Can Weird Be Wonderful?

Frederick Jerant Human Resources, Issue 10 - March/April 2014, Legal 1 Comment

Glassdoor Senior Vice President of People and General Counsel Allyson Willoughby thinks so. Here, her tips for turning “strange” into “strategic.”

By Fred Jerant

A J. D. degree from the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law and undergraduate degrees in Economics and Sociology from Stanford University seem like atypical qualifications for the head of a corporate human resources (HR) department. Thus, Allyson Willoughby might be the last person you would expect to hold such a position. Though she does: In fact, she serves as Senior Vice President (SVP) of People and General Counsel at Glassdoor, one of the world’s most comprehensive resources for career and workplace information.

Previously, Willoughby held senior legal positions with RockYou, a social gaming and advertising group; Method Products, a multinational manufacturer of environmentally friendly household products; and eBay subsidiary StubHub. But her initial exposure to HR was serendipitous.

Culture Development 101

Willoughby_Allyson_imageAt Method, Willoughby worked closely with the HR Department. That piqued her interest in corporate values and culture because “I had never experienced anything like the culture at Method. People talk about the workplace being like a family, and I think that’s pretty trite most of the time, but it was really like that at Method. And on Sunday afternoons, I was really excited about going to work the next day!”

It also made her wonder why so many companies neglect that area of the business. “There’s really only a small handful of companies that are held up as having amazing cultures,” Willoughby said, “but the formula for developing one isn’t that difficult.”

“A company’s culture is going to evolve, whether you cultivate it or let it develop organically,” she said, noting that the best route is to create it at the outset. “I’ve seen big companies where the culture wasn’t formally defined until there were thousands of employees. When you’re that large, it can be tough to suddenly announce a set of values and expect everyone to comply. Having a vision at the start enables you to hire people who will fit into it right away.”

At first, she toyed with the idea of starting her own company, developing its culture from scratch. “That’s the easiest way,” Willoughby said, “because you know what it is you want, and you’re not dealing with pre-existing things.”

But the startup of Glassdoor provided her with a simpler, more direct path toward designing a culture. “My goal is to proactively find the key elements needed to form an ideal vision. Should it be creative? Should it be fun? After it’s defined, I can drive the processes needed to put it in place.”

Although Glassdoor’s founders already have their own values, Willoughby takes pride in the fact that current employees will have a voice as well. “It’s important to stick with the values that your people already know and live,” she said, because a culture thrives when employees have a sense of ownership.


The ‘Method’ Method

The concepts, according to Willoughby, need not be complex. Method’s culture turned on just five:

  1. Care;
  2. Collaboration;
  3. Innovation;
  4. What would MacGyver do?; and
  5. Keep Method weird.

While the first three are obvious, the last two are likely perceived to be less so. The MacGyver reference inspired people to look for unusual or unorthodox solutions to problems, just as the TV character did. “Weirdness?” Willoughby said. “The founders wanted a quirky culture. They were in their 20s and had wacky personalities. Some days they’d show up for work in costume; occasionally, they’d provide a round of jello shots in the middle of the afternoon.”

It became the company’s most defining value. A standard job interview question was, “How would you keep Method weird?” “That question screened out about two-thirds of our applicants,” she laughed. “Some answers weren’t weird enough, and others were too weird.”

Willoughby_Allyson_sidebarFinding (and Keeping!) the Proper Fit

That leads to another key facet of a thriving corporate culture: fitting in. “You need to be mindful of that in the hiring process,” Willoughby said. “Sometimes it’s tempting to jump on hiring the first person who has the qualifications you want, but there has to be a cultural fit as well.”

Willoughby cited another Method case in point: “Someone sent an email calling for a spontaneous yoga session in the lobby in 15 minutes. But if your employees prefer to stay at their desks all day, that would fail. Your hiring practice wouldn’t have been consistent with that part of your culture.”

Company leaders should set the example. And at Glassdoor, they do.

“Everyone on the executive team has children,” Willoughby said, “and Robert Hohman, our CEO [Chief Executive Officer], is determined to have dinner with his kids every night. He works a lot of hours, but he’s gone by 5:30 or 6:00. That doesn’t mean his workday is over, though. He’ll still hop on email or tend to other tasks later in the evening or early the next morning. That sets the tone for the rest of the company.”

“We also have unlimited PTO [personal time off], so people can take vacations whenever the workload allows,” Willoughby said. “And there’s a generous maternity leave policy, so mothers can spend time at home with their babies instead of rushing back to the office after six weeks.”

“At some tech startups around here, it’s okay to walk in at 11 a.m., provided you’re willing to stay until midnight. But Glassdoor isn’t an environment where ‘grinding it out’ is essential,” she said. “No one is expected to be in a chair for a certain number of hours, as long as the work gets done.”

Fred Jerant is a freelance writer based in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

Allyson's Key Partners:
SV Employment Law Firm (Employment Litigation & Counseling) | Sideman & Bancroft (Trademarks)

Comments 1

  1. david_parks

    Great article. It reminds me of an adapted quote from former business partner – “it is the cracked ones who let in the light.” A bit of weird is good. You are right about being intentional about shaping culture . . . . . .and the biggest cue for this is the leadership team. How they act and treat others sets the tone.

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