People can be pressured to conform to workplace standards, but only so far. Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert describes what happened when an overly-ambitious executive tried to prohibit his workers from acting acting according to their essential nature.
Take a moment and see if you can articulate what constitutes ‘acceptable’ behaviour in your workplace. I’m confident that you can. It’s highly probable that your company has some sort of employee manual that details standards for things such as a basic dress code. It’s a certainty that your workplace has additional unwritten rules that are considerably more restrictive – things that you can’t get fired for, but can find yourself ostracized over, ranging from what style of shoe is acceptable in summertime to how long a person is allowed loiter in the lavatory. Between them, the official and unofficial rules combine to normalize employee behaviour and regulate office culture.
These rules are usually based on agreed-upon compromises based on commonly-held social conventions. For example, it’s pretty much a universal rule that some sort of lower body covering is required in the office. Even if people disagree about the best ways to comply, the underlying need for such a rule is rarely disputed. Some rules, however, are written specifically to compel people to either do something that they normally would not, or to not do something that they’re already accustomed to. These sorts of rules are usually behaviours that the rules’ creator thinks people should follow in their vision of an ideal society. Rules like these can often be very wrong for a business.
When I say ‘wrong,’ I specifically mean that rules designed to change people’s conduct to something that is significantly out of alignment with society’s broader expectations of conduct are usually a bad idea. If your workplace insists on imposing rules that run significantly counter to society’s rules, the end result of enforcing those rules is going to generate drama. People do change their behaviour when they’re at work, but they’ll only change so much without extreme pressure to comply.
Conversely, many rules of workplace conduct deliberately differ from society-at-large’s expectations of people specifically because something about the workplace is somehow different from civil society. When leaders try to strip away the unique elements of organisational culture that employees require in order to function in the workplace, drama also ensues. Lots of drama.
As a practical example, I spent 27 years serving in the American military – an organisation fundamentally devoted to the expedited delivery of unimaginable horror to our nation’s current adversaries in the ill-conceived pursuit of our elected leaders’ complicated political theatre objectives. No matter how many kittens we rescued from trees to bolster our image, the military’s primary function was to engage in epic-scale, state-sponsored butchery via bombs, bullets and bayonets. That such inhumane violence might be expiated by acting under the auspices of a noble cause is largely irrelevant to the people that it was inflicted upon. Our primary function was indisputably horrible, which is why the overwhelming majority of soldiers — decent, compassionate men and women – had to reconcile their official purpose with their personal morals. Many soldiers throughout history have addressed this problem with gallows humour and a vocabulary that clearly marked the serving soldier as a distinct departure from the citizens that he or she protected.
This is nothing new. Gruesomely jests and vulgar language have both been integral aspects of soldiering since the Hittites militarized the chariot.  As Guardian writer Sam Leith quipped in his review of Melissa Mohr’s book on profanity: ‘By the first world war, soldiers swore so much that the word “f*****g” came to function as no more than “a warning that a noun is coming”.’ We know that. We’ve known it for centuries. So, why attempt to deny it? Worse, why make a deliberate effort to try and change it?
You’ve probably guessed what’s coming next. If you said ‘a &#^% mess,’ you’re quite right. It was.
Several years after we invaded Afghanistan, one of my commanders published an organizational policy document that prohibited all of the soldiers under his command from using profanity. All profanity, in all contexts. The general’s new policy quickly became a running joke with the grunts. A few self-righteous commanders tried to stamp out their squaddies’ vulgarity, but their efforts were ultimately futile. They may as well have tried to order the moon to halt and mark time.
The general’s demanded changes were draconian. They were also wildly open to personal interpretation. After sparring with my boss over whether or not to enforce the policy over some obscure bits of creative language, I submitted a formal Request For Information up to the legal office at HQ, asking for a copy of the definitive list of forbidden words so that we’d all be clear exactly what was in-scope for potential disciplinary action. I never heard back.
I’m on record as saying that he general wasn’t wrong about wanting to create a more professional working environment. I admired his desire to make our culture more accommodating and inclusive. On the other hand, his request to immediately and completely eliminate a core element of our shared cultural identity was staggeringly arrogant. It was (I argued) too much change, executed too quickly. Had the general attempted to subtly reign in people’s language over the course of several years, he might well have made meaningful progress as people bought in to his argument. Instead, he demanded too much too fast and his ‘mandatory’ policy was simply ignored.
I attribute part of the general’s failure to his abstraction from the line; generals and admirals are no different from corporate executives in that sense. When you have five or more management layers between the top and the bottom of an organisation, it takes significant effort for those on top to stay in touch with how line-level employees live. Worse, the guy or gal at the top is almost always kept abstracted by ambitious sycophants who want to filter all of the information that the Big Boss receives (deliberately, in order increase their own influence. Put bluntly, the general had lost the plot.
Another part of the general’s failure came from the way he’d staffed his headquarters. A peculiarity of the unit’s organisational structure meant that all of the senior leaders in operations (e.g. infantry, armour, artillery, etc.) were exclusively older men (since the military didn’t allow women serve in direct combat roles at the time). Conversely, the vast majority of the senior leaders in administration roles (e.g. personnel, finance, etc.) were older women. That divergence may have significantly skewed the information that the general received from his key advisors about the viability of his proposed profanity policy. The people closest to the decision maker pushed their own personal agendas, wanting to skew the entire enterprise to be more like their own atypical domains.
The tankers that I’d served with when I was a young Army NCO had all been gritty, salty and vulgar old men. Most were not misogynistic or discriminatory; their vulgar language reflected how they dealt the cognitive dissonance of their vulgar profession. On the other hand, most of the personellists that I’d served with were dowdy and prim. They insisted on running their offices the way a finishing school teacher might run her classroom… fussy, tetchy and witheringly straight-laced. The two halves of the command were so different that you’d swear they were different services entirely.
Years later, I observed this same distinction in the Air Force: members of the ground combat forces (like the military police and the special operators) were as crude and as offensive as could be. It’s important to note that the women in the fighting ranks were every bit as wicked in their speech as the men were. Conversely, most everyone in the paper-pushing departments (like personnel and finance) were markedly less vulgar and more fussy – men and women alike. Even when they all worked in the same building, each subculture viewed the other as being a bit off.
Better anthropologists than me have pointed out that the more a soldier is abstracted from the horrors of battle, the more inclined they become to leverage techniques like dark humour and jarring language in order to cope with the obscene aspects of their job. The less that a person has to confront the horrors inherent in their life, the less likely it is that they’re feel compelled to act deviate from the norms of civilized society. I learned about it watching the difference between the two main halves of my own career field: combat medics in the field were every bit as dour as the infantrymen they treated, while garrison hospital medics were nearly indistinguishable from civilians.
I’ve always suspected that a well-meaning (but culturally obtuse) paper-pusher working in the rarified atmosphere of the Grand HQ was behind the attempt to suppress everyone else’s speech. Someone from garrison who wanted everyone over on operations to change how they lived in order to fit her vision of how everyone should be. The general – long shielded from everyday life out on the line – magnanimously went along with the staffer’s suggestion in good faith. The result was an epic flop: people down on the line didn’t change, the general generally lost the line’s respect, and he shuffled off the stage not long thereafter. His policy faded away like an exhausted wraith.
Good policy crafting requires the writer to thoroughly understand the problem that the policy is trying to solve before they try codify their solution. Relying on other people’s perspectives – especially out-of-touch senior leaders and arse-kissing courtiers – is irresponsible folly. I’m not suggesting that a CEO is required to spend time on the line first (although I very strongly endorse this); rather, I’m advocating that the crafters of policies must observe the people who will be subject to their new rules and try to understand them exactly as they are in order to make sure that the proposed new controls on conduct aren’t so onerous that workers will simply refuse to comply with them.
I’m also not suggesting that policy crafters try and ‘fit’ new rules to fully accommodate every single worker’s idiosyncrasies. That would be a fool’s errand; you’ll never be able to satisfy everyone. Rather, I am advocating for policy crafters to make a concerted effort to get to know workers so as to understand why they do what they do. Try to appreciate the contexts that motivate people. Develop respect for the workers and how they came to be the way that they are. That’s a much harder approach than treating every individual in the company as effectively the same genderless and opinionless clone, but it’s a hell of a lot more effective over the long run.
Finally, I think it’s critical that policy crafters take away from this example that they cannot change the human heart with the stroke of a pen. The general learned it (to his regret). In order to keep people stable working in a highly stressful system, you need to give them a safe way to vent their anxiety, frustration, and grief. If you take that mechanism away, you must provide your people with an equal or better substitute that accomplished the same therapeutic effect. If you strip people of their tools for coping with the absurdity of their lives, they’ll ignore your edicts and carry on with whatever behaviours best help them maintain their sanity. As well they should.
A manager can’t reasonably demand that all men become women (or all women become men) simply because she’d prefer that there only be one gender to contend with in the workplace. People are whatever they are. A manager can deliberately hire only one specific type of person, but we usually call that discriminatory and counter-productive. People are wildly divergent, and in order to get the skills and experience that the business needs, managers have to accept living with a wider variety of employees than they might feel comfortable with.
Once workers are on board, it’s all right to ask them to broadly conform to a common desired archetype. The thing is, the tighter you try force people to act like someone they’re not, the more strain you put them under – and people will only accept so much stress before they either quit, fight back or simply tell you to &# the $*@ off. 
 I’m assuming that Hittite uniformed slang has lots of words for falling out of, getting run down by, and having to repair broken chariots. Language develops from experience.
 All implied obfuscated profanity in this article is actually made up of random nonsense words and should not be interpreted as anything that anyone could be offended by, anywhere, ever.
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.