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You don't have to go to Austin or Portland to hear about the importance of "keeping it weird." In many companies, cultivating an office culture of "weirdness" is seen as a way of fostering creativity and increasing employee satisfaction. Apparently having a foosball table and bean bags isn't enough these days.
Of course, like many other office culture issues, there are legal risks that any good GC should address before clearing out everyone in khaki. Here's some thoughts on staying weird while staying on the right side of the law.
Companies pursuing a weird vibe encourage employees to expose their more quirky side in the belief that it will make the office more intimate, less judgmental and lead to a freer exchange of ideas. Searching out the weirdness in employees can start even in the interview. Zappos, the online shoe retailer, asks employees to rank their weirdness in their job interviews, according to Inc. Magazine.
A question like that might not be the biggest red flag in the world, but it does raise some issues. Excluding candidates for superficial reasons can open companies up to litigation. Problems come up when hiring "one of us" means that other qualified candidates are left out. If you're finding that older applicants, for example, just aren't weird enough, maybe you need to re-examine your criteria before the company gets sued for employment discrimination.
Apparently, some companies believe that HR stifles their weird. In the same Inc. article, a Zappos HR director brags that "if nothing's causing the need for a policy, we don't have one." That's a terrible idea. There's plenty of problems that can be anticipated before they arise, from safety issues, to office harassment. Establishing clear policies beforehand can help avoid problems and keep a company from being caught with its pants down.
Gutting your HR policies out of a fear that they might repress creativity is, well, about as smart as getting rid of the legal department because it always tells you to follow the law. Someone's got to be the buzzkill. That's your job.
GCs should make sure that an eccentric office culture isn't just a smokescreen for bad behavior. It's great to celebrate and even encourage employees' individuality and idiosyncrasies. Workers should feel comfortable expressing the more "diverse" aspects of who they are. But be careful. First, not everyone will like being described as weird. They may really dislike being described as a weirdo. Such labels could end up supporting a hostile work environment claim sooner or later.
So, in-housers, let the office keep it weird if it wants to. But don't forget to keep your legally weird eye on it as well.
Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.