Tim on Leadership

Musings on Management and Leadership from Tim Parker

What's Appropriate?

What is a appropriate, and inappropriate, for the office environment is often a touchy subject, and one that needs to be handled with a great deal of care.  Whether a particular style of dress, a screensaver, photos on the wall, or behavior conforms with a company's policy (if there is one) is one issue, but actually dealing with the offender is sometimes touchy.

A few examples from the last decade might help illustrate the obvious: a developer wears a T-shirt to the office with obscene slogans on it; pictures of nude women posted on the wall; surfing the Web for porno videos in an open cubicle; changing clothes in the open.  All of these things are obvious and easy to determine if they cross the line.  But there are some cases that are difficult to judge or handle.  Again, a few examples: a developer who's screen saver was of his wife topless and in a thong bikini on a beach in Rio; a young lady who wore short skirts to the office, with low-cut tops and no bra; a team lead who's favorite t-shirt was for a company whose initials spelled out "SHIT" clearly; overly load hip-hop music with swearing in the lyrics.  These cases (all of which happened) are typically grey-zone when it comes to company policies, and the offenders will often vehemently defend their rights to these actions citing no explicit violation of policy.

So what can you do about these cases?  In almost every grey-zone case mentioned, I start by meeting with my HR professionals.  They know the company policy and can often modify the policy to ensure these incidents are prevented in the future, but more importantly, when taking an action against an offender in these grey-zone cases I want to know HR agrees and backs me in my decisions (or I will let them explain their thoughts and then back them). 

Some executives like to let HR deal with these issues and just step back and act as a third-party.  While there's some logic in this approach, I prefer to get involved from the start.  After all, these folks work with me, are part of my team, and I want to be there both to help them and to support them, so it's logical to be there when there's an issue with them.  My preferred approach is to talk to the offending person quietly, explain the situation, and ask them to correct the issue.  Sometimes, our company HR wants to sit in on the meeting so there's a record of the request, but most times I prefer to meet off-the-record and then let HR know what happened in an e-mail. 

Most of the time, I can count on my team members being cooperative, but there are a few times it's gotten ugly.  For example, the screensaver of his wife in a thong led the developer to get very upset about why he couldn't display a picture of his family like everyone else, and pointing out the difference between a typical family portrait and a topless image didn't hold any sway.  He went as far as to threaten action against the company if we insisted he take the pictures off his computer, but with colleagues around him complaining about the image it was an easy call to make.  He was given the choice of replacing the picture with something more appropriate or facing disciplinary action.  In the end, he replaced the image, but there was some heated arguments along the way.  (Curiously, the legal department decided he may have been backed by the courts in Canada, where nudity is a lot less of an issue than in the US.  But, they decided that the topless image violated corporate policy and agreed with our decisions in the end).  The lady with increasingly skimpy clothes was also a problem, as she insisted she had the right to wear whatever she wanted as long as it was clean, neat, and "professional".  There is no company policy on wearing a bra, she pointed out, and again, I wonder what would have happened if the case had gone to the courts.  But, cooler heads prevailed, more through gentle conversation than anything heated or confrontational.  In both cases, I was happy to have HR backing my actions and decisions, and when both of the two individuals just mentioned went to HR to complain about my draconian attitude, I got the support I needed from them.

When it comes to policies of appropriate behavior or dress in the office, getting HR involved right from the start is a very wise move!