What does “work hard, play hard” really mean?

Have you played hard yet this week? Any plans on the calendar to play?

If you’ve been seduced by the promise of “work hard, play hard,” you’re not alone. With the rise in popularity of flashy start-ups, work-from-home, free catered lunches and free beer in the foosball room, traditional organizations find themselves falling behind in the category of fun.

This is where promises of “work hard, play hard” arise. Have you ever been in an interview, inquired about the company’s culture, and received the reply, “We work hard here, but we also play hard”? Have you seen this phrase included in a job description: “We have a work hard, play hard culture”?

One half of this promise is true. And it’s not the half you’re hoping for.

In the absence of a truly positive, productive and supportive company culture, many organizations opt for the perception of fun. The promise of a happy hour. A prolonged team lunch. Do you feel guilty about leaving early for the happy hour? Do you have to stay late to make up for the extra lunch time? Well, you are working hard.

So how can you tell if claims of “work hard, play hard” and “good company culture” are true? Practices. “Values are of little importance unless they are enshrined in a company’s practices.” (Harvard Business Review: “Six Components of a Great Corporate Culture.”) Stating the phrase “we work hard and play hard” is akin to stating “I am an interesting person.” Actions speak louder than words.

Inquiring about specific company practices, programs and initiatives will help to bring out the truth. If your interviewer/supervisor/CEO/team members can effortlessly name ongoing and regularly-scheduled actions and activities, great! If not, beware.

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