I have a friend who —
OK, fine. It’s not a friend, It’s me. I’m not sure if I should be embarrassed or proud of the kinda-sorta juvenile workplace shenanigans I’m about to describe, but in the interest of making a larger point, here goes.
I once worked for a company that had a chair policy. If you were above a certain pay grade, your reward was a chair with armrests. Peons who didn’t earn enough risked falling off the sides of their seats.
Back then, I knew little about HR. I wasn’t yet versed in the power of phrases like “reasonable workplace accommodation” to annoy Linda from HR into granting certain requests (regardless of whether I technically needed an accommodation.)
So instead of asking for a chair with arms, I took one. I simply strolled into a nearby conference room and wheeled out a chair that allowed me to sit comfortably. Luxuriously. Like I finally made it in corporate America.
Then Chair Nazi came.
First They Came for the Chairs…
Her other title was head of operations, or something like that. Every few days, Chair Nazi would march through the halls to check numbers on the backs of chairs to ensure they corresponded with their assigned desks. This was obviously an important task for her in case some obnoxious employee ever stole a chair from a conference room. (As if anyone would do such a thing!)
At first, she said nothing to me. I would merely notice that I had my old chair waiting in my cubicle on mornings after a chair check. This happened on multiple occasions, and each time, I went back to the conference room to grab a different chair.
Finally, Chair Nazi told me that corporate policy forbade the opulence I was stealing. “Stop switching your chair, Vadim. You’re violating the rules.”
So of course, I kept changing my chair, and of course, Chair Nazi kept telling me to stop. It was a fun game.
The only reason we finally stopped playing musical chairs is because I started working from home more often. Regardless, let’s go over some salient insights.
Yes, I’m that employee who enjoys testing policies with a bit of mischief.
Look, I was young. Could I have been an adult and raised my concerns and objections more professionally? Yes. Should I have? Yes. Would that have been as fun? No. (Besides, there were far, far, far worse things in the organization for management to address than the annoying idiot rolling chairs through corridors.)
More importantly, the company’s chair policy raises issues around how an organization should use perks. Unlike benefits, which employers offer to all workers and which can help differentiate a company, perks mainly distinguish workers within an organization.
As I wrote in an article a while back, “[B]ecause the list of possible perks stretches wide, so can the gulf between your firm’s haves and have-nots.”
That begs central questions: What does it mean to treat people fairly? What do people deserve? When do they deserve it? Why do they deserve it? What does it mean to deserve anything?
In the article, I’d suggested that perks are ideal conduits to get at answers because they’re the most visible manifestations of how your organization sets people apart. (You may not know others’ salaries, but you’re painfully aware that the company isn’t paying for you to tee off at the club this weekend.)
Perks With Purpose
To help you set perks policies, some consultants may tell you to start by figuring out what will work best for your culture. That’s not bad advice. It’s no advice.
Your perks don’t depend on your culture. Your culture depends on your perks.
I get that this can be a bit of a chicken-or-egg issue, but make no mistake: Perks define your culture more so than many other initiatives. For example, we connect with perks on a far more emotional level than we do with benefits. Those feelings inevitably will shape a company culture much more than your yearly health-insurance deductible.
This isn’t about treating people equally. No business that wants to remain in business should do that. This is about treating everyone fairly. You can’t do that with perks that seem dumb or that accomplish little beyond the worship and reinforcement of hierarchy. Perks should have greater purpose.
Trust me on this. At my former workplace, having a chair with arms never caused anyone to feel superior. But not having such a perk made plenty of people feel inferior. And uncomfortable.
Ultimately, I don’t think it’s too much to ask companies to give everyone comfortable chairs. An armrest is not a private jet.