The siren song of self-expression is loud and strong in today's culture. For those who don't know what a "freak flag" is, I offer this definition from the Urban Dictionary:
A characteristic, mannerism, or appearance of a person, either subtle or overt, which implies unique, eccentric, creative, adventurous or unconventional thinking.
Of course, nonconformity has its own conformity. Look at all of the groups of unconventional people dressing and talking alike.
But even so, there is a line that is constantly being sorted out between personal messaging and company messaging. It has become a bit of a battleground: As a company owner, how can you balance your people's need for self-expression with your desire for your company to present a consistent brand message to your customers?
Freak Flag Rules
This may be a controversial notion, but I believe employees need to understand that their personal expression doesn't trump their employer's brand expression.
By the same token, however, employees deserve to be told clearly what the expectations are, in advance of employment--so that each individual can determine whether he or she can fly that company flag.
I recently had an interesting conversation with a coffee-shop employee named John. John has large gauges in his ears--those circular inserts that open up holes in the ears of the wearer--but he doesn't wear them at work.
I asked him why not. His answer was: "Their house, their rules. It's a cool place to work and I get benefits, so I leave the gauges in the car and put on their hat when I come in. When I leave, I take off the hat and put the gauges back in."
Here are a few guidelines for employers (and their workers) to think about.
1. Be clear about your rules of conduct. There are lots of companies with various definitions of what is acceptable personal expression. Make certain your definitions are clear--and then allow prospective employees to decide whether your company will allow them to accommodate their own personal expression.
2. When at work, fly the company flag. The "flag" comes in all sorts of forms--from dress and grooming to communication with customers, email protocols, and more. Let employees know that flying the company flag is a part of their employee conduct agreement. Usually, interpretation of compliance is at the discretion of management.
3. Employees' personal expression shouldn't damage the company flag. Your message to employees should be clear: If you are working at our company, we assume that you believe in our company and brand. Even when off work, they should avoid derogatory comments or "I hate my company" blogs; even wearing a competitor's swag can be subtly damaging. Self-expression shouldn't come at the cost of the company's reputation.
4. Digital flying counts. The Internet is everywhere and forever--and it's not anonymous anymore, if it ever was. So an employee's Facebook posts, blogs, Tweets, responses and all other commentary, photos, and videos can wind up being linked to your company.
5. Understand the trade-off. When a worker becomes an employee, he or she may be trading some personal choices for the rights and benefits of employment. This is not so different from other social contracts: Your personal desire may be to drive at whatever speed you want, but when you get a driver's license, you agree to certain rules.
I am a big fan of personal expression, but to believe that personal expression has no relationship to a company's brand expression is naive.