Quick, who in the company has been to your house? Don't know? Everyone else does.
It would be gauche to describe the lush accouterments of your home to employees. Gauche and unnecessary, because your assistant sales manager has already described them. He has done so not in a fit of vicarious braggadocio, but rather with the feigned nonchalance of someone idly fingering a hand grenade. "We could ask Bill to bring a couple of bottles to the party," the manager may have said. "I don't know which is better stocked: his wet bar or his koi pond."
One measure of an employee's status within a company is which other employees' homes he has visited. And everyone in your business knows who has visited whom. An invitation to a colleague's home is no trivial matter--it means the invitee is trusted, her company enjoyed. An offer of social intimacy conveys worth, and we naturally want others to know when someone deems us worthy. But to boast of such intimacy would be unseemly. The message is implicit: We are all one family here, but I am viewed as a beloved brother while you are Christmas-card-only cousins.
So employees publicize their social standing discreetly, by means of casual observations. "I don't know how Marjorie can stand these fluorescent lights; the lamps in her living room have such lovely mica shades." "I'm thinking of getting marble countertops for my kitchen--maybe something like Jim's." In this game, points are awarded both for the number of houses visited and for the relative infrequency with which inviters entertain. Thus reference to a cunning window treatment in the apartment of a reclusive secretary scores higher than mention of a VP's vintage humidor if the VP is profligate with the welcome mat. Cheating is relatively easy. An employee dropping off papers at a colleague's house on the weekend can dangle almost as many details as a dinner guest, and no one need know the circumstances of her visit.
It's true that home visits measure popularity rather than power. But when the home in question is the boss's, the stakes are high. Tales of shared golf outings and late-night restaurant meals send envious shivers down ambitious spines, but nothing bespeaks intimacy like an evening parked in the big guy's Barcalounger.
The smart strategy for company leaders is to be like one of Raymond Chandler's dames: "as exclusive as a mailbox." Open your home regularly to company events, such as off-site meetings, barbecues, and holiday parties. The more people who know how you live, the less that knowledge is worth.
Ideally, events at the leader's home become anticipated rituals, which are the joists of corporate culture. They bring staff together by providing conversational grist ("So it isn't only her office that looks like an ad for Ethan Allen"). Perhaps most important, they allow employees as a group to feel closer to you, which is better for morale and less politically treacherous than bringing a chosen few into your personal orbit. That good work is undone, of course, once you visit the home of an employee, an occurrence guaranteed to turn up in conversation. So make it clear when you entertain that you expect no return invitations. Be a generous host, never a trophy guest.
Leigh Buchanan is an Inc. editor-at-large. She can be reached at email@example.com.
LEIGH BUCHANAN is an editor at large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture. @LeighEBuchanan