How do you maintain an office culture of respect?

To have a healthy work environment, a culture of mutual respect must be maintained. For a manager, maintaining a healthy work environment can be a daunting task. About 6 months ago Keith Zakheim, President at a New Jersey PR firm, attempted to do just that, when he threatened to fire the next employee that doesn’t replace the milk (at the companies expense). The letter is as follows:

From: Keith Zakheim
Date: September 27, 2011 8:20:21 AM EDT
To: Beckerman Staff
Subject: I don’t know what else to do…

I have repeatedly requested until I am blue in the face that the person that finishes the milk must replace the milk. Its not complicated and is a simple sign of respect for fellow employees.
So, imagine my chagrin this morning when I stumbled in at 715 after enduring a typically painful Redskins loss and in dire need of a shot of caffeine, only to find that the skim milk in the refrigerator had three drops of milk left. Literally 3 drops, an amount that would maybe fill the tummy of a prematurely born mouse. The person that did this is either incredibly lazy, obnoxiously selfish or woefully devoid of intelligence – 3 traits that are consistent with the profile of FORMER Beckerman employees.

As you can tell from the tenor of this email, I am not happy and at my wits end. Allyne, Ilhwa, and I have repeatedly beseeched you to replace the supplies that you consume – whether its pencils, paper, or MILK. This costs you nothing – I pay for it! Yet, it is still repeatedly ignored.

So, I am gravely serious when I write this – if I catch someone not replacing the milk, or at least, in the case where the downstairs store has close already, not sending an email to the office so the first person that arrives (usually Christa or me) can pick one up upon arrival – then I am going to fire you. Im not joking. You will be fired for not replacing the milk, and have fun explaining that one to your next employer. This is not a empty threat so PLEASE don’t test me.

99% of this office consists of great people that work hard, treat their employes with respect, and understand that they are part of something that is bigger than them. However, there seems to be a small element that doesn’t understand this. So its time that they do or else they should start refreshing their resume.

For those of you who have worked for me for years, you know this is not my style so PLEASE take this seriously!

Thank you for your cooperation.

After the internal email was leaked on Gawker, the PR firm did some PR for itself and stated that no employee has been or will be fired for forgetting to replace the milk.

Though Zakheim’s message was harsh, assuming he reminded his employees several times over to replace the milk, was he wrong in threatening to fire people whom he felt did not fit in with the culture and vision of his PR firm? What is the best way to maintain a positive office culture?

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Doris Tirone

There’s no logic in firing someone over Spilt Milk (er… missing milk).

There is no legitimate nexus between the presence (or absence) of milk and the job for which someone was employed … unless of course, such milk is the product of one’s work efforts. So, let’s take the opportunity to learn from this action! If milk isn’t important to the user, it may not get replaced BUT, if milk IS important, the user will replace it. Having said that, if one’s need for milk is critical to the formation of one’s day, perhaps it is equally important for that person to assure that milk is ever-present.

Moral of the story: Don’t rely on others to satisfy one’s workplace comforts.

Of course, the real issue here is one’s command for respect. Perhaps respect should be earned rather than commanded and underscored by the threat of termination. Respect comes to those who give respect; yes, even in the workplace! And, the higher up the office food chain one works, the more accountable one is for exercising this tenet. The “Do as I Say, Not as I Do” workplace is never the best way to maintain a positive office culture. As Barney Fife would say “Nip It! Nip it in the bud!”

Corey McCarren

I can empathize with his frustration, but it does seem like a harsh overreaction. I think the easiest solution would be to charge one person (such as an intern or an assistant) with the milk duty. While it may seem silly, if it’s that important to Mr. Zakheim, then charging milk duty to one specific individual would resolve the problem.

Peter Sperry

I think Zakheim has a point. Employees who do not replace supplies when they could or should are demonstrating disrespect of their fellow employees. The “yeah, I used the last of the milk but I am too busy, important, disinterested to either run downstairs and buy more or send an email to the office” attitude indicates the employee just doesn’t care about the people they work with. The fact the boss was the first person in the next morning is immaterial. Even if it had been the most junior employee who ended up drinking their coffee black, the failure to be considerate of others, particularly after multiple warnings, is an attitude that needs correcting. Any individual who loses their job over this is not being fired over missing milk but for continually demonstrating a lack of concern for their coworkers. You would think that employees of a PR firm would be a little more sensative to presenting themselves in a good light rather than as forgetful and inconsiderate.

Corey McCarren

I, in theory, do agree with you Peter, but my concern would be that mistakes do happen and I would hate to see someone get fired that just forgot one time (things happen, sometimes we have other things on our minds) rather than someone that actually didn’t fit into the culture of respect Zakheim is aiming for. I don’t have a problem with Zakheim’s point of firing the next person to forget the milk in theory, but in application it’s highly imperfect. That’s why I believe milk duty should be charged to one specific individual, to make it a non-issue. Assuming that the inconsiderate milk aficionado is actually out of step with the culture there, they may be exposed for some offense that couldn’t be construed as the boss overreacting.