Office Hazing…Seriously? Still?!

Pretty much everyone has a story about some form of office hazing, some of it is funny, some downright cruel. This isn’t surprising as “hazing” can range from something as light as putting salt in the sugar jar to full-blown abuse.

So, why does “hazing” even exist? What is the point? When and why did it start?

According to many historians, we’ve got Plato to thank for the start of hazing. This was otherwise known as “pennalism” at the time and through the middle ages. This practice began at Plato’s Academy established in 387 B.C. to oppress and belittle the incoming students. This was meant to force them to know their place as sub-standard to the upperclassmen and elders. It also worked to enforce acts of servitude and a sense of loyalty. With pennalism, they referred to the students as “the hazed” which is assumed to be how the term “hazing” came to be.

Is Hazing Outdated?

Now let’s stop and think, do we as a society really think something invented under the human standards of those living in 387 B.C. should still apply today? At Daggerhart Lab we don’t, which is why “hazing” is not a part of our company culture at all.

At most, with our company, we will occasionally share a laugh about one of our different colloquialisms, as our entire staff is spread around the country working remotely. So, sometimes we’ll enjoy it when one of us says “wicked smaahht (smart)” or pronounces a famous movie star’s name slightly wonky…but that’s it. It’s just about as lighthearted as it comes and we have no desire to change that. This means there really is no hazing here – and there won’t be.

Hazing or Harassment?

So, when and how does the practice of hazing cross the line from light-hearted to full-on harassment? In our opinion, almost always.

Even if the belief is that a prank is meant to be “good-natured”, there is still an underlying intention to humiliate that person to some extent. For example, I was employed at an agency years ago where someone added a script to a new colleague’s computer that made all images appear as different pictures of Nicolas Cage. Sounds really funny, right? Well, that person was on their first solo day doing technical support calls for a website agency that serves thousands of clients. They suddenly had a ton of calls coming in from clients that needed help with their websites and every single image/icon et al, now looked like good ol’ Nicky Cage. They, of course, broke down trying to figure out what was happening and not being able to handle their calls. It was just cruel.

The person who did the prank/hazing said “they didn’t mean for it to go that badly”. They were incredibly rude and dismissive of that new employee’s experience. Hazing and gaslighting are not great ways to establish team loyalty. That employee didn’t last long at the company.

Impact Outweighs Intention

The fact of the matter is, impact outweighs intention. The impact that this had on the new employee was terrible. They basically shut down after that, barely got on board, applied for jobs elsewhere, and were gone within months. Pretty expensive lesson for the company to learn…and they did not learn it. Hazing remained the norm, as did high turnover. Thankfully, they were eventually bought out and the company culture completely changed for the better.

Many of us have witnessed and even been the victim of some pretty cruel hazing ourselves. What remains true, was that it never formed a sense of loyalty in any of us, rather quite the opposite. This shows to be statistically true for most workplace hazing.

Harsh Hazing Is So Passé 

Odd as it may seem (sarcasm), we can totally be nice to each other and form loyal bonds while leaving the tormenting out of it!

It’s best to avoid forced bonding, frankly, that can feel like hazing too. We also recognize what works for us, might not work for everyone else! That said, from multiple Ivy League studies to investigative reporting across nearly every major outlet – the facts show positive reinforcement is more effective than bullying. Employee turnover and attendance, overall productivity, company sales, and client retention are shown to all be stronger across the board where positive company culture is in place.

Natural Bonding is Better than Forced Bonding

Finding a good cadence with this, as well as ensuring incoming employees are the right fit can be challenging. For example, one of us worked at a former agency that was really into team bonding through “fun” competitions. Some of the company was really into it and capable of participating so they would have a total blast. As a result, they won these competitions constantly. Others at the company who were more introverted, less athletic, or physically incapable of participating essentially never had a shot at winning these competitions – and subsequent prizes. (Hellooooo ableism!)

These prizes would often be for vacation days, fairly large dollar amount gift cards, and other attractive rewards. There was a palatable division in the company that was fostered entirely by these attempts at being “fun” and bonding. They quite literally (legally speaking) cannot just hire an entire staff of extroverted deeply athletically competitive people. This means the company culture and efforts to bond with employees and gain loyalty need to change so they work for everyone, not just some.

Check Your Company Culture

It never hurts to audit your company culture and check in on how everyone is doing, authentically. It’s good to examine if there are things that can be done to improve morale. If you do identify problems, then you need to make a plan of action, and follow-through. Hint: Hazing is not going to be the answer, and certainly never at our company

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