Tipper Gore, No Hats, And Unintended Consequences

Today I want to talk about keeping quiet. I know, it’s a strange topic for someone who spends his time broadcasting across the Internet. But bear with me; all will become clear.

First off, can you tell me who this person is?

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

As you may have guessed, it’s Tipper Gore. For those of you who may not know, she was the wife of Al Gore, former Vice-President of the United States. What she’s also well known for (some would say infamously so) is her work as a founding member of the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC). 

In her work through PMRC she, amongst other things, pressured the music industry into the use of warning stickers for musical content that was considered offensive or graphic. The story goes that she became an advocate after hearing her then 11 year old daughter playing a Prince song. Her observation was that, as a consumer, she couldn’t differentiate at a glance between appropriate and inappropriate material when making a purchasing decision for her kids. Warning labels, she argued, would help in this effort.

“Censorship is not the answer. In the long run, our only hope is for more information and awareness, so that citizens and communities can fight back against market exploitation and find practical means for restoring individual choice and control.”–Tipper Gore, an excerpt from her book ‘Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society’

On its face it seems reasonable, right? Put in place information and guidelines which allow consumers to make informed choices about the products before them. Here’s the funny thing: it didn’t quite work as planned. When the warning labels were implemented, it seems that, at least in certain musical genres, sales increased.

The reason? Kids saw the warning labels and knew that this would be something that their parents wouldn’t approve of. So of course they had to buy it.

This, my friends, is what’s known as unintended consequences. For the PMRC and its supporters, these actions by undeterred youth undermined their position.  

There’s a lesson here, especially for us Human Resources professionals. How many times have we rolled out a strategy or updated a policy and thought, “This will fix the problem!”? We’re strategic thinkers, after all, and we have a grasp of what makes our target group tick. Then reality hits and things don’t go quite as expected.

A colleague shared an experience he had regarding an upgrade to the company’s dress code policy. They were looking to tweak it a bit. As a growing brand they wanted to send a clear signal to consumers that they were more mature. So he advocated that they add headgear (e.g., hats and beanies) to the ‘Unacceptable Items to Wear’ list. Keep in mind that this was a casual wear retailer, so employees were allowed (up until that point) to wear hats in the store. As a senior executive who never wore a hat he didn’t think it would be a big deal. Wrong.

Image courtesy of Vectorportal

For the next year, during every store visit, this and every senior leader in the business had to deal with feedback about the unfairness of the policy change. Some of it was straightforward; the company’s culture encouraged employees to express their opinions professionally, so many did just that. Others were more subtle; for example, some employees clipped the adjustable tab of their baseball caps to their belt loop during work hours. In the end, leadership realized this was a losing initiative and the following year quietly (but not unnoticed by the store staff) took headgear off the list.

For my fellow Human Resources professionals out there–don’t be Tipper Gore. Initiatives, even though that are well thought out and delivered with the best of intentions can have unintended and disastrous consequences. Sometimes it’s better to keep quiet and find alternative methods for making your point heard.

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