated comments attached to internal news stories drives more traffic than a catchy headline, a funky picture or a high profile author. And as an intranet manager, footfall and engagement with your content is what it’s all about.

At the same time even some of the most enlightened senior executives harbour fears about the risk of a rogue (or stupid) employee posting commercially sensitive, abusive, disloyal, defamatory or otherwise inappropriate content if left to their own devices. Accompanying this is the perception that moderation and even censorship is the best way to mitigate such risk.

Well I don’t think so.

Nothing puts the brakes on a vibrant online community more than heavy moderation and censorship. Believe me, the comments will just dry up. Not just that, but censorship feeds the dirty mind more than the ‘f’ word ever will. Similarly, if you try and suppress a story which is freely available externally you just fan the flames of gossip, conjecture, fear and discontent.

For me it’s all about trusting staff to act responsibly and professionally. I have managed internal communities with hundreds of contributors discussing thousands of topics, which are not always business related either. Most of them are, but if the occasional bit of frippery and banter creeps in, great. It shows we are all human.

And occasionally when someone pops their head above the parapet and dangerously exposes themselves – good! There’s no hiding from the public display of their idiocy and they deserve what they get when the rest of the community deals with their transgression. As well of course the HR team if it’s that bad.

I have seen time and time again that when you trust staff and empower them to take full responsibility for their words and actions they respond by moderating their own behaviour. Those that don’t and choose to abuse the privilege are arses. They are loose cannons and you don’t really want them around anyway.

It is naive in the extreme to expect you can suppress negative sentiment by banning it. Just because you prevent someone from infecting the rest of the workforce with their cynicism or vitriol by not giving them the tools and channels to use does not mean they are not doing exactly that behind your back. Of course they are – only you never get see or hear about it. There are plenty of other outlets and opportunities for detractors to detract that are wholly outside of the organisation’s control.

Heavy moderation and censorship just shows that you prefer to bury your head in the sand rather than listen to your staff and act on their feedback, and this situation just gives your detractors more to complain about.

Of course there needs to be rules around individual conduct on internal (and external!) message boards and forums. You need a strong policy that actively encourages participation, but within reasonable boundaries. Everyone needs to know that their use of such channels is valued and encouraged, but that where they cross the line and expose the company to legal, reputational or commercial risk, they must know that they face the full force of a robust disciplinary process.

So here is my shopping list for your basic needs:

  • A decent application which is easy to use, looks good and is secure
  • A well written social media policy
  • Integration with Active Directory to enable single sign-on and prevent anonymity
  • Some digitally active early adopters
  • A few senior executives prepared to lead by example
  • Thick skin, coz it won’t all be plain sailing

Have I missed anything?