Office Attire?

OFFICE ATTIRE? / Image: Michael Moffa

I asked the supermarket aisle staff whether they stocked Vancouver Canucks-flavored toothpaste and elicited a puzzled look.

I explained that because there seem to be no limits to the Canadian obsession with hockey, I thought hockey-flavored toothpaste would make a nice summer gift for those friends of mine who, unlike me, think hockey is more exciting than watching logs rot or oil dry.

Comparing this second pillar of the Canadian identity (the first being Canadian beer) with the Holy Grail (a kind of Stanley Cup) is not over the top, since, apparently, Vancouver employers have been urged by a voice at the Canadian HR management top to make very special efforts to accommodate their rabid Canuck fans and employees.

In effect, this comprises virtually all Canadian employees, and their tribal territorial hockey fetish, already amply manifested and indulged in the form of flag-festooned caravans of honking boom-box cars, woo-hooing phalanxes of face-painted pedestrians uniformly clad in blue-and-white Canucks jerseys, ear-jarring fog-horn bursts and Vatican-square Easter Sunday-density well-behaved crowds in the downtown pedestrian mall just after a recent sacramental win—over the Boston Bruins, I heard.

The BC HR Management Association Hockey Manifesto

This urging to indulge the tribal urges in the workplace came from no less than the Director of the British Columbia Human Resources Management Association, one Ian Cook, and took the form of the following recommendations he advanced, reported in the Vancouver daily newspaper Metro News,  June  4-5, 2011:

  • Allow employees to change their work schedules so that they can attend all games that start at 5 pm.
  • Allow employees to come to work draped in Canuck’s jerseys on game days.
  • Allow employees to festoon the workplace, including offices, with Canuck’s totemic memorabilia, presumably including Vancouver Canuck flags and banners. (Note: Try putting up any kind of flag in your own office, and see what happens, including whether no one complains about “discrimination” or “offensiveness”.)

Cook did not recommend allowing paid sick or grief leave in the event the Canucks lose a game or the series, presumably because he believes “employers should set some clear boundaries about work that needs to get done…”, nonetheless cautioning that “you are likely to lose a lot of good will and generate some unwanted behaviours in your workplace if you are trying to ignore it (the hockey fetish).” (Canadians spell “behavior” that way.)

Totemic Clan Symbols

TOTEMIC CLAN SYMBOLS / Image: Michael Moffa

Apparently, this special accommodation of hockey mania is predicated on the puck-solid belief that hockey is not only a game that is very difficult to play, but also one that is very important—important enough to transform the workplace the way VE (Victory in Europe) and VJ (Victory over Japan) days should have, and perhaps did, in the final days of World War II, when a whole lot more was at stake than a cup—something a whole lot more important.

(It is truly remarkable how sports fans tend to assume that almost anything that is difficult to do is also and therefore important to do.)

Three Questions

Apart from the bottom-line question of how such liberal allowances in the workplace would impact clients, customers, performance, morale, image and revenues, there are three tantalizing questions to pose:

  • What else, besides a sporting obsession, deserves these kinds of workplace and employer allowances?
  • Why would or should any sport be accommodated in the workplace this way?
  • Why would anyone think any sport mattered enough to deserve such special allowances?

(The second and third questions, although similar, are subtly distinct.)

Hockey and What Else?

Days of national mourning , Christmas and New Years excepted, it is a challenge to think of occasions and circumstances under which employees would or should be allowed to, en masse, change their work schedules; also  be allowed to come to work in a costume; and to transform the appearance of the office. Stated this abstractly, these allowances seem prima facie extreme.

Other  and similar scenarios among the limited possibilities that come to mind include these:

  • A hostile extraterrestrial alien species’ mother ship lands on the White House lawn. To allow human personnel to avoid detection by day, employers throughout America allow them to shift to night shift work while the aliens sleep. They also allow the employees to  come to work disguised as aliens, to avoid daytime detection, and to disguise the office as the interior of an alien craft, just in case the carnivorous aliens enter the office space hunting humans. Alternatively, employees would be allowed to come to work in combat helmets, boots,  gas masks, camouflage and back packs, armed and draped in ammunition belts.
  • Because nighttime Halloween trick-or-treating is no longer safe for children, their parents are allowed to change their work schedules and shift to day hours for Halloween, to come to the office in the Halloween costume they will wear to accompany their kids after that day shift, and to festoon the office with Halloween pumpkins and the like for kids who come to the office door for Halloween handouts, with their costumed parents.

You are welcome to think of other examples.

Why Would or Should Such Allowances Be Made?

How is it possible for preoccupation with a mere game to recommend changes in workplace norms that otherwise nothing short of an alien invasion of the Earth, the safety of children, or the end of a war (against a terrestrial enemy or hunger) would clearly justify?

The standard arguments for it don’t quite pass muster:

1.  Escapism: The general population needs an “escape” from the mundane realities and stresses of life. Bad argument. First, this argument would justify an escapist “Hollywood Day” in the office, on which employees would be allowed to change their work hours in order to make it to one of the showings of a favorite movie, would be allowed to wear the costumes of their favorite actors in their favorite escapist movie and to put up movie posters in the office on that day.

Of course, this would not be just any movie day, but, like hockey finals, would have to be a once-a-year affair, like the Academy Awards.

Anyway, escapism as a stress reliever works only if your team wins. Otherwise it exacerbates  pre-existing stress.

2.  Male bonding: Nope. Canadian women are just as fanatical and feisty when it comes to hockey as the guys are. Four were involved in a all-out brawl on the beach near my home just after the most recent game—although whether it was hockey-related, as opposed to merely hockey-synchronized, is not clear.

Besides, if guys want to bond over something that is less arbitrary than rooting for the “home” team that happens to occupy the same land they do, they can join political parties, activist groups or neighborhood watch groups. If they need active confrontation to get the bonding buzz, they can join the Tea Party or the opposition.

3.  Diversion: This one makes sense, but not in the desired way. Instead, the way in which it makes most sense is the way in which it is most inimical to public and personal interest: a diversion of energy away from community, regional, national and global causes and issues that would disturb those behind the scenes who are suspected of manipulatively orchestrating the diversion through mass-marketed sports.

4.  Territoriality: The argument is that males are territorial animals who instinctively swear  adamant allegiance to whatever plot of land they happen to occupy and its symbols. If it’s Vancouver,  they worship the ground on which the Canucks skate and the Canucks, because they skate on that ground more than anyone else.

If it’s Boston, same script, different place, different cheer, different jeer. Even though home, community, region and country provide enough territory to defend and occupy the energies of even the most vigorous males, the argument suggests that males need the action and excitement of live and lively battling  and howling at each other—or worse—in defense of staked-out territories.

So, in bringing the battle into the workplace, a conflict of territorial loyalties is set up, If the company balks at accommodating the more primitive one.  Hence, territorial instinct will not be a persuasive argument at such companies, who may, when tested, find out where, as Ian Cook fears, employee loyalties really lie.

5.  Need for controllable, competitive and clear-cut outcomes: This subtle “3C”s argument posits a frustrated need for control, competition and clear zero-sum, “I win-you lose” outcomes and clear information (usually in the form of hockey or other sports “statistics” and history).

Men and women who have no latitude at work, no control over their tasks and no clear sense of accomplishment are likely to have a real and thwarted need for control or experience of clear-cut “meaningful” outcomes, preferably in the form of “winning!” But is this an argument for turning the office into a stadium, or  a better one for improving job descriptions and conditions?

6.  Tribal totemism: This theory explains hockey and other sports fetishes as modern forms of primitive totemism, in which animals or animal-like (“zoomorphic”) figures were worshipped as clan protectors, displayed on the body (like eagle feathers, bear teeth, or now, Bruin/Canuck images on jerseys) and functioned as communal, tribal identifying glue. That’s why so many teams have animal names, e.g., the Detroit Tigers, the Chicago Bears, the Boston Bruins, to name but three and why fans are so fiercely loyal to their totemic clan.

The problem with this totem clan argument is that if real bears and eagles never really protected us from anything nor had anything to do with our real blood and clan ties thousands of years ago, why should anyone older than six years old believe that the NFL Bears or Eagles and the NHL Bruins would now?

7.  Hunting substitute: An argument popularized by Desmond Morris, famous for his books such as The Naked Ape, The Human Zoo and Manwatching, the claim is made that because the industrial revolution in Europe and America forced males off farms and ranges where they could hunt, the primeval male instinct to hit or to throw or shoot projectiles at prey or predators was sufficiently frustrated to require a tamer, urbanized substitute.

Hence, baseball, football, basketball, hockey, soccer, etc., which all involve aiming and/or hitting (legal or otherwise) emerged at that time—but with a bonus: they all have in addition incorporated territorial defense of a “home”, e.g., “home plate”, end zones, basketball hoops and, of course, hockey nets.  Territorial defense plus hunting: an irresistible combination for the Neanderthal mind.

Golf, which incorporates only attack on immobile prey (the hole), without any risk of retaliation from any dangerous predator (an opposing player), is far more boring—until the ball retaliates by bouncing off a tree and striking someone. So it is unlikely that there will ever be any calls for “Masters Day” at the office.

The problem with this argument is that if accommodating an artificial cultural substitute for a real male instinct is a sufficient reason for turning the workplace upside down with the hockey allowances Ian Cook proposed,  it should be an equal justification for allowing the same freedoms of attire, schedule and workplace festooning in connection with other historically rechanneled and annually celebrated male instincts, e.g., “The Feast of Dionysius” and all of its accompanying bawdy and licentious revelry—especially since the Dionysian instincts easily rival those of hunting and territory in terms of their intensity and persistence.

Why else would “Canuck Cologne”, made from the musky sweat of exhausted NHL hockey players be popular with both sexes ?

….if it ever becomes available at my supermarket.

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