One of the features of the modern workplace in all sectors is that it is typically governed by a complex set of explicit rules and regulations, from laws about what your boss can and can’t do to lengthy employee handbooks filled with motivational corporate-speak and obscure policies you’ll forget by your second day on the job.
One new rule that has nonprofits upset is a ruling from the Department of Labor that nonprofit workers with salaries up to $47,476 must be paid for overtime work, which is about twice the previous salary cutoff. Nonprofits complain that legal compliance and labor costs will skyrocket under the strain, or else that programs will have to be cut back, harming the communities that they serve.
Our society is generally good at pointing out the ways in which our work lives are more explicitly regulated than ever before, and calculating the associated costs. Yet we must also recognize that at the same time the culture of the modern workplace contains a great many unspoken expectations and unwritten rules that the worker becomes accustomed to implicitly rather than explicitly. Failure to adhere to these unwritten norms can be just as fatal to one’s career as breaking explicit rules. And precisely because they are unwritten and cultural, managers enforcing them might even be unaware that they are doing so.
Some of the more common white collar examples of this phenomenon are implied dress codes (when the handbook might simply make vague references to “professional appearance”) or the common expectation that one be available to answer calls and emails at all hours of the day and on weekends as well. And in retail and customer service jobs, there’s a trend of attempting to mandate not only concrete performance at specific work tasks, but also to mandate the attitude that one has while going about those tasks and the intangible personal qualities one displays.
The classic demonstration of this phenomenon in the workplace is the famous “flair” scene from the cult classic film Office Space. Jennifer Aniston’s character is a waitress in a restaurant that explicitly requires its wait staff to wear at least 15 pieces of “flair” to decorate their uniforms. Her manager is upset that she’s only displaying the bear minimum, instead of reflecting “the atmosphere and the attitude” the restaurant wishes to reflect. The manager intervenes, seemingly to make the implicit rule about displaying additional pieces of “flair” more explicit. But even then, because the corporate policy is ostensibly intended to help employees “express themselves”, he cannot bring himself to be clear by naming a different number. Confronted again in a later scene, Aniston’s character finally explodes, “If you want me to wear 37 pieces of flair…why don’t you just make the minimum 37?” and avails herself of the opportunity to express herself by walking off the job in dramatic fashion.
So we can see that the relationship between explicit and implicit rules can be confusing, wildly frustrating, and at times contradictory in practice. Workplaces that adopted the trendy policy of “unlimited” vacation, for example, have found that employees take less vacation time under such a policy, because what used to be an explicit allotment of 2 or 3 weeks was obscured by the newfound freedom. Since no one really thought they could get away with taking three months off to go hiking in Chile, employees were no longer sure what level of leave-taking would cross the line into negatively affecting their status and reputation in the workplace. Fear of being found implicitly non-compliant with unwritten rules, employees opted to err on the safe side by taking less time off than ever—the opposite effect of what managers intended.
Nonprofits are no exception to this state of affairs, and a culture of being on-call 24/7 and working extra events despite low pay is strongly expected in many organizations. Deviation from this norm sends the implicit message that the worker in question is less dedicated to the mission than other staff members.
And because nonprofit performance doesn’t have clear price signals from the marketplace, questioning low levels of compensation or long hours at all is usually even harder for nonprofit workers than it is in the rest of the private sector. Without being intentionally set up to do so, such a culture puts nonprofit staff at lower income levels, staff with family duties outside the office, and staff for whom the implicit rules go unnoticed or misunderstood at a severe disadvantage, regardless of how well they perform the job they were hired to do.
So, while I sympathize with nonprofits struggling to implement the new Department of Labor rules mandating overtime pay for millions of additional nonprofit works, I think the change is ultimately for the better. Explicit rules and policies are at their best when they clarify expectations that, left implicit, leave room for workers to be harmed, for trust and dedication to be abused, or for good workers to be driven away by burnout and unjust compensation. If we say we’re paying people to put on 15 pieces of flair, don’t demand 37.