We all know that happy staff are usually the most productive, but how do we create a happy workplace? And if staff aren’t happy, is it possible to change the dominant workplace culture so that people want to be there, and take responsibility for their work? We spoke to Rod Berry, experienced employment lawyer and Managing Partner of AV Lawyers, for his ideas on how to create a workplace culture that zings.
Most of us at some time have worked in a dysfunctional workplace. For Rod Berry, who started his working life as a teacher, it was a State High School in Sydney’s inner west. “Most of the teachers hated their jobs. They were miserable.” When asked why, Rod explained. “The staff felt deeply discouraged. Individuality and fresh ideas were not welcome. The Executive expected people to quietly do their jobs without issues with students, and there was no forward thinking or vision. This not only created resentment, but it provided no incentive for initiative and so people simply looked for opportunities to work elsewhere. Some were so unhappy they wanted to leave the teaching profession altogether.”
How can such unhappy workplaces be turned around? Rod says the starting point is honesty. “It needs to be OK for people to say what they really think and to ask hard questions”. Some business owners make the mistake of trying to maintain the fiction that they are always right, and that employees should simply slavishly do what they are told. Explains Rod, “The old pattern of master and servant is dead. Experience tells us that none of us has everything worked out. Everyone involved in a business will have insights that can contribute positively to the company’s evolution. Nothing kills culture more quickly than silencing your staff.”
At the same time, Rod is quick to point out that clear standards need to be enforced. “Staff equally resent it when they feel that some people are not pulling their weight. They want to be confident that their colleagues are just as committed as they are.” For Rod, this means that employers need to be actively involved in managing their staff, setting clear KPI’s, and holding people to account when they do not perform. “If mediocrity is allowed to flourish, then business results will be mediocre as well.”
One of Rod’s most memorable unfair dismissal cases involved a senior employee who had been allowed to run rampant at work over a number of years. Rod recalls, “She had the junior staff wrapped around her finger. She used to enjoy humiliating them, and using them for her personal services, including doing her shopping, gardening at her home, and even sourcing her marijuana supply.” Finally the employer summoned the confidence to query her behaviour. “You can stick your (expletive) job!” was her response, and she stormed out, clearly not accustomed to being challenged. Surprisingly, a week later, she came back to work and tried to pretend nothing had happened. When the employer threatened to call the Police, she responded by filing an unfair dismissal case. “Appearing at court for the company in that matter was like one extended therapy session,” recalls Rod, with a laugh. “Various staff members were called to describe this person’s antics, and as they did, I could sense their relief that someone truly toxic was gone. Company morale was instantly improved.”
An equally important element to building staff commitment is the articulation of strategy. “What’s the game plan? Where are you taking your people?” Rod recommends taking the time to explain not just where the business is headed, but how staff are important to getting the business to that destination. “Let them see that they can make a difference, and be part of the strategy to move the business forward.”
Rod and his business partner Sheena Vinden have worked hard to create a workplace culture that honours its staff. “We have articulated our values around the concepts of Balance, Authenticity, Security, Excellence and Social Engagement, which together spell the word BASES. Staff have loved being involved in the journey of applying these values to their practice areas, and identifying ways that the BASES can come alive. We have had to change many of the ways we function, such as ensuring that meetings always provide an opportunity for everyone to speak and for the sharing of new ideas. There must also be clear outcomes which everyone is expected to follow through on.”
Having clearly articulated values means that everyone is able to reflect on how their work either contributes to or detracts from the company’s vision. This will often lead to a positive behaviour change.”
Atkinson Vinden has a large Employment Law practice with five lawyers plus support staff dedicated to the area. Not only do we love building our own workplace culture, but we also love working with other companies and individuals to resolve conflict and foster more successful workplaces.
Telephone+ 61 2 8448 9814