The Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM) website for members offers a series of discussion threads where HR professionals ask and answer questions. Discussions range from very technical explanations of FMLA to less important topics like some inexpensive gift ideas for staff at Christmas. The sociologist in me enjoys reading through the “problems” that the HR professionals present because it tells me so much about the company for which they work and the culture of that company. What is presented as “problematic” represents deviance from the norm. Can looking at what a company’s HR representative ask tell us anything about the company’s culture?
For the most part the questions asked of peers concern very practical work issues, including payroll inquires, vendor recommendations, qualifying for certification, time accruals, or technical definitions or instruction. These types of questions do little in understanding the deviance within the company or within its culture.
It is the questions that revolve around human activity that reveal the most about the company culture. These companies are rarely named and often the person asking the question does so anonymously, but it still allows us to analyze the temperature of the culture.
Some questions tend to affirm that the employees share common values and common definitions for what is deviant. The group unites against the outlier—everyone, including the offender is aware a norm has been broken. Employee theft is a good example, I have yet to see anyone asking if theft should be ignored. In some companies the deviance seems to be in the eye of the beholder. That is, the deviance is either very situational or viewed as deviance only by an individual or a particular group – the HR department. Inquiries such as — what can I do to make an employee laugh quieter, or eat less, or stop chewing tobacco on their break, or to wear lower heels, or from using some quirky phrase, or questioning pot luck choices are some examples. By reading the responses from the professionals to these inquiries, it is clear that most HR staff would give little attention to such “problems.” Herein lies the danger . . . sometimes these situations are expressions of a dysfunctional company culture or fatalistic HR department.
Robert Browning wrote a poem entitled the Soliloquy of a Spanish Cloister (1842). It involves a monastery of monks – a society of saints, so to speak. Because everyone is so good, small acts dismissed by those in the larger culture become amplified in this culture. The poem traces all the actions one monk makes to send another monk, Brother Laurence, straight to hell. What crime had Brother Laurence committed to make him so hated? According to the poem:
When he finishes refection,
Knife and fork he never lays
Cross-wise, to my recollection,
As do I, in Jesu’s praise.
I the Trinity illustrate,
Drinking watered orange pulp—
In three sips the Arian frustrate;
While he drains his at one gulp!
The poor guy had simply violated the smallest of norms – he did not lay his eating utensils down as the other monks did and he drank his OJ in one gulp! The poem is a difficult read, but quite funny as the offended monk ends up selling his soul to the devil in order to get back at Brother Laurence for his breakfast manners.
The moral to the story is a little deviance is actually good for a company. A healthy dose of deviance allows for norms of behavior to be reaffirmed, and an absence of deviance can actually create problems because there is no room for the slightest diversity. While HR will likely never embrace employees who gossip and backbite, constant complainers, no call no shows, missed deadlines, managing FMLA, turnover, and the like – be thankful for tidbits of trouble.