Organizational Folklore. Encyclopedia Of American Folklore

Folklore about organizations or originating in organizational settings (especially the
workplace), and folklore forms as instances of organizing. Organizational-folklore
studies emerged in the late 1970s with the growing interest in modern and urban folklore
and a broadening of the conception of folk groups to include office personnel and
management. In addition, more folklorists found employment in government, discovering
firsthand the value of organizational skills and the problems of bureaucracies. And many
folklorists began to realize that the bulk of traditions in the organized workplace owe
their existence to, and reflect, forces in the organization as a whole.
Urban legends include numerous beliefs and stories about government and big
business. Jan Harold Brunvand notes that one of the first examples of urban folklore to be
scrutinized for its origins and veracity was “The Wordy Memo.” From at least the 1940s
to the present, various sources have reported that the Lord’s Prayer has 56 words, the
23rd Psalm 118 words, and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address 266 words, but a recent U.S.
government directive on pricing cabbage (or fruit) allegedly contains a daunting 26,911
words. Other accounts describe classic foul-ups in paper shuffling, obscure government
offices with no current function, and massive military orders. Such stories charge
inefficiency, wastefulness, mismanagement, or ineptitude. Even if unfounded in their
specifics, the legends point to problems typical of bureaus and the bureaucratic model of
organization. Confirmed instances of military suppliers charging outrageous prices for a
hammer, a washer, or a toilet seat, and government warehouses glutted with equipment
and spare parts, make the legends credible.
Some narratives about business organizations probably originate in actual experiences,
according to Gary Alan Fine, who has examined successful lawsuits claiming
contamination of bottles of Coca-Cola (and other products) with decomposed mice,
putrid peanuts, and so on. Other stories, however, appear to be projections. One subtype
of “The Kentucky Fried Rat” legend describes a woman eating fried chicken while
watching television at home. Because of the extra crispy coating, it takes her a few bites
to realize she is chewing on a rat; a disgruntled employee at the franchise cooked it as a
prank. In another subtype, a young man’s date dies of strychnine poisoning that had
killed the fried rat she unwittingly consumed; unsanitary conditions are to blame. Fine
hypothesizes that these narratives “reflect some of the basic anxieties of our times” as
America moves from a personalized economy to a bureaucratized, mass-consumption
economy. “Because of the impersonality of large institutions,” Fine writes, “employees
do not feel morally attached to their supervisors or to those served.” Rats and mice as
contaminants are apt symbols of the decline of community and morality.
Several narrative types concern Third World products. Some report the horror of a
customer trying on garments in a discount store and discovering a snake in the arm of an
imported coat or sweater. Others allege that Mexican workers urinate into bottles of
Corona beer shipped to the United States, giving the beer its bright yellow color and
copious foam. Some contend that a finger has been found in a can of menudo (Mexican tripe soup). Fine suggests that these accounts express Americans’ anxiety over the
(dangerous) invasion of foreign goods and the threat to U.S. industry by competitors
abroad. (When the contamination rumors surfaced in 1987, Corona beer was the fastestgrowing imported brew and quickly becoming a high-prestige product.)
Redemption rumors imply American corporate beneficence: Sending the pull tabs
from aluminum cans, tags attached to tea bags, or empty cigarette packages to the
corporation allegedly sponsoring the program will result in the purchase of a kidney
dialysis machine for a child, an iron lung, a wheelchair, or other medical equipment for a
needy person. Fine speculates that such rumors reveal more about the tellers than the
organizations—that is, people may be seeking redemption from their own unhealthful
Stories, rumors, and beliefs indicate ambivalence toward business: While some
portray corporations as beneficent, others present the corporation as evil. In the late
1970s, rumors spread that Proctor and Gamble’s logo (the profile of a manin-the-moon
figure facing left toward thirteen stars) contains satanic symbols, that the company
supported demonic cults, and that the founder or a subsequent president had made a pact
with the devil. Rumors circulating in the mid-1970s charged that Adolph Coors Company
is a Nazi organization. Church’s Fried Chicken supposedly is in league with the Ku Klux
Klan and sprinkles its food with a substance that causes sterility in Black males. The
deceptive corporation is another theme (allegedly Kool-Aid is carcinogenic, Pop Rocks
explode, BubbleYum chewing gum is made from spiders’ eggs).
Folklore surrounds particular companies. This may be due to the “Goliath effect”
(Fine’s term), which occurs when a company becomes the symbol for the industry or all
business because it is large or familiar. Sometimes, however, a company trait or image
lends itself to the generation of folklore. International Business Machines (IBM)
Corporation became legendary for its strict dress code, anonymous committees making
group decisions, and “strong” corporate culture. A persistent rumor asserts that “IBMers”
gather to sing company songs; some people claim to possess or to have seen the
songbook. One example of photocopylore purports to be a reprint from IBM Song Book
Form No. 30–8798–0-8–12–53–P. It contains the words to “Hail to the IBM” and “Ever
Onward.” The first song salutes T.J.Watson (IBM’s founder), for whom “our voices swell
in admiration.” The second also honors “our friend and guiding hand.” It avows: “We’re
bound for the top to never fall!/ Right here and now we thankfully/Pledge sincerest
loyalty/ To the corporation that’s the best of all!”
In addition to folklore about government, industry, and business, organizational
folklore includes traditions generated within institutions. Like individuals everywhere,
people in organizations engage in superstitious behavior, especially in times of stress. In
November 1983, executives of Japanesebased TDK Corporation (one of the largest
manufacturers of audio- and videotapes), asked a Buddhist priest to bless its U.S.
headquarters after a run of misfortune (an armed robbery, the death of an employee’s
child, several automobile accidents, marital discord, and falling corporate profits). The
priest sang, burned incense, and said payers. “A blessing cannot hurt,” observed one
employee. “We can all gain from the experience—if nothing but a common unity.”
During the recession in die early 1990s, many people carried talismans with them
when making sales pitches and presentations. One banker who had recently joined a
company in a Manhattan high rise insisted that he not be assigned an office on the nineteenth floor or be given a phone number with nineteen in it. Adam Rose, vice
president of a real estate firm, swapped phones with a colleague so he could have the
extension 6789, a number that “has been good to me.” When he chaired Mark Cross and
Company, George Wasserberger inadvertently arrived at an important meeting wearing
one black and one brown shoe; the meeting proved quite successful. In the early 1990s,
as president of Stotter Division of Graduate Plastics Company, he intentionally wore
mismatched shoes to crucial meetings.
Others have avoided bad luck omens, such as the number thirteen. Brokers and traders
noted that 1987, the year of the stock market crash, contained three Friday the Thirteenths
(the most that can occur). Although not called superstitions, numerous beliefs and
conventional wisdom ranging from what the firm’s financial goals should be to how
marketing should be done become cherished assumptions on which executives base
corporate strategies.
Certain stories cut across organizations and industries. In one, a high-status person
breaks a company rule and is challenged by a subordinate (who may or may not be aware
of the transgressors identity); the high-status person does or does not comply (and may
react by either complimenting or firing the subordinate). For example, Thomas Watson
Jr., the intimidating chairman of IBM’s board, wore the wrong clearance badge when
embarking on a tour of a security area in the company. His entourage looked on in horror
as the young, female supervisor barred his entrance (with trepidation, however, for she
recognized him). Watson calmly waited until someone brought him the correct
identification. As the story was told at Revlon, the head of the company refused to sign in
in the morning like everyone else. Challenged by the new receptionist, Charles Revson
inquired if she knew him. When she said no, he told her,” Well, when you pick up your
final paycheck this afternoon, ask ‘em to tell ya.”
“The Rule-Breaking Story” is one of several types found in a wide variety of private
and public organizations. Among others are “Is the Big Boss Human?” “How Will the
Boss React to Mistakes?” “Can the Little Person Rise to the Top?” and “How Will the
Organization Deal with Obstacles?” Positive versions of the stories portray the
organization as uniquely good and enable employees to identify with it; negative versions
depict the institution as unworthy of its employees. While some stories that are
remarkably similar might have originated polygenetically (have multiple origins) because
they treat universal concerns, many probably result from monogenesis (single origin) and
diffusion through space and time.
Photocopylore proliferates; often the logo of one institution has been cut off, and the
document copied onto the letterhead of another organization. Fake memos attributed to
the Personnel Office set forth new rules, policies, or procedures. One describes a
restroom trip policy involving an accounting and control system to avoid wasted time.
Employees receive a limited number of trip credits each month to use the restrooms;
these have been equipped with automatic flushing, tissue-roll retraction, and dooropening devices as well as surveillance cameras (to document unauthorized access). The
memo concludes by noting that “the college remains strongly committed to finding
technical solutions to management problems” and that “we believe our trusted employees
will do the right thing when given no other choice!”
Another memo describes a work-force reduction plan, which includes a program
called RAPE (Retire Aged Personnel Early). Employees may request a review of their status prior to forced retirement in a phase called SCREW (Study of Capabilities of
Retired Early Workers). “All employees who have been RAPE’d and SCREW’d may
then apply for a final review” called SHAFT (Study of Higher Authority Following
Termination). Employees may be RAPED’d once and SCREW’d twice but “get the
SHAFT as many times as [narhe of the organization] deems appropriate.” A popular
photocopied item depicts a person with an enormous screw through the torso along with
the words: “Work hard and you shall be rewarded.” Much photocopylore focuses on
stress points in organizational life and areas of strain occasioned by chafing rules, loss of
control over individual freedom, the lack of recognition for personal achievement, and
the uncertainties or inequities in promotion practices.
Some folklore originates in situations of ambiguity or from feelings of ambivalence. In
the railroad, airline, and telephone industries, ambiguity arises from the fact that these
occupations are services. Porters, flight attendants, and telephone operators perform in
subordinate roles providing obvious or seemingly mundane services. They must work as
a team, and they justifiably consider what they do to be important, but sometimes
supervisors and the public alike underrate them. Employees must appear pleasant and
helpful, no matter their true feelings. Strained relations, interpersonal conflict, and stress
may result. According to Jack Santino, people express their dissatisfaction, their “oudaw
emotions,” through fictive narrative forms such as stories in which a telephone lineman
throws a pie in the boss’ face or an airline attendent dresses down a captain or spits out a
snappy retort to an insulting passenger. The narratives identify and define situations of
subordination and hostility and provide symbolic ways of coping with emotions.
Rituals, rites, celebrations, and ceremonials abound. Organizational rites of passage
include ceremonies welcoming new employees, celebrations on being promoted, rituals
honoring achievement, and ceremonial banquets for retirees. Other rites or rituals range
from degradation to enhancement, renewal, conflict reduction, and integration. People
celebrate holidays at work, sometimes even minor ones or each others’ birthdays. Much
can be inferred about “climate” (the tone and tenor of the workplace) from observing
what forms and examples of folklore are present or absent.
Jargon, traditional expressions, and oft-used metaphors also reveal feelings, attitudes,
values, and assumptions in an organization. Sports, military, and cowboy metaphors have
quite different connotations from gardening, family, and music metaphors. Frequent use
of such metaphors probably reflects organizational philosophy or leadership style and
likely reinforces ways of thinking, behaving, and responding to people and events.
The concept of organizational folklore also includes many folklore forms and
examples as instances of organizing. Festivals, parades, religious ceremonies, family
reunions, and annual clambakes require organized effort if they are to occur and be
judged satisfying. Most family outings, sandlot basebase games, impromptu picnics, and
birthday parties are spontaneous organizations. They exemplify organizing in its
fundament: people cooperating, channeling resources, and distributing roles and activities
for a designated purpose. It scarcely matters that their goals are social and aesthetic rather
than pragmatic. What does matter is diat they tend to evoke feelings of enjoyment,
meaningfulness, and fellowship, while too often the experience of formal organization
results in the desire for such feelings and frustration in not having them. In sum, the study
of organizational folklore can reveal much about traditional expressive behavior,
particular organizations, and the nature of organization.
Michael Owen Jones
Brunvand, Jan Harold. 1984. The Choking Doberman and Other “New” Urban Legends. New
York: W.W.Norton.
Dundes, Alan, and Carl Pagter. 1978. Work Hard and You Shall Be Rewarded: Urban Folklore
from the Paperwork Empire. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Fine, Gary Alan. 1992. Manufacturing Tales: Sex and Money in Contemporary Legends.
Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.
Jones, Michael Owen, ed. 1990. Emotions in Work. American Behavioral Scientist (Special Issue)
30 (JanuaryFebruary).
——. 1991.Why Folklore and Organization(s)? Western Folklore 50:29–40.
Jones, Michael Owen, Michael Dane Moore, and Richard Christopher Snyder, eds. 1988. Inside
Organizations: Understanding the Human Dimension. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Martin, Joanne, Martha S.Feldman, Mary Jo Hatch, and Sim B.Sitkin. 1983. The Uniqueness
Paradox in Organizational Stories. Administrative Science Quarterly 28:438–453.