Leadership, Management
September-October 2020

Conveying and conserving office culture during COVID-19

By Mike Holley
First Assistant District Attorney in Montgomery County

David, a new misdemeanor prosecutor, slams a stack of files onto the copier. His face is flushed, his eyes narrowed, and his breathing hard. David is generally a calm person, but he’s obviously angry about something. Victoria, a felony prosecutor, notices his demeanor and asks what’s wrong. David replies, “I just got into an argument in docket with the defense attorney in the Jones case. He insulted and embarrassed me in front of the judge. I’m going to pull my offer in the Jones case right now.”

            Victoria ponders this for a moment and replies, “I get it. I know that defense attorney, and based on how he’s treated me in the past, I suspect your reaction is perfectly reasonable. This reminds me of what my first investigator told me when I got here. Hector said that as much as we might like to, we don’t punish defendants for their attorney’s behavior. If the offer you made was a fair one, perhaps you should leave it on the table?”

What is culture?

What happened between David and Victoria is an example of conveying an office’s culture to another person. Organizational culture can be defined in a number of ways, but in its simplest terms, “it’s the way we do things and the way we treat people and each other.”[1]

            There is some mystery in culture. The culture of a particular district attorney’s or county attorney’s office can sometimes be hard to precisely describe,[2] and culture can also change. Some organizational cultures are good, others are bad, and most are a bit of both. Significantly, culture informs and guides behavior in ways that transcend formal organization or office policies.

            The consequences of culture are not abstract. Organizations with a healthy culture tend to have healthy employees. Negative culture leads to disengaged employees, and disengaged employees lead to other problems. For example, a study by the Queens School of Business and the Gallup organization found that disengaged workers had 37 percent higher absenteeism, 49 percent more accidents, 18 percent lower productivity, and 60 percent more errors and defects. The study also found that negative culture corresponded to much higher turnover; conversely, cultures with highly engaged employees received 100 percent more job applications than those with disengaged employees.[3]

            Aspects of an organization’s culture vary in importance. The office dress code, for example, can be a neutral thing (though dress often conveys something about who we are). Office hours or the style of office furniture are other examples. Some aspects of office culture are more meaningful. A body of research shows that there are some broad cultural characteristics of effective organizations, namely:

            •          caring for, being interested in, and maintaining responsibility for colleagues as friends;
            •          providing support for one another, including offering kindness and compassion when others are struggling;
            •          avoiding blame and forgiving mistakes;
            •          inspiring one another at work;
            •          emphasizing the meaningfulness of the work; and
            •          treating one another with respect, gratitude, trust, and integrity.[4]

            In our profession, culture is particularly important. Prosecutors make thousands—maybe tens of thousands—of significant decisions in any given year. Many of these decisions are difficult, and there is no textbook answer to most of them. Prosecutors’ decisions tend to be better when guided not just by an individual’s sense of right and wrong, but also by the culture of their office which, in turn, reflects the experience and wisdom of colleagues both present and past. If that culture is not healthy, those decisions suffer. When the prosecutor’s decisions suffer, real citizens suffer.

            More specifically still, each county or district attorney’s office has its own culture. The Galveston County Criminal District Attorneys’ Office is an excellent organization. The 112th District Attorney’s Office based in Fort Stockton is also an excellent organization. Galveston County has a population of 350,000. The 112th District covers five counties in West Texas with a combined population of 41,000.[5] Galveston County enjoys a significant number of tourists and all of their associated community contributions and accompanying challenges. The 112th District has far fewer tourists (and 100 percent less ocean) but boasts a large number of visiting oil-field workers and all of their community contributions and accompanying challenges.

            The two offices serve vastly different communities, and those communities have different values. The two offices also have significantly different histories. The offices are both skillfully led, though in different ways. Both offices have some values that all prosecutors share, but each has unique values. In short, both offices have different cultures, and those respective cultures are what allow those organizations to not only survive, but to thrive and excel.

More caught than taught

So culture is important. But how is culture conveyed from one generation of employees to the next? And how is it preserved within an office? A look at culture in the home may help us here.

            Transmitting culture is something that happens in homes all across the world in the context of parenting. Some have said parenting children is more “caught than taught.” By that, they mean that while a parent can formally sit down and explain an idea or convey some value, a child learns primarily from observing how parents, siblings, and others speak, act, and live.

            A closely related idea is that culture happens incidentally, not intentionally. Culture conveyance is more likely to happen at the water cooler than the classroom—it happens in unexpected, unscheduled moments. The example between David and Victoria at the beginning of this article is the way culture is most often conveyed and preserved, not from (yet another) email from senior management.[6]

            Conveying—and preserving—culture depends heavily on people being near one another for extensive periods of time in different settings. To go back to the educating children example: It is very challenging to fully convey and imprint all the lessons a child needs if you aren’t around him or her very often. It’s possible, but difficult.

Culture in a time of COVID

If it’s true that culture is important and that culture is most often transmitted when people are around one another, we have a problem. The current pandemic works to keep us physically apart.[7] So what can we do to maintain and convey our office’s culture?

            First, we can concede that there will be some losses in transferring and preserving culture. Forgive yourself in advance for this loss. It won’t help, but you’ll feel better. Many things are not ideal about remote work, and this is one.

            Second, we can identify those aspects of our culture that should be preserved. For example, always having a second prosecutor at counsel table during a trial may be an important aspect of our office culture that we want to maintain for good reasons.

            Some things may have to be modified. Perhaps your office has a tradition of sending off departing employees with a plaque, or you throw baby showers for expecting employees. This may have to be done remotely now or perhaps in smaller, social-distanced groups, but it will still be done.

            Other practices may need to be dropped entirely. You will have to identify which ones are “grandma’s ham.” As the story goes, a husband sees his wife cut off both ends of a ham. Curious as to why she is wasting good ham, the husband her about it. The wife responds, “I don’t know; that’s just the way Mom did it.” So the wife approaches her mother to ask, only to be told, “I’m not sure; that’s just the way your grandma did it.” When wife and Mom approach Grandma to ask, Grandma says, “Oh, I did that because my pan was too small to hold a full ham.” Some of the things we do as part of our culture fit in this category, and the current pandemic gives us a good opportunity to jettison those practices when we recognize them.

            Third, we can make explicit the implicit. That is to say, there are things about our respective cultures that are normally understood but unstated. Now, we have to clearly say what matters and what does not. We have to state plainly what is important about the way we do things and the way we treat one another. We have to assert explicitly what our office is about and what justice means to us as an organization. Equally important, we have to call out affronts to our culture when we see them. It may be true that culture is more caught than taught, but the taught piece is still important, perhaps more important than ever.

            One valuable tool to make the implicit explicit—perhaps the single most important tool to convey culture—is to tell stories. Every office has stories. Often those stories are told because they are funny or because they were significant in the history of the office, but the stories themselves convey more meaning than what we might think. Stories, whether in an office or a family, uniquely convey and conserve culture. Tell them.

            Fourth, we can do things to increase the chances that culture will be “caught.” Here are some examples premised on putting a few people together in a socially distanced environment.

Mix employees. Put less experienced and more experienced employees who normally don’t work with one another together whenever you can. This can be for training events, working on a case, fun outside-the-office events, etc. Don’t limit this to attorneys—after all, legal staff and investigators are the most likely employees to carry the office culture from one year to the next.

“Board” cases. One of the most effective tools used by prosecutors in this state occurs at the Brazos County District Attorney’s Office. In Brazos County, the DA has a number of “war rooms” that consist of a big whiteboard, table, video screen, and several seats. When a trial approaches, a collection of individuals—including trial counsel, investigators, legal staff, the first assistant, and the elected district attorney—“board” cases.[8] This boarding process consists of a presentation of the facts, debates about possible defenses, brainstorming demonstrative exhibits, positing various trial themes, and the like. It’s an exciting, dynamic process where everyone is free to share opinions. The process is useful for preparing a case for trial, yes, but the process may be even more valuable in conveying a whole host of cultural values about both the office and the community the office serves.

Book clubs. The idea here is to get a group of employees together to read a book or watch a movie that will serve their joint professional development. The book or movie is itself simply a springboard to broader discussions about the profession and the office. This could be done in small in-person groups or larger groups remotely. (There are a few examples of books or movies to use in the endnotes.[9])

            The point of these examples is to put people together in intentional ways to make up for the “accidental” encounters that, pre-COVID, occurred at the coffeemaker. Think of this as an experiment where you pour different, random chemicals into a test tube and turn on the Bunsen burner. Sometimes interesting and unexpected things happen.[10]

Hiring, culture, and COVID

Conveying an organization’s culture is especially important for new employees, and new employees present special challenges to the organization. The starting point is to say that hiring has to continue. District and county attorney offices are going to continue to operate, and people will continue to transition into and out of our offices.[11]

            We might begin by confessing that experience is at a particular premium right now. A person who has experience as a county or district attorney, admin, or investigator does not require that initial process of learning the culture of the profession. With that said, we do not want to miss all the value that comes to our office and to the greater profession by avoiding “new blood.”

            “New blood,” however, will require new onboarding procedures. Right now, many offices are taking the “work to the people,” but for new employees, we need to bring the “people to the work” in some sense. There is no adequate substitute for bringing employees into the office as much as can be safely accomplished. On a related note, hiring completely through a remote process has many advantages, but before making an offer, at least one face-to-face would seem to be a non-negotiable.

            The process we use to hire new employees will be more meaningful than ever. The way we treat potential employees during the hiring process is communicating our culture to them: Are we polite?[12] Professional?[13] Do we take our work seriously but not ourselves? Are we looking for fair-minded team players or hotshot advocates? Or both?

            Once hired, whether experienced or not, the onboarding process has to change. Perhaps in the past we could rely on a prosecutor getting paired with a chief and learning the ropes that way. Now, perhaps, the new prosecutor spends a couple of days following the elected prosecutor around as he or she performs his or her duties. (Too radical?) Or perhaps we create a robust checklist for new employees that introduces them to every member of the organization and key persons in important outside agencies so that the “stories get told.” In the past, in instances where we expected new employees to perform tasks on their own (for example, the initial call to victims), now a more senior person may need to oversee this work. The normal leader “check-ins” and “one-on-ones”[14] may need to increase in pace and length. Written expectations gain more importance in this environment, as do evaluations and coaching sessions. Perhaps most importantly (and perhaps most controversially), employee feedback as to how things are going becomes more valuable than ever. Feedback can tell us if our efforts to convey culture are working or not.

            One last thought about culture and hiring. Don’t be afraid to pass on hiring a person who clearly will fight against your office’s culture. New hires may help transform the culture in positive ways, but there is a difference between transforming and resisting. Vacancies are difficult, but hiring the wrong person is devastating. By way of example, during our hiring process, we use an ethical hypothetical that I call the “Kobayashi Maru.”[15] (This is a “Star Trek” reference. It’s an unwinnable tactical stimulation used with cadets at the Starfleet Academy.) There is no way to “pass” the hypo, but you can fail it. A candidate “fails” the hypo when an irreconcilable divide emerges between our office’s view of fairness and integrity and the candidate’s views of those issues. When these moments arise, we know that no matter how talented the person may be, we have to pass. We pass because we know this person won’t fit in with our culture, and preserving our culture means we can wait.

            A strong word of caution here: Be sure your desire to convey and preserve your organizational culture is done in the greater service of the profession—seeking those high values to which we all aspire. Sometimes we mistake preserving culture for an unstated desire to hire people who look and sound like us. We are comfortable with the familiar, so we are often drawn to people who have the same background, ethnicity, religious beliefs, political leanings, age, gender, etc. That may be natural, but that would be a mistake. When we substitute authentic culture for a superficial “like me” bias, then we are doing no favors for our organization, our profession, our communities, or for promising candidates, and we will all be the poorer for it.

Final comments

There is a sense in the greater culture of our country that prosecutors and those who assist them are struggling to find their identity. Some of this struggle is exciting, and some of this struggle is concerning. Either way, “fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray” that who we are now and who we will become in the future will be the best State of Texas can offer to her citizens.

Endnotes

[1] “Coronavirus is Testing Corporate Cultures & That Isn’t Necessarily a Bad Thing.” (June 10, 2020). Retrieved August 13, 2020, from www.historyfactory.com/ insights/coronavirus-is-testing-corporate-cultures-that-isnt-necessarily-a-bad-thing/.

[2]  My friend Donna Berkey describes culture as “what you feel when you walk down the halls.”

[3]  Cameron, E. (May 08, 2017). “Proof That Positive Work Cultures Are More Productive.” Retrieved August 13, 2020, from https://hbr.org/2015/12/proof-that-positive-work-cultures-are-more-productive.

[4] Bright, D.S., Cameron, K.S. & Caza, A. “The Amplifying and Buffering Effects of Virtuousness in Downsized Organizations.” J Bus Ethics 64, 249–269 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-005-5904-4; Kim Cameron, C. (September 01, 1970); “Effects of Positive Practices on Organizational Effectiveness.” Kim Cameron, Carlos Mora, Trevor Leutscher, Margaret Calarco, 2011. Retrieved August 13, 2020, from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0021886310395514.

[5]  The five counties are Sutton, Crockett, Reagan, Upton, and Pecos. Fantastic sunsets out there—even better people.

[6]  Noah Richardson, our gifted and highly professional IT Operations Specialist, is very close to disconnecting my email entirely. I do not blame him.

[7]  Apart from the pandemic, we sometimes find ourselves separated by virtue of our work or, as was the case for the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, forced apart by other events like Hurricane Harvey.

[8]  “Boarding” likely comes from “murder board,” which was originally a Pentagon term for a “scrubbing” (or “aggressive review”) of a proposed course of action. Having been through a few in the Army, generally the person getting “murdered” is you, the presenter. Or at least your plan. It doesn’t have to be mean, although that can be fun. Not for the presenter, but for others.

[9]  The best book I know for this purpose is The Best Story Wins: And Other Advice to New Prosecutors by John Bobo. My friend Sunni Mitchell of the Fort Bend District Attorney’s Office highly recommends Getting Life: An Innocent Man’s 25-Year Journey From Prison to Peace: A Memoir by Michael Morton. Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement: A Guide for Officers and Their Families by Kevin Gilmartin is another good choice.

For leaders and developing leaders, I recommend The Ideal Team Player by Patrick Lencioni and Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin (if you can get past all the Navy stuff—kidding!). If you would like other book recommendations, please email me at [email protected] I have found, though, that people are more likely to watch something lately than read something (which I get). To that end, consider these movies and TV series: “Murder on a Sunday Morning,” “Gideon’s Army,” “Judgment at Nuremberg,” “Unbelievable,” “Athlete A,” “The Wire,” “The Accused,” “The Pharmacist,” “How to Fix a Drug Scandal,” “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” “Anatomy of a Murder,” “Fear City,” and “Night Falls on Manhattan.” Please note that a number of these shows are on Netflix. You can use my Netflix username and password, which are [redacted by editor].

[10]  And also, horrific explosions.

[11]  The nature of our profession is that we have some excellent men and women come work with us and then go on to other endeavors. This is some speculation on my part (based on conversations with TDCAA staff), but it appears that a significant number of prosecutors serve for about three years before transitioning other jobs. Those “former prosecutors” in the defense bar and the judiciary (and in the legal profession generally) are vital to the overall health of the justice system. Strong and effective defense attorneys, in particular, represent the prosecutor’s best hope in maintaining a fair criminal justice system.

[12]  In the past, we made our hiring process something akin to those rites of passage where young people are stung by bullet ants or flailed with whips. I think we believed that we were assessing mental toughness, but I’m afraid all we did was to frustrate, embarrass, and insult a number of young lawyers, most of whom we didn’t hire. We’ve changed our approach since then.

[13]  We sometimes hear of candidates who have submitted resumes or have even done initial interviews with other counties, but who have heard nothing in response. I understand that there may be reasons for this, but I’m not sure this reflects well upon us as a profession. Even a form letter or email would be better than nothing.

[14] Knight, R. (November 21, 2016). “How to Make Your One-on-Ones with Employees More Productive.” Retrieved August 13, 2020, from https://hbr.org/2016/08/how-to-make-your-one-on-ones-with-employees-more-productive.

[15]  I’m the only one who calls it this. The other people on the hiring committee do not call it this because the other people I work with are adult humans with jobs and whatnot. And speaking of adults, I want to especially thank our Chief of Appellate, Brent Chapell, who does all that he can to help my writing not overly embarrass this office. Thank you, Brent.