When is it "not OK"?

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“To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to [Google’s] work is offensive and not OK,” Google CEO Sundar Pichai wrote in a memo to employees. “It is contrary to our basic values and our code of conduct.”

When I stand in front of a mixed group of people and run what I tend to call an "all staff session" on workplace behaviour and culture, I continue to be humbled by some of the eager sets of eyes locked on to me, searching for an answer to the question: "How do you know when it is not OK"?

Thirteen years of standing in front of people hasn't dimmed this eagerness - in them or me. It just doesn't seem to get an easier, does it? Policies, regulations, Codes of Conduct et al and yet, we're still bewildered at times by situations which feel so obviously "OK" to us but which are clearly not acceptable to others. In a complex political, status driven, performance driven environment that is the workplace, these differing interpretations can be tricky to navigate.

Google's Sundar Pichai was clear yesterday that the engineer's memo on gender differences went too far, and was contrary to Google's values and yet he, quite rightly in my view, welcomed debate. This kind of complexity is something which was raised with me in an all staff session on values and behaviours at a client on Monday. How do you balance an open culture based on challenging ideas with taking firm action when the line has been crossed and the behaviour is not supported by the all encompassing corporate values?

The gentleman on Monday was challenging one of his company's values, being: We love what we do. His point was, does he have to love it? Is that reasonable? Can that be sustained for all? Aren't we allowed times when we don't love it? Values are imperative in my view to give everyone a benchmark and a barometer to test behaviour against - something to ground us - but when do the values get to a point which stifle individuality and shut down difference?

I don't have the answer and imagine that as long as I facilitate discussions such as this with diverse groups of people I will continue to have sets of eager eyes locked on searching for "the" answer. For me this is all about supporting the debate. We shouldn't close down conversations but we do need to provide guidance and tools to have that debate. How you have that conversation, when you have it and the opportunity you give people to answer and challenge your points are integral. Permission for all to do that needs to be granted and demonstrated every day - on the good days and the less so good. Strong and open cultures support and embed this into the day to day.

The closest I have got to an answer is to remember that the purpose behind shared values and behaviours is, of course, that if we aren't distracted by things that bother us at work, we are more likely to perform at our best. You may not always agree with each and every apsect of a corporate value but you do have to act in a way which does not obstruct or hinder others in their attempts to perform at their best. On a wet Wednesday afternoon, you might not love what you do, but equally it's surely not up to you to stand in the way of someone else's ability to love what they do.

A values based organisation sends clear messages when obstructions have taken place - when it is "not Ok" when tested against the agreed standards, but provides a safe environment in which constructive challenge can take place and individuals can listen, reflect and learn from each other's pints of view.

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