Weirdos in the Workplace! The New Normal…Thriving in the Age of the Individual by John Putzier

Question: Who is the audience for this book?
Answer: Business owners, managers and human resource professionals (and workers who are interested in the manifestation of individuality).

Here are excerpts from an interview with John Putzier:

Individuality’s place in the enterprise is underrated, and teamwork can be overrated. Having a few weirdos on staff can be a good thing as long as they contribute value, said John Putzier, president of FirStep Inc., a human resource performance improvement and consulting company based in Prospect, Pa., and author of “Weirdos in the Workplace: The New Normal—Thriving in the Age of the Individual.”

In his recently released second book, Putzier discusses a politically incorrect attitude that companies such as Google, Starbucks and Ben & Jerry’s have adopted in order to stay on top of their respective industries: encouraging individuality, discriminating against employees and negating the idea of equal treatment.

“You can predict what’s going to happen in the workplace if you follow societal trends,” Putzier said. “Society is in the Age of the Individual. In the ’50s and ’60s, the Age of the Organization Man, white men dominated the world and the workplace. In the ’70s and ’80s, the Age of Diversity, the civil rights act of 1964 was passed, and an avalanche of legislation followed for equal opportunity, contributing to the entry of women and minorities into the workplace. The ’90s, the Age of the New Economy, ushered in a new way of doing things. If you had something to offer, you could almost not fail.

The concept of diversity became a non-issue because there was such a shortage of talent that companies suddenly didn’t care if you were purple with two heads if you could write code, sell or whatever it is that they hired you to do.”

He explained, “The expectations of the ’90s didn’t go away—just the reality of that economy went away, and now we’ve got all of these individuals, not just African-Americans and women and Asians and everything else, all wanting to excel, and we don’t live in a collective society. We’re a collection of individuals, and if you look at the media and you look at athletics and politics and who we celebrate, we are rewarding individuality not collectivism. We have a whole bunch of people out there wanting to be individuals and to be successful, and this is creating quite a challenge for organizations because not everyone is exceptional.”

If not everyone can be exceptional; it stands to reason that all workers are not created equal. Putzier said that one of his most frustrating work challenges is how to get organizations to understand that discrimination is not a bad thing. “The word discrimination has gotten a bad rap, particularly from the Age of Diversity when it was shoved down organizations’ throats, and we tried to make numbers,” Putzier said. “Everybody thinks that if you do’t treat everyone exactly the same, then you’re discriminating. You are not. In fact, if you don’t discriminate you cannot possibly be an effective leader or manager. When I say ‘discriminate,’ I mean discriminate on the basis of performance and value and the things that we did in the ’90s, which worked. We didn’t care what you looked like necessarily or what your personal life was like; we just wanted your talent. That concept needs to continue because then diversity becomes a non-issue. We move into what’s called meritocracy, in which you succeed or fail based on your own merit, which is the way it should be.”

In the Age of the Individual, if you want to be recognized and rewarded for your individuality, then you must contribute value. Organizations need to know when and how to discriminate based on the value an individual brings to the organization, said Putzier.

“I have a thing called the ‘Weird/Worth ratio,’ which essentially says the more you’re worth, the more you can be weird. You don’t have to like it or agree with it. It’s just reality. In our society in particular, we reward things that might be out of whack. If the workplace reflects society, as an individual you’ve got to make yourself worth more. The organization must be able to make the distinctions between which employees and individuals bring value and treat them differently. Individuals must be responsible for maximizing their own personal worth by finding their calling in life. In the book it’s called, ‘AIM to be weird.’ AIM is an acronym for abilities, interests and the market, which means that if you or I can find that thing that we do really well, that we really love to do and that the world will pay us for, then we’re in utopia. It’s no longer work—it’s a calling. You can get away with a lot more in terms of weirdness when you bring a bunch of value.”

That’s where the discrimination comes in. Putzier uses case studies to further illustrate the Weird/Worth ratio. For instance, Blue Suit Bob (BSB) wears the same blue suit to work every single day. Finally, he’s called in to the head office and asked, why doesn’t he buy another suit? He makes enough money to afford one. BSB replies that he does have more than one suit: he has five, and they’re all blue. Circadian Charlie has numerous patents to his credit, but doesn’t like to come to work in the morning because his creative process starts at 3 a.m.

“The bottom line is this guy has brought so much value to the organization, you should accommodate that weirdness,” Putzier said. “You don’t have to let everybody not come to work in the morning. When they have 15 patents, they can come talk to you about coming in late, too.”

The ratio holds four categories of weird and worth: terminate, tolerate, accommodate and celebrate. If an employee does not bring value to an organization, weird or not, that person should be terminated.

“Then you’ve got the ones that you tolerate. Some people are just weird, but they don’t do any harm. They don’t have to be geniuses. They can be good, hardworking, dedicated and well-intentioned, but maybe they just get on your nerves. They have weird habits or eccentricities like Blue Suit Bob,” Putzier said. “Bottom line, get over it. Tolerate it.”

Organizations should accommodate weird employees like Circadian Charlie with his multiple patents, high levels of productivity and contributed value. Organizations should celebrate normal, low-maintenance employees who exhibit genius and have a lot to offer, though they are rare. Geniuses, on the other hand, tend to be a little wacko.

“Part of the reason is because they’re oblivious,” Putzier said. “(Geniuses) do what they do best, and the world be damned. They don’t care if they’re liked or if you think they look weird. This type is also high in self efficacy; they feel they have control over their world. They grab the bull by the horns and take control because they feel like they should have control. They’re good at what they do and can afford to be weird. You can hire all kinds of losers who are easy to manage. If all you want are people who are easy to mange, then just hire warm bodies. Geniuses and high performers can be very difficult to manage and to deal with.”

Q: What else should we know about this book?
A: “Weirdos in the Workplace” has flow charts to help organizations analyze behavioral issues to determine how to discriminate. One is called the Behavioral Change Map, which encourages you first to ask the question: Is it really a problem? Then, do a cost-benefit analysis of the behavioral challenge, which is typically a motivation or skill issue.

“They either can’t do it, or they don’t want to do it,” said Putzier. “It may sound simplistic, but it really is that simple when you get down to it. There are two of these flow charts in the book to help you analyze individual change as well as organizational change. There are also tools in there to help you identify your AIM, abilities, interests and the market, so that you can be a weirdo of worth yourself.”

Q: Why are you the best person to write this book?
A: Because I did! Ha! 30+ years in HR, Bachelors and Masters in Organizational Behavior and HR, SPHR lifetime certification, former member of adjunct faculty at Carnegie Mellon University Graduate School, Past President of Society for Human Resource Management High Tech Net, former Board of Directors At-Large of Pittsburgh Human Resources Association, Judge for People Do Matter Awards.