CYC-Online 91AUGUST 2006
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Impersonal work culture can be a shock

Hy Resnick

Some child care staff* may feel confused by what can seem like an impersonal work environment. Co-workers may appear to be unfriendly, agency policies and procedures seem unnecessarily strict and unreasonable. The atmosphere at meetings sometimes seems competitive and formal. The culture of the work place may be a far cry from what a new worker experiences in their life with family and friends. Management my talk about our agency as being just like a family but the reality is an agency is not a family “families don’t fire you if you don’t do your job right “agencies do!

What is appropriate in a family and with friends is often not appropriate in the workplace, especially with respect to emotions and how they’re dealt with. For example in many families hugs, kisses, tears and sharing worries and doubts are all part of daily family life. But in the world of work “even in social agencies “the rules of the “game” are different. These rules (often not made explicit) require workers to control their emotions, so its a good idea for you to hold off yelling at a co-worker who has made you angry at a meeting. (Perhaps you can talk to him or her later when you've cooled down some.) It’s also a good idea not to cry at a meeting if somebody makes fun of you or or attacks you personally. The norm in the workplace is to practice what sociologists call “affective neutrality”, that is, be friendly and including, but don’t step over the boundary between being friendly and being a friend.

This is a real dilemma for our field because being “affectively neutral” with our young clients won’t work for them. They need a more committed connection from child care staff. Indeed, they can easily experience being cordial as indifference.

Another area of difference between the family and the work world has to do with flexibility. A family can often accommodate (or will try to) the special needs of its members. For example Jerry had a bad day at school so maybe he doesn’t have to do the dishes or take out the garbage today, or Laurie is feeling a bit under the weather so her husband will do the cooking tonight.

However in the work place there are fewer accommodations to the personal needs of workers, that is, less capacity or willingness to be flexible. Workers are expected to be professional with the kids and their colleagues “regardless of whether you had to sit up all night with a sick child or are feeling depressed that day. Organizational/professional norms require that you put aside your personal problems when you come to work. Indeed if you make too many requests for special arrangements because of home or personal difficulties you can expect low marks in your evaluations “even if you’re good in the basic work with the kids.

So to sum up “with your family or friends you can be spontaneous and expressive but it might be better for you to begin practicing being more “political” when you’re moving around the agency. To much “shooting from the hip” and not thinking strategically about your interactions may not improve your image in the agency.

All this of course doesn’t mean you should be cold or indifferent with others, but it does mean that working in organizations often requires you to think twice about what you’re saying at meetings and how you’re relating to co-workers and supervisors.

* especially those who may be just out of college or who have come from an extended family or who have grown up in a small community.

The International Child and Youth Care Network

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