Let’s Work Together

Workplace Culture, aka, How We Do Things Around Here

Sep 18th, 2015

Surfing the internet for some ideas to include in a blog on human resources issues for small businesses, I landed on a site with an intriguing name…the Evil HR Lady.  In real life she is known as Suzanne Lucas.  By way of explaining the unusual name, she says,” Why Evil HR Lady?   All HR people are evil, it’s in our job description. Or at least, that seems to be the prevailing theory. In reality, there’s just more going on behind the scenes than most people know. I’m here to demystify your Human Resources department and tell you just why you worked your tail end off all year and still got a 1.7 percent bonus.” Check out her almost 10 years of archived human resource articles at evilhrlady.org

Even if your business is too small to have a human resources department, this site is worth a regular visit.  Yes, it does occasionally contain the ubiquitous lists of 10 best ways to do this, and 5 best methods to accomplish that, etc., but there are some gems to explore as well.  Some of the article titles were irresistible, leading me to spend more time at my computer than anticipated.  Consider these:  Why You Should Stop Working at Noon Everyday; Is it Possible to Be Too Smart?; The Perils of Being Helpful; The Boss’s Jealous Wife; Every Single Person Finds Me Difficult to Work With; Please Put Down Your Phone;” The Very Best Preparation for Business Ownership – Raising 8 Kids; Lessons in Leadership from Donkey Hiking; Newsflash:  Motherhood is not the World’s Hardest Job.

team-720291_1280I finally settled in for a deeper look at two articles, one that talked about the necessity of building a culture that retains talented employees and how to select employees who fit well into your workplace culture and the other, a work culture related article that discussed how to balance customer happiness with employee happiness.  I want to share a few thoughts from each.

In an About.com article, Susan Heathfield writes about “20 Ways Zappos Reinforces Its Company Culture.” She says Zappos consciously creates and reinforces its corporate culture. The work environment provided for employees won’t attract every job searcher and it’s not for every employee. But, the people who fit the corporate culture thrive working for Zappos.

In an interview with Rebecca Henry, the former Director of Human Resources for Zappos, two key factors stood out.  The company consciously decides what the corporate culture needs to look like and it consciously reinforces and supports that culture through all Human Resources and management work systems.

You don’t have to be as big as Zappos to consider their approach and adapt it to your small business.  The author describes twenty ways that Zappos chooses and maintains its culture.  See all of them here.

  • The company defined its corporate culture with its ten core values. The HR and management systems developed, employee job descriptions, the hiring process, on-the-job training and the day-to-day work environment remind and reinforce these values with employees, visitors, customers, and partners.
  • “Deliver WOW Through Service
  • “Embrace and Drive Change
  • “Create Fun and A Little Weirdness
  • “Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded
  • “Pursue Growth and Learning
  • “Build Open and Honest Relationships With Communication
  • “Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit
  • “Do More With Less
  • “Be Passionate and Determined
  • “Be Humble”

Zappos takes specific actions every day that reinforce its culture of a fun workplace that is a tiny bit weird. With a majority of call center employees, this makes sense.

Some of the more unusual aspects of the Zappos culture:

  • The hiring process at Zappos is more like a courtship than a traditional recruitment. Ms. Henry, for example, attended a merchandising team recognition meeting at a bar and interacted with Zappos’ employees in a variety of social settings for four months before they agreed to the relationship.

While the courtship may not be as rigorous for every job, before an employee is hired, he or she will meet with multiple employees and normally attend some type of department or company event. This allows the employees who are not participating in interviews to meet the prospective employee informally.


  • If you are hired by Zappos, you can expect to spend your first three-four weeks at phones in their call center learning how to respond to customer needs. While this is an introduction to the soul of the business, it is also a practical approach to serving customers all year long.
  • Upon completion of their time in the call center, Zappos employees are offered $3,000.00 to leave the company. Yes, you heard that correctly. Leave. If you haven’t become a Zappos insider, committed to the goals and the culture, the company really prefers that you leave. Take the money though, and you can never come back.
  • Each manager is expected to spend 10-20% of the department’s time on employee team building activities. This makes employees feel comfortable with the culture, with each other, and they develop relationships that live the core values that Zappos espouses.

Activities range from contest dioramas from movies in employee services to the shipping department putting on an Easter egg hunt. Various departments hold cook outs regularly. Zappos sponsors a couple of family events a year and three big company-wide events: a summer picnic, a January party at Tony Hsieh’s (Zappo CEO), and a vendor party that employees and families attend. Additionally, Zappos holds quarterly smaller events such as theater, bowling alley parties, and so on.

  • Performance evaluations at Zappos reinforce the culture. Managers do cultural assessments rather than performance evaluations and give employees feedback on their fit within the culture and how to improve. In an environment that gives raises based on skill tests, this makes sense.
  • Call center employees are fully empowered to serve customers. At Zappos, these customer service employees do not work from a script and are encouraged to use their imagination to make customers happy. They do not have to ask permission from a boss to give their customers the wow factor. With over 75% of sales from repeat customers, they succeed.
  • Zappos has a culture book that is written by employees every year. It details how people feel about the Zappos culture and how they reinforce and develop the culture every day. Statements attributed to employees emphasize and reinforce the Zappos culture. Zappos gives these culture books to anyone who tours the company or writes an email to the company and asks for a copy.
  • Zappos provides tours of the company in Henderson, NV. They have an employee who organizes these tours and the company will even pick you up at the airport and bring you to their location if you’ve arrived in town for the tour.

Tourists get to meet employees, marvel at the decorated work areas, observe daily business, and ask questions about the work environment and culture. Employees seem proud to show off their zany, loud, decorated workplace say several people I know who have taken the tour. Guests are greeted at every corner by ringing cowbells, employees signing, and spur of the minute parades. Zany, fun, and a little bit weird.

  • In a process that they had just started, when I spoke with Ms. Henry, during the last three – four days of new employees working in the call center, new employees participate in a scavenger hunt to meet people and to find things out about the company.
  • An employee’s whole department is invited to their graduation after they have completed their call center stint and the scavenger hunt. Employees graduate to the regular workforce to the tune of music like Pomp and Circumstances, certificates delivered on a stage, and with the cheering of their families and new departments ringing in their ears during the ceremony.

It’s clear that not all of these things that work for Zappos will work for you. But I suggest you take these ideas, where possible, adapt them and use them to reinforce the culture in your own workplace.

Finally, the article by Suzanne Lucas, on balancing customer and employee happiness, is also reflective of the kind of culture you wish to foster in your workplace.  The article, subtitled interestingly, “The Customer is Not Always Right, but Neither Are the Employees,” starts out with the proclamation, “We all know that the customer is often wrong.  They demand things that violate policy.  They treat employees that didn’t make the policies horribly.  They are huge pains in the rear for oh, so many things.  However, without customers, we have no business.”  Lucas goes on to say, “Therefore many companies have instituted a “customer is always right” model of business.  Sounds great for keeping customers happy, but it’s a nightmare for employees.  The reality is, if you allow your customers to treat your employees poorly, you’ll lose your best employees.  You don’t want that.  Here’s how you can make (almost) everyone happy.”

Lucas has four suggestions:

  1. Only make policies that you intend to enforce. How many times, she says, has a cashier told a customer that what she wants is not possible, only to have the manager appear, give the customer what she wanted and make the cashier look like a horrible, mean person?  She says, if you want to use specific criteria on things like exchanges, for example, empower your employees to use the same standards.  The result will be that your employees feel trusted and competent
  2. Don’t be afraid to fire a client. She says that when you are small and starting out, it’s almost unfathomable to kick a customer to the curb.  You can’t run a business without employees any more than you can without customers.  If customers belittle and demean your employees, it can damage your employee’s ability to do great work.
  3. Reward your employees. One of the best ways to balance customer demands and employee needs, according to Lucas, is to let your employees know how much you value them when they do a great job.  Customer service is a part of every job description, obviously, but that doesn’t mean you don’t praise someone when they do a great job.  While money is a clear reward, often the best rewards are verbal ones.  “Thanks for your work today.  You did an amazing job.”
  4. Her last suggestion? Be nice to everyone. Treat everyone fairly.  Don’t give in to bully behavior – whether it comes from Jane in accounting or Steve the customer.  The result, she suggests…an excellent business environment and a great company for your customers.