By Robin Nussbaum, PhD
A few weeks ago the HR Section of PSALA had a pop up on orienting and onboarding new staff. It was a very helpful conversation. At the end, the presenters asked for thoughts and resources from the audience. I shared a comment about how at my organization, we do a one and a half hour one-on-one onboarding with each new staff member to go over our organizational values, norms, and culture. A couple of people expressed interest in my materials so I shared them with those who attended, but I thought this might be a topic worth writing a bit more about.
At WSBA, we have very intentionally laid out a set of values and norms for the organization. We also intentionally share those written values and norms with each new staff member. I can share the list of norms at the end of this article, but it is important to note that these are the values and norms that WSBA has collectively identified as important to us as a work culture. Each workplace should undertake to identify their own set of values and norms that drive the organization’s workplace culture.
Remember, these norms and values can be aspirational or ideals. The exercise is not to necessarily name the current norms (although being honest with yourselves about what is currently happening that does not live up to the ideals is also a valuable exercise), but rather to name the norms and values that the organization wants to center and strive for. In fact, this naming of how you want to be, how the organization sees itself and wants to be seen, may be even more important than the practice of sharing these norms with new hires. Nonetheless, the best way to achieve the aspirations of the organizational culture is to make sure that everyone, including new hires, understands and buys-in to it.
So how does an organization go about identifying these values, norms, and culture? I was not present when our “WSBA Values and Norms” and “Communication Norms” documents were created. But I was around for and led the creation of our “Philosophy of Inclusion” document. For that document, we pulled together a team with representatives from each department, across levels and position types, and made sure that the group was as diverse as it could be. The group met monthly for several months, starting off with some activities to get to know each other, to build relationships and trust. After we felt we had established some rapport and good will amongst the group members, we began to discuss what an inclusive environment looks and feels like. We wrote down everything people said and noted where there were themes and relationships between concepts. We began putting the key ideas into a document that we could edit, move around, and play with. We brought it back to the group for feedback and suggestions and made many modifications. Once the project team was happy with the document, we put it out to rest of the workplace community for comment, feedback, and discussion. It raised quite a bit and some things had to be changed, some things had to be discussed at length. Some things made people uncomfortable and some things were easily accepted. After much feedback, many edits, and lots of honing, the document was approved by executive leadership and became a formal part of our organizational culture.
After you have made explicit the values, norms, and culture to which you aspire, the second step is to hold yourself and others accountable to these norms. For example, if one of the norms is not to triangulate, and yet you witness triangulation, you need to address the triangulation, explain how it goes against the norms (if necessary, explain the negative impact of actions like triangulation) and coach the person in how to have the conversation they need to have without triangulating. When I train managers on our culture and norms, I specifically explain to them to be prepared to notice if they are being pulled into a triangulation and let them know that the expectation is that they will coach their employee on how to have the conversation rather than have it for them.
All employees will occasionally need to be reminded of the values, norms, and culture expectations. We all make mistakes and we recognize that the cultures we wish to build in our organizations are aspirational. So think about opportunities to occasionally remind staff of specific aspects of the culture and norms. And when new staff come in, make sure to sit down with them and talk the over the values, norms and culture of the organization, explaining each one, and including any nuances or unwritten aspects of the norm. For example, one of our norms is “value people’s time.” I talk about how this means that in meetings it is not considered normal or acceptable to be on your phone, tablet, or laptop answering emails and doing other work during the meeting. I talk about how much we rely on Outlook’s calendaring system and the expectation that you keep your calendar up to date.
So, if you already have explicitly laid out organization values, norms, and culture, then make sure you start sharing that information with new staff. If you have never laid out your organizational values, norms, and culture, an excellent exercise is to develop those things. I am including WSBA’s below.