Posted on / Updated on / in Blog & HR Policies & Human Resources & Recruiting /

I have a few friends who work for companies with some pretty relaxed cultures. Wear what you want to the office, take two hour lunches, come in late to work three days a week, if you need a day off just take it, etc.

Most people would say a company like this would be awesome to work for. It sounds pretty great doesn’t it?

The thing is, as great as it sounds, I hear more horror stories from these people than I do anyone else about their workplace.

Why? Because if you treat your employees like children they will be inclined to act like children, unless you know how to handle it.

Now don’t get me wrong. I have no problem with a company creating a fun culture. In fact I think it’s a stellar idea, and I think more companies should do it, but in order for a fun culture to not spiral out of control into a mess of insubordination, mayhem, and office drama, there has to be some kind of strategic control over the administration of that culture.

Combating the Habitual Nature of Humans

For this type of culture to work you have to make sure you draw the line somewhere. Humans are creatures of habit. The more we do something the more likely we are to continue to do it again in the future. If we continue to “get away” with taking two hour lunches every day without any sort of backlash or at least acknowledgement from our supervisors (if we even have supervisors) then we will continue to take two hour lunches… because we can.

You Must Follow Your Policies

You can have a relaxed culture and still have concrete policies. Zappos is a perfect example of this. In fact, they actually provide lunch for their employees every single day. Could this be a strategic move with a higher purpose? I’ll let you decide.

In any case, I know a few people who work at Zappos and they say it’s the most fun job they’ve ever had. I’ve asked them how they maintain that culture without things getting out of control.

The overwhelming answer is that they know where fun stops and work begins because this has just been understood from the start of their positions. They’ve never strayed from their work because it has been so clear to them what it is they need to do. They know that even though their culture is very relaxed and fun, that they work for a real company with real rules, and someone, somewhere is watching.

And that’s the key. Most companies have an employee handbook of some sort, but for some reason they have difficulty following the policies within. The simple fact that knowing someone is watching, knowing that someone is enforcing company policies will keep people from straying too far off the path of proper behavior.

It is important not only from a discrimination perspective, but from a simple fairness perspective to apply your policies and rules to everyone equally. The minute one employee is being treated unfairly, (or even thinks this) that employee is going to start to develop negative feelings towards the workplace, and negativity spreads, even more so when it’s true.

Don’t play favorites.

Have Fun, But Maintain Accountability

You must also hold people accountable for their actions. Too often in a relaxed culture people develop attitudes of indifference. They think because they are wearing flip flops and jeans to work that their work doesn’t matter. This is also natural and is a downside of this kind of environment. Humans behave consistently with what they see. If they see a surfer scrub in the mirror they’re likely to behave like one.

This is why accountability is that much more important in relaxed environments. It doesn’t matter how low someone is on the totem pole. If they are responsible for completing a task and they don’t complete it, this should come back on them somehow. The reverse is also true. If they do a great job they should receive acknowledgement for it personally (not their manager).

It has to be clear to them that even though they can dress casually and feel relaxed at work, that they still have a “grown-up job” They have to know their job is important and they have to know someone is watching.

Ensure that before an employee goes to work for the first day that they understand their responsibilities (which should be in writing), and have read and understand all company policies in the employee handbook. They should also have a performance review scheduled regularly to ensure they are doing their jobs correctly.

It is also incredibly important to set clear and consistent consequences. Yes, consequences don’t sound very relaxed – I know – but you have to draw the line somewhere.

People need to be able to predict with 100% certainty what the consequences of their actions will be. Corrective action needs to be administered fairly and consistently, and the consequences need to fit the infraction. Now obviously your rules are going to be a bit more relaxed than most, but like I’ve said before, you have to draw the line somewhere.

If you do everything above correctly it’s very likely that your employees will just come to work wanting to do their jobs well because they love their company and they know where the fun stops and the work begins, but just in case there’s a bad apple in the mix there needs to be clear consequences.

Find the Right People From the Start

And last, but certainly not least, you need to make sure you are hiring people that will thrive in your culture. Someone who is a complete fuddy duddy debbie downer (pardon my language) is probably not going to do very well in your culture because they are used to lots of rules, structure, and doing things a certain way.

And along that same line, someone who is a little unstable and has the need to be supervised probably also won’t do very well in this type of environment.

Something to remember here is that you can’t change someone’s personality. You have to find the right fit for your company. You have to find those people who know how to have fun, but also know when its time to get to work, which can often times be a difficult task. We can help you with finding good employees that fit your culture if you’d like help in that department.

There is much more I could go into about the development of company cultures, but I need to let you get back to work, so if you want to chime in just toss in a comment by filling in the form below and we’ll take it from there.

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about the author: Amy Letke

Amy Newbanks Letke, SPHR, GPHR, is the Founder of Integrity HR, Inc. Amy provides workplace solutions to improve performance, reduce liability and increase profits. She is passionate about helping other entrepreneurs and business owners achieve success.