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Recognizing the diversity in subcultures

How subcultures impact society and organizations

By Brian Kreissl

I’m a metalhead. For those who aren’t familiar with the term, it means I’m a fan of heavy metal music.

What sets me apart from many 80's rockers, however, is I’m into the newer metal bands as much as or even more so than some of my old favourites from my teenage years. No aging gracefully and listening to adult contemporary radio stations for me (although these days I admit to liking several other types of music as well).

However, it would be completely wrong for people to think I lead any kind of “heavy metal lifestyle” — other than perhaps attending the occasional rock concert and listening to my CDs in the car. Other than that, I live a pretty normal middle class life in the suburbs as a homeowner, husband and father.

To many people, the whole idea of a lifestyle centred around the type of music one listens to must seem pretty ridiculous. But people who grew up in the 1980s would know exactly what I’m talking about.

High school back then was very cliquey and basically segregated along musical lines. The music we listened to and identified with had an influence on our hairstyles, the way we dressed and even the way we spoke in some ways.

But while I certainly looked the part during most of my high school years — with long hair, tight jeans and a leather jacket — I didn’t really conform with many of the heavy metal stereotypes at the time. Nevertheless, I still consider being a metalhead part of my identity, although it’s obviously a much less important part of who I am today than it was back then.

But somewhat surprisingly, only a few years ago, I swear my friend’s wife became noticeably much less friendly towards me after she found out about my musical tastes. And even my own wife told me there’s no way she would have dated me back in high school.

I suppose old prejudices die hard.

The existence of corporate subcultures

I’m deeply fascinated by subcultures, even if they do sometimes seem quite silly. My father once said that even where people have absolutely no reason for dividing themselves, they will find some reason to do so.

I’m inclined to agree with him. And I believe the workplace isn’t at all immune from the establishment of subcultures.

While we’re all aware of organizational cultures and how they work, there’s no question that every department, division, work unit or branch of an organization has its own unique subculture within the broader corporate culture. That applies especially in large global organizations.

For example, I believe that Carswell, where I work, has a very unique and special culture as Canada’s largest legal and professional publisher with a proud 150 year history. Even though we’re part of Thomson Reuters — a global information giant with some 60,000 employees — Carswell has a unique identity within the organization.

I believe it’s important to create a broad, overarching culture for organizations. However, in most cases it’s probably a good idea to try to preserve at least some part of the subcultures that already exist — especially since they’re often based at least partially on national cultures, which should be recognized and celebrated from a diversity perspective.

Subcultures in departments and functional areas

I also believe a huge driver in the creation of subcultures in organizations is the functional area or the department in question.

For example, my colleagues include lawyers, HR practitioners, payroll professionals, editors, journalists, marketers, salespeople, IT professionals and accountants. Even though we generally get along very well, I sometimes have to chuckle at the different perspectives some of those groups have and how predictable their reactions can be.

While the existence of such subcultures is inevitable, they can sometimes lead to silos and different departments working at cross-purposes. However, the establishment of cross-functional project teams and matrix organizations can sometimes help break down barriers and silos.

Like the existence of organizational subcultures based on national cultures, an important element of diversity is recognizing and understanding the different perspectives people in different functions have based on their specializations and their education and experience. Diversity is about much more than just recognizing members of designated groups.

It’s probably also helpful to remember that even something like an employee’s musical tastes is an element of workplace diversity worth recognizing and celebrating — even for an old metalhead like me.

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Brian Kreissl

Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Thomson Reuters Legal Canada's human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions.
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