It Pays Off to Pay Attention to Those Stories Co-Workers Tell About Your Company

From Reuters

It’s a good idea to pay close attention to those stories your co-workers tell about your company--if you want to understand its organizational culture and move up.

Stories may be factual, fanciful half-truths or even bald inventions. No matter. Keep your ears open. Lunchroom tales can be invaluable to explain what makes your firm tick--and tip you off about whether you belong, can fit in and get on the fast track.

Listen carefully for clues about how a company really feels about its employees, whether it will lay them off in tough times, and promote them based on merit.


“Stories dramatize relatively ordinary, everyday events within organizations in order to convey important cultural meanings,” said management expert Ramon Aldag of the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

Here’s one: At a large electronics firm a secretary who does not know the president by sight comes across him dressed in a white lab coat photocopying late one night and says accusingly, “Were you the one who left the lights and copying machine on last night?”

“Uh, well, I guess I did,” he replies.

“Don’t you know that we have an energy-saving program and that the president has asked us to be particularly careful about turning off the lights and equipment?” she adds.

“I’m very sorry,” the president mumbles, “it won’t happen again.”

Two days later, the story goes, the secretary passes the man, this time dressed in a suit bearing his name tag, and thinks to herself, “Oh, no, I chewed out the company president.”

This tale, says Aldag, informs employees that “rank isn’t pulled in the company and that even the president puts in long hours on research.”


Another story, one that made the rounds at 3M, concerns the employee who accidentally developed cellophane tape but couldn’t get his superiors to accept it.


So, he sneaks into the boardroom before a meeting, tapes down the board members’ minutes, and wins their approval for his fantastically successful new product.

According to Aldag, the 3M story “not only reinforces the importance of innovation but also encourages employees who believe strongly in their ideas never to take ‘No’ as a final answer.”

Some companies may be fueled by myths they should have discarded long ago. At one troubled “Fortune 500” manufacturer, under-performing workers interviewed by an outside consultant told stories of Sam, a 300-pound plant manager “with the personality of King Kong,” who terrified them by howling from the roof and smashing defective transmissions with a sledgehammer.

When the consultant asked to speak to Sam, he got a surprise: Sam had been dead nine years. Yet the cultural environment Sam spawned “was clearly very much alive in the minds of employees,” Aldag said.

By contrast, years after Walt Disney’s death, corporate executives facing difficult decisions routinely asked themselves, “What would Walt have done?”

A past president of the Academy of Management and a consultant to major firms, Aldag believes such tales “can be a bank of good will for a company,” having the same value inside for employees that a brand name has outside for customers.


However, positive stories “can be immediately erased” by reckless actions, he said, such as the big Midwestern employer which called a woman away from her son’s birthday party one Friday afternoon to tell her she was among those laid off. Her particular experience later circulated as an illustration of the firm’s ruthlessness.

“I don’t know if the management consultant who advised those layoffs ever analyzed what that Friday afternoon massacre was going to do to the culture of that firm,” Aldag said.