Occupational Folklore

Raelynn Randall

Table of Contents

What do the stories and rumors shared around the water cooler say about your company? These forms of occupational folklore, along with several others, can be advantageous to your organization if you know how to use them.

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What Is Occupational Folklore?

If you’ve worked in an environment where you interact with others, you’ve likely experienced occupational folklore.

Folklore is defined as traditional beliefs, shared knowledge, customs, and stories passed down over generations.

Occupational folklore refers to the expression of culture through beliefs, customers, knowledge, and stories in the workplace. Occupational folklore consists of lingo (shared vocabulary), rumors, lore, stories, and other expressions of shared identity. It is documented more often in labor-intensive industries, where folklore is easier to recognize than in other industries. However, it is important to note that no matter the industry, there is great power in occupational folklore when it comes to company culture.

Why Is Occupational Folklore Important?

Occupational folklore strengthens the shared workplace identity, which is defined as how individuals identify as part of or align themselves within their organization. It fosters strong workplace culture, teaches lessons, and serves as an emotional outlet for employees.

  • Strengthens workplace culture. Have you ever paid attention to the social implications of what is said at work? From industry slang to stories told around the water cooler, occupational folklore has the power to bond people together and strengthen culture. If a company uses a lot of unique terms in their everyday operations, employees will feel a strong connection because it is challenging for employees to explain what happened to them at work to outsiders without explaining the jargon.
  • Teaches lessons. Stories and rumors help teach lessons in occupational folklore. Employees who hear that Rob didn’t meet his monthly quota and was fired the next day might take their quotas more seriously for fear of their jobs. Additionally, when employees hear about Sarah, who got her arm stuck in the trash compactor because she was checking her phone while working, they are likely to pay more attention to what they are doing around dangerous equipment than those who only read a sign that tells them to be cautious.
  • Serves as an emotional outlet for the monotony of work. Folklore is recognized as an expressive outlet for and within a culture. Stories, jokes, rumors, and legends allow for a change of pace during the workday. Employees who are bored with their work may be more inclined to participate in gossip. Additionally, employees who feel that they belong in social circles at work may feel more comfortable participating in the sharing of stories and rumors.

How Can Occupational Folklore Be Used?

As occupational folklore has great power, leaders can use it to better understand and shape their company culture. Occupational folklore can be used by anyone to determine what a company’s culture is like and what social norms are accepted. Here are several specific examples of how leaders can use workplace folklore positively.

Increase Efficiency and Creativity

Some say that work lingo was created to increase efficiency so that employees could use shorthand in communicating. Often, this slang helps employees understand work concepts faster, as they require less explanation. For example, if a software company developed a system with an incredibly long name that no one dared waste their time saying out loud, a creative worker may decide to call the system “Bob” for short to save on time. Additionally, rumors of past or current employees who exhibited out-of-the-box thinking and were promoted for their efforts encourage others to be creative or efficient in order to reap the same rewards.

Foster Rule-following

Rumors, legends, and stories can be used to encourage rule-following by proving that disobedience is punished. For example, Goldman Sachs fired 19 employees for cheating on a training assessment. This not only resolved the cheating problem but also served as a warning to other employees that the company values integrity and does not tolerate dishonesty. Stories can also be used in training to convey messages in a powerful and convincing manner. Stories get people’s attention because they are compelling and invoke emotion.

Understand Workplace Culture

Folklore serves as an expression of workplace culture. By observing occupational folklore, one can better understand if a company’s culture is competitive, familial, fun, productive, collaborative, diverse, etc. If the jargon is filled with terms that relate to competition or metrics, one can assume that the company has a culture of valuing productivity or competitiveness. If rumors about employees’ personal lives are practically non-existent, then the company likely has a culture of professionalism. If employees often say things like, “We take care of each other here” or “My coworkers are like my siblings,” then the company likely has a culture of family.

Examples of Occupational Folklore

There are many different examples of occupational folklore, but the most common include rumors, jargon, gossip, stories, and legends. These can be used to understand workplace social interactions and cultivate positive or negative environments.

Rumors

No matter the intent of rumors, they can be dangerous, toxic, or detrimental to morale. On the other hand, as was previously mentioned, they can also teach lessons or strengthen culture (both positive and negative culture). For example, if Pete came into work hungover and botched a critical meeting that resulted in the loss of a major client, the rumor of his experience could have multiple implications. Other employees could learn from the rumor and may be more cautious about coming to work hungover for fear of making the same mistake. At the same time, the gossip about Pete could damage his reputation, destroy trust between coworkers because they spoke ill of a fellow employee, or even cause tension in the office.

Lingo

As previously mentioned, workplace jargon creates a sense of belonging for employees. For example, there are many words that only those who work at Google will understand, such as plex, Googlegiest, GUTS, 20% time, perf and dogfood. These words often don’t make sense to outsiders and build a sense of belonging for those who understand and are involved in the company. Other examples of work lingo include the use of terms such as bandwidth, a-ha moment, boots on the ground, deep-dive, knee-deep, magic bullet, run it up the flagpole, boil the ocean, low-hanging fruit, or other industry-specific phrases.

Stories and Legends

When trying to understand workplace culture using company stories or legends, it is important to consider whether the stories represent the company culture that you want. What do your company stories say about the organization? Some companies promote stories of heroism at work, while others let legends of employees who get away with anything run rampant. Stories and legends spread like wildfire. For example, gossip about a potential company layoff is likely to reach every employee’s ears faster than a flyer on a bulletin board.

Other Expressions of Folklore

Jokes are another expression of occupational folklore. The types of jokes that are generally shared at work speak to the company culture. For example, sexual harassment jokes foster a hostile work environment, while “punny” jokes encourage a culture of fun at work.

Questions You’ve Asked Us About Occupational Folklore

All businesses have some sort of occupational folklore and can benefit from leaders striving to understand what their folklore means. Not only is it an interesting topic, but occupational folklore can also be used to strengthen workplace culture, teach employees lessons, and serve as an emotional outlet for the monotony of work.
There are many scholarly articles about occupational folklore that share profound insights into what it is and how it can be used. To learn more about how occupational folklore (storytelling) can be used to create a more inclusive work environment, read this article (https://hbr.org/2021/11/how-sharing-our-stories-builds-inclusion) in the Harvard Business Review.
Raelynn Randall

Rae has acquired HR experience in team leadership, research, training, recruiting, project management, and mentoring upcoming HR professionals. She is fascinated by workplace culture and the many implications it has on the world of business, especially HR. When possible, she seeks out opportunities to expand her knowledge and give back to her community.

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