When to lay down the law in a start-up situation

Sylvia Pennington

Are you happy for your staff to employ a bit of ripe language at work – or perhaps you’re one for dropping the F- or C-bomb yourself when things aren’t going well?

The issue of acceptable language in the workplace was thrust into the spotlight earlier this month when the Fair Work Commission ruled that a labourer had been unfairly dismissed after a mutual exchange of four letter words with his boss.

The matter highlights the fact that there are no set standards when it comes to swearing on the job. What some workers may regard as a bit of banter, or an opinion expressed in robust Aussie lingo, could be viewed as seriously offensive by others on the team.

So how should new business founders determine the language and behaviour that makes the grade on their patch and get staff to fall in line?

Start by specifying the core values of your enterprise, advises Ben Thompson, the CEO of Employment Hero, a two-years young human resources software start-up.

“In the workplace, what you tolerate is what you get."

“At Employment Hero we have four core values – innovation, teamwork, ambition and service – and we’ve made sure everyone in the company knows what they stand for and what is expected of them,” Thompson says.

Fail to lay down the law at the outset and you may struggle to apply it down the track.

“In a start-up situation, it’s important for the founders to establish the behaviour they want to instil in the company from the beginning,” Thompson says.

“In the workplace, what you tolerate is what you get, so you need to be clear about what’s acceptable from the get-go – what the company values are and what behaviour you want to see being exhibited by your employees.”

"It’s important that we can speak freely to each other but also create a positive, friendly culture to support the demands of high growth.”

While informality can be typical of start-up culture, drawing the line between relaxed and unprofessional is imperative, according to Kikka Capital founder David Brennan.

“In order to move fast, it’s important that we can speak freely to each other but also create a positive, friendly culture to support the demands of high growth,” Brennan says.

“While we might not have strictly documented guidelines, we have a shared understanding of what’s acceptable – like anything in personal or business communication, it’s more about tone and context than what’s actually said.”

Whether or not your code of conduct is explicitly stated, getting employees to live by it, rather than letting it rip with language or actions that offend others or make them uncomfortable, may be best done via positive reinforcement, rather than big stick.

“At Employment Hero, we start every day with the daily huddle,” Thompson says.

“We begin by celebrating anyone who’s been recognised by their peers and managers by calling them up front and they receive a certificate identifying the behaviour and company values they’ve demonstrated. This not only clarifies what’s acceptable but encourages others to follow.”

Sylvia Pennington

Sylvia Pennington is a Brisbane-based freelance journalist who writes about small business, information technology and personal financen.

Image: Haldane Martin, Flickr Creative Commons license

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