Sometimes the best way to improve morale in a company is with a subversive act especially if it just ever so slightly breaks a rule and has been coordinated with the entire staff.
Our family-owned company had recently been bought by a large corporation. We were their new shining addition to the family and after a long grueling process of upgrading our systems and intercommunications, we learned the new rules of the road. New training, new reports, new programs, new ways of doing things, and a new dress code. Morale was very low and our new corporate masters were not seeing it at all and just kept pushing without stopping even for a second so we could catch our breath.
The resistance leaders were all young professionals in their late 20s to early ’30s. Even though we each worked in a different department, (engineering, maintenance, production, quality control, and facilities) we had become pretty tight over the years not only because we were close in age but our eclectic mix of personalities worked so well and our positions naturally had us working together to resolve production issues. We also went to ballgames after work together, Oakland A’s were only a few BART stations away and we shared drinks on Fridays to celebrate our victories and console our losses that week.
Even though the statute of limitations has long expired I still will not reveal the other members of the resistance but admit that I was one of the members. On one particular Friday, while drinking and complaining, it came up that July 1st was around the corner and the beginning of the new fiscal year. What could we do to celebrate the occasion and help break up the funk at work and get morale back to where it needed to be. There was a definite correlation between the number of drinks consumed and the innovation and creativity of ideas put forward by the group. Silliness turned to anger and then anger back again to silliness. The drinks and hours went by until we broke for the night and our weekend.
Monday morning seemingly came around too fast and at our morning break, we again went over our plan to make sure this is the statement we wanted to make. The six of us talking just above whispers and constantly looking over our shoulders so no one else could hear us or most importantly know we were behind what was about to happen. We thought a strategic strike against the new dress code would get a smile out of almost everyone. Previously there was no dress code except the unwritten rule of, when we had visitors at the plant we had to wear slacks and a button shirt and now we had to dress that way every day. They wouldn’t even listen to having a dress down Friday. We swore our allegiance to each other after the break and each put their part of the plan into play.
The fake memo was completed by one member and the copies were made late at night by another and I came in extremely early to place memos directly on the employees’ desks. The company leadership such as the President, VPs and Plant Manager were left off the distribution list. The memo on the usual company letterhead was plain and simple. A picture of a Hawaiian shirt and the following, “To Celebrate the new fiscal year, Friday has been declared as Hawaiian shirt day! Wear your best Hawaiian shirt and be ready to party.”
For the rest of the week, we monitored all gossip and conversations to make sure this was still a secret, really going to happen, and be a pleasant surprise for all. Friday came and we met in the employee lot, donning our Hawaiian shirts and to no surprise, all of us had brought a backup outfit just in case it really went south as we had no idea what kind of participation we would get from the rest of the staff. People sounded excited about the idea but would it carry all week? We huddled, put our hands in, and shouted, “GO HAWAII”!
The six of us walked in together to meet our destiny, but were stopped in our tracks by our dropped jaws and were totally blown away! Not only did most of the staff arrive wearing Hawaiian shirts, but the rest had brought them and changed into them here. Some really embraced the spirit of the day and were wearing leis or playing ukeleles and a few had plastic blow-up palm trees and one surfboard. Then there was a sound coming from the lunchroom that we hadn’t heard in a while. Laughter. People were laughing, talking, smiling, and enjoying themselves. WE did it!
Then the inquisition came. Our VP of Human Resources was a particularly special stick in the mud. No sense of humor, no jokes, no laughs, and extremely pompous. If you had the misfortune of a meeting with him they always took twice as long as with anyone else since he constantly took phone calls during the meeting so you can add rude to the list as well. Our VP of HR began his investigation into Hawaiigate and seek out the culprit or culprits responsible! First, the usual suspects were interrogated, and then other people were summoned to the office and asked, “Where did this memo come from?” They all answered as we hoped, it was on my desk when I arrived. Each member of the resistance was also called into his office, one at a time, and asked if we knew or heard anything. We all responded in kind, as shocked as he was that this could happen but had no clue as to who.
Mr. VP of HR eventually gave up his witch hunt and no one was ever punished for the crime but a flurry of new policies followed along with the consequences for future infractions of HR law. The President of the company actually loved the Hawaiian shirt idea so much, that every Friday was now a dress-down day and the second Friday of each month was a different themed employee day.
Sometimes the only way to shake a culture up is with a little internal rebellion.