Sunday, August 17, 2008

How Much Fun is Fun at Work Really?

It has become all the rage these days to have vision boards. Well, let me just say, I have a vision wall. It started out with just one picture, torn from an American Express magazine ad from a few years ago. Kate Winslet is prettily chewing on a fingernail and studying what can only be the script for her next movie. It was published about the same time I was single-mindedly focused on a book proposal. So I tore it out and taped it to the wall behind my desk chair. My hope was that it will remind me that it’s possible to be attractive while looking like hell, focused on work, sitting like a man, chawing down on an expensive manicure and surrounded by the tedious detritus of paperwork. You know, kind of like what my day is like, when I’m not on the road interviewing people who love their work.

That picture quickly began attracting company. Now I have pictures and headlines and inspirational words taped all over the place. Clippings have reached around corners, jumped the empty space where my door is always open, invaded the closet bi-fold doors, and threatened to knock over the 7 ft. tall twin bookshelves so they can have those bare walls as well. It’s a regular Stephen King novel of the invasion of inspirational magazine snippets. (If I’m ever tempted to sell in this down market, all I have to do is remember the clutter of clippings and what a drag it will be to take them down. That should snap me right out of any idea of selling low.)

Anyway, I’ve got a few clippings that I’m especially fond of. One I’ll tell you about because it just makes me smile. The other one I’ll tell you about because it’s actually pertinent to this blog posting. (I always take such a long time getting around to the core theme of my blog posts, don’t I?)

So, the clipping that makes me grin is a picture of a penguin leaping, vertical and stiff-legged into mid-air with his flippers flapping behind him like angel wings. I found a headline that reads “footloose and fancy free,” which I taped directly under his feet. I’ve found two clippings of the word “joy,” which I’ve taped around his head.

The other one is a headline I’ve pulled from some ad. I feel kind of badly that I don’t know who the sponsor of this particular inspiration was – that company deserves the credit (well, at least the copy writer does):

“When your life flashes before your eyes, make sure it’s fun to watch.”

Fun, huh? What a concept.

How many people can you think of (notice I didn’t say, “know”) who actually have fun at work? Here’s what I’ve come up with: Richard Branson and Samantha Brown. (And me, sometimes, which we’ll get to in a moment.) I would have said Anthony Bourdain, but I can’t imagine how eating still-beating cobra hearts would be anyone’s idea of a good time.

When was the last time you actually had fun at work? What were the elements involved? And what would you do to replicate those elements and ha, ha, ha, ha, do it again? It’s kind of hard to fold intentional fun into the strategic plan, isn’t it? Unless Necker Island figures in the scenario somehow, I just don’t see how you can go after fun without turning your workplace into a totalitarian romper room, where no one is having a good time really – although they’re expected to look like they are.

Companies that want to position themselves as a fun place to work may be barking up the wrong tree. Why? Fun means different things to different people. And how desperate does an employer look when they’re saying, “We’re fun! Really, we are!” Uh. Yeah.

Even seeing those words, “fun place to work,” makes me feel like a party pooper. Can I really, for instance, sustain all that dependable levity that Southwest Airlines is famous for? I just know that sometimes I would want to say, “Sit down, shut up, and fasten your seatbelts so we can get on with this stupid flight. OKAY?”

Well, I guess that’s why I don’t work for Southwest, although I do have plenty of heart.

Fun in the workplace is a scary notion. You can’t make fun, just like you can’t make romance. Sure, you can set up a certain, shall we say, environment, that is conducive to fun, but you can’t make your people have fun on the job.

And fun is a personal kind of thing (just like, well, romance is). What’s a barrel of monkeys for some people is about as fun as a death march for others. Say, for instance, that lovely tradition of the waitstaff gathering ‘round a cringing diner and singing Happy Birthday. Frankly, I’d rather have a tooth pulled.

To make matters worse, you may not be keeping up with your employees’ idea of what’s fun. I have one client that started life as a fun company, complete with margarita machine Friday, beer and pizza at the drop of the hat, and flip-flop wearing every day. That’s what it’s all about, man! The thing of it was, as the years passed extremely quickly (as they always do in the high-tech world), that founding group of employees grew up, got serious and got married. Suddenly they had to get home to the kids. “No time for the ‘rita, man, gotta split before day care closes.”

While doing culture audit for them a few months ago, I heard the management say, “We’re a fun company! We’ve got parties, and outings, and we get to wear flip flops.” But then I asked the rank-and-file what fun means to them, and they said, “The satisfaction of filling a busy day doing great work with really terrific people I can respect and count on.” Wow. Cool.

By setting up the wrong kind of fun, you’re also attracting the wrong kind of employee. As this company was discovering. It was still attracting candidates who liked the idea of ping pong tables. And it was really irritating that core group of original employees who couldn’t concentrate with all that pock-pock pock-pock pock-pock going on.

You want employees who get jazzed by booze? Set up those margarita machines and knock yourself out. Brag about the flip flops. Put that bennie front and center, and you’ll get candidates who think you’re a groovy place to work. But then don’t go asking yourself why there are Youtube video clips of them Xeroxing their butts.

You too can have fun at work! Find out what’s fun about the work you do, the people you serve, the people you work with, what gives you OTJ grins, and then go with that! You don’t have to try so hard to be merry, jolly, a good time. That’s about as authentic and attractive as an over-eager date.

Okay, so am I a sober-sides? Maybe. This is what’s fun for me: Interviewing people who are absolutely over-the-moon about the work they do. Meeting total strangers and then parting company a couple of hours later with a hug and a new, laughing, friendship. Loading my convertible for another roadtrip through America’s highways in search of ordinary folks who love their job. Hittin’ the highway with the top down and the tunes up. And then, back home in New Mexico, sitting at my desk in front of my vision wall, shoulder bopping to the Squirrel Nut Zippers on my I-pod, while typing away as thunderstorm rolls in over the Sangre De Cristo mountains right outside my window.

The fun comes in capturing the passion of others who believe in the work they do.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

What We Can Learn From the Burger King Bath Caper

Yesterday morning I woke up to my regular routine of CNN and coffee. I don’t know why I do this to myself, because I almost always see something I could have gone all day without exposing my tender little soul to. Yesterday’s Dread Treat o’ the Day was the YouTube film clip of the Burger King employee celebrating his birthday by taking a bath in the utility sink of a Xenia, OH, Burger King.

A tattooed guy sitting starkers in the suds just isn’t my idea of celebrating joy in the workplace. And it really bums me out. Why? Because, as a consultant specializing in employee engagement, all my work revolves around my core principle: The workplace is where excellent employers can partner with high-passion employees to save the world. It can be one vaccine at a time, or one Whopper at a time. When both sides of the employment equation (employers and employees) treat their shared enterprise with respect, amazing things can happen.

So when I see examples of low-passion people abusing the privilege of serving the world, I see evidence of people giving up on their dream – and, by extension, themselves. And that breaks my heart. By giving up on the dream of excellence for yourself, you’re wrecking it for everyone around you. Mediocrity is like food coloring. Just the tiniest drop in a glass of clear water stains the whole shebang.

My first assumption here is that when someone offered this guy a job, they gave up the dream right then and there. This morning, watching him interviewed post-ablution for what must have been a local tv news show, he’s wearing goth make-up, his hair bundled in a configuration of piglets, and on his hands are fingerless gloves with a skeleton design on them for a trompe l’oeils effect. I’m wondering to myself: Did he dress that way for the job interview as well? In which case, I’m wondering how he got the job to begin with. Or did he just slowly start assembling this new personality in hopes that no one will notice the gradual transformation? In which case, I’m wondering, how come no one pointed out that wearing goth makeup and little piglets might scare away the customers?

Employees who spit on the dream scare away more than just the customers. They disenfranchise the aforementioned high-passion employees. Can you imagine how demoralizing it must have been to work side-by-side with this guy, if you really care about your job and your customers? Can you imagine how demoralizing it must be right now to work at that particular store, knowing that his shift manager was also fired – perhaps unfairly – because she had to keep her eyes on the cash registers and serve the customers rather than stop this idiot from running amok in the back?

Who hired this guy anyway?

Every hiring manager who works in a company that deeply cares about its customers and its culture owes it to the current employees to continue hiring well and wisely. Even if that means holding out for just the right culture fit. As former Apple chief talent officer Dan Walker has been known to say, “I’d rather have a hole than an [well, I think you might be able to finish this sentence; if you’re struggling, email me and I’ll whisper it in your ear].”

And what about chasing away future high-passion employees? Can you imagine how ridiculous the company will look if it now has to include in its employee handbook, “There will be no taking of baths in Burger King utility sinks.” Just having such a policy (or something like it) would be demoralizing to quality employees and candidates who would be wondering, “Does this company hire the kinds of people who need to be told this? Maybe I’d better keep looking.”

By the way, just in case you’re stopped by the notion of Burger King actually saving the world, let me tell you a story. When I was a little girl (around 8), my mother was very, very sick from a disease she’d die from a few years later. And during this period she often was bedridden at suppertime. So my father would take me to a Miami-area Burger King where we would sit together, just the two of us, talking over the day’s trivia over a Whopper and a milkshake, trying to keep each other’s spirits up.

That was 40 years ago (more or less; well, okay, more) and now he is gone as well. But still to this day, every time I bite into a Whopper and fill my mouth with its distinct taste, I remember those nights when a young man and his little girl kept the fears and the loneliness at bay, sitting across the table from each other in the bright lights of a Burger King.

Burger King saved my world. And it deserves some respect. As do all the high-passion people who work there. You just never know who they’re serving. And why.