Putting the F-word (Fun) back in the Workplace

"Well, I don't think Hairdressers are great fun"

I have a friend, Joe Bell, the local hairdresser in Clontarf. Joe is terrific fun, always slagging, great company. His last greeting to me was : “The bit of weight suits you”.

Positive Fun: This good natured mickey-taking plays an important role in work organizations. Dreary Monday mornings can be enlivened with ‘weekend’ stories about social events, sports victories and the ‘one that got away’. Perhaps it’s a Dublin trait, but I am generally comfortable in this space and mostly see it as harmless banter which adds a bit of humanity to the workplace.

Ratings Agency: Since Ireland entered the debt crisis, we have become quite au fait with ratings agencies (e.g. Standards and Poors). But the term ‘rating’ took on an entirely new meaning when some of the junior male staff in PWC began to rate the physical characteristics of their female colleagues (exactly how Facebook started in Harvard). With unbelievable syncronisity, the same thing happened at the competitor company KPMG, both events taking place within a couple of days.

Fun or Sexism? Most people believe that the physical ‘rating’ of peers is a bridge too far and goes beyond what might be termed normal fun in a work organization. In my own experience, woman are just as likely to ‘rate’ male colleagues – but are too smart to use the email system to record their votes! So, where’s the correct line between acceptable workplace fun and sexism?

Clarence Thomas: Some of you will remember the Judge Clarence Thomas versus Anita Hill case. Thomas was nominated for a place on the US Supreme Court. The confirmation hearings were bitter and intensely fought, centering on an accusation that he had made unwelcome sexual comments to attorney Anita Hill, a subordinate at the Department of Education. She objected on the basis that he was not a ‘fit person’ to hold this high office. The U.S Senate ultimately confirmed Thomas by a vote of 52–48. It was big news in the USA. The courtroom drama was televised daily, similar to the recent Dr Conrad Murray’s trial (Michael Jackson’s doctor). I was working in New York during the course of the Clarence Thomas trial. It literally stopped all ‘normal’ conversation in work offices. If someone had a haircut or bought a new outfit – both topics were off limits, as they could be deemed sexist or inappropriate. It was as if every organization had had a fun extraction!

High Standards: Like Richard Keys, the presenter who resigned over the sexism row on Sky Sports, Judge Clarence Thomas held a public position and was correctly held to a higher standard than normal mortals. While I have no grá for sexism and none whatsoever for sexual harassment, where do you draw the line? People spend their best hours in work. It’s where there should be normal fun and human interaction between all levels of staff. It’s not the Gulag! Some senior executives think that ‘The Wanted’ is an FBI list, rather than a new band. They are completely out of touch with their employee demographic and afraid to get to know them through socializing. It’s a mistake.

I hope that PWC and KPMG took a somewhat light touch in terms of the penalties imposed on those young consultants. They stepped over a line and need to understand this. But when the PC pendulum swings too far to the right, organizations lose much of their soul and humanity (and negatively impact productivity). Understanding that ‘gray line’ is the smartness that separates great management teams from those who simply follow the safe cross code.

Paul Mooney

Know someone who’d benefit from reading this blog? Forward it on or ask them to contact me paul@tandemconsulting.ie and we’ll add them to the mailing list.

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About Tandem Consulting

Paul Mooney holds a Ph.D. and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Industrial Sociology from Trinity College, along with a National Diploma in Industrial Relations (NCI). He has a post-Graduate Diploma and a Masters in Coaching from UCD. Paul, a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, is widely recognised as an expert on organisation and individual change. He began his working life as a butcher in Dublin before moving into production management. He subsequently held a number of human resource positions in Ireland and Asia - with General Electric and Sterling Drug. Between 2007 and 2010, Paul held the position of President, National College of Ireland. Paul is currently Managing Partner of Tandem Consulting, a team of senior OD and change specialists. He has run consulting assignments in 20+ countries and is the author of 12 books. Areas of expertise include: • Organisational Development/Change & conflict resolution • Leadership Development/Executive Coaching • Human Resource Management/employee engagement
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