14 October 2010

Thoughts About Changing Culture

Earlier this week @RomanStanek posted a tweet that is a quotation by the renowned management consultant Peter Drucker.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast.

Drucker also on numerous occasions admonished managers to work with an organization's culture rather than attempting to change it. The rationale for his viewpoint is understandable. Working within an existing framework and building on strengths while minimizing weaknesses can be more efficient than championing major change.

Sometimes it's absolutely necessary that an organization's culture change.

A colleague of mine works with a start up in the Midwest. She is frequently a source of great stories, some of which are more akin to cautionary tales. It seems that the start up is located in a state that is pro-employer with very few laws or regulations that protect employees. Consequently, businesses are able to terminate employees far more easily than might occur in other states, such as Michigan or California. It could be argued that this condition is both necessary and beneficial, especially in an economic environment like the one that has existed here in the U.S. for the last couple of years.

The issue is that organizations might want to think more about how human capital policies and practices are reflective of its culture and strategy, and whether or not the overall the overall community's perception is a concern. Briefly stated,

Doing what is legal might not necessarily be the appropriate course of action.

OK, The Story

Barbara called me last week and her first words were, "They've done it again!" Knowing that she had to be referring to the start up, I could only respond with, "OK, what is it now?"

"Remember when I told you about them terminating the single lady who'd just had her baby?" Barbara reminded me.

"Yes, and while what they did might be considered morally reprehensible by some folks, Small Startup, Inc., (SSI) was operating within the law to say that her position had been eliminated and lay her off."

We had discussed about 6 months the matter of SSI laying off the woman one week after she returned to work. I suggested to Barbara then that since management's philosophy of "If it's legal, it's OK" was inconsistent with hers and she might want to reconsider whether or not helping this company was a wise activity for her. My advice was based on the notion that Barbara would be in constant conflict morally about SSI and, as an advisor, that isn't a good situation for anyone.

"Well now they've terminated one of their developers for not showing up to work." She said.

"On the surface, that sounds reasonable to me," I said.

"Wait, let me give you some background before you say anything else."

I waited for her to continue.

"The developer lost her 10 year old child. SSI gave her bereavement leave of a week. She returned to work after the week and couldn't cope. She asked for additional time. HR said that she had no vacation time left and if she didn't show up for work, they would have to let her go."

Barbara's voice was shaking by the time she uttered those last words. I understood her dismay, but knew that SSI had followed an attorney's advice with regard to their decision.

At the moment. Barbara is trying to decide what she should do regarding her involvement with SSI. For myself, there are several questions whose answers I am still pondering.
  • Given the company's overall strategy for getting its enhanced product to market were there options regarding how to work with these two employees?
  • How would I advise the management team about their decisions' affects on the overall community perception of their organization?

  • How far should they need to go to manage community perceptions of SSI?
What would you advise Barbara to do? How would you advise SSI?