company book clubCompany Book Club vs. Developing an Employee Reading Program

In a previous blog post titled hire for attitude, train for everything else, I wrote about the importance of considering a required reading program for your employees (takes it a step further than the corporate library, right?). At the time, it was just an idea spawned from observing another company and how they operate. However, I am now giving this kind of idea serious consideration in my own organization. See, this year we are going to focus on emphasizing our corporate culture as a recruiting tool, and this is just one more thing (strategy) to set us apart from the average employer.

Why I Believe in Reading (And Why HR Should, Too)

Before I try to sell this idea, I want to explain why reading matters to me. According to some (terrifying) statistics, in 2002, nearly 90 million adults in the US did not read a single book. That might not have an impact on you; but it should. I’ll put it another way.

Those are our employees. Those are our managers. Those are the unemployed who so desperately want to find jobs. Reading has taught me so much that I never would have learned in my job experience or formal education. Picking up a book and gleaning a new idea from its pages is something akin to magic. You are literally absorbing someone else’s ideas into your own brain.

Compared to other learning activities, it’s extremely inexpensive. If you purchase a book for $20, and you get one really good idea you can use to enrich your career, then you got a really great deal. While seminars and training programs can cost hundreds of dollars, reading has a relatively high ROI.

By now you should understand how passionate I am about reading and how it can benefit you (in a teambuilding session or elsewhere). Now let’s jump into how you can develop a program that encourages employees to read, learn, and grow.

The Basic Idea

New employees receive a few books when they are hired as a gift from their new employer. They have 90 days to read them and sign off acknowledging that they have completed the task. This isn’t just another “sign it and get it back to me” form. It has real significance in how the employee feels about the organization and how he or she fits in from the very beginning. They should be able to give a cursory book review if necessary so you are aware that they have consumed and understood the content.

Tie It To A Core Value

If you have read anything I’ve written before, you know how much I believe in the power of solid core values that a workforce can be committed to. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Zappos at this point. Zappos requires new employees to read specific books, and they tie the reading requirements to one of their core company values: Pursue Growth and Learning.

Holding people accountable for the reading gives Zappos a platform to encourage further study. Getting people involved in their own long term development is a great way to increase retention and job satisfaction. When people feel like they are in control, they are generally happier.

In my own organization, we have “inspire innovative solutions to solve customer needs” as a core value. That’s pretty specific. How innovative would you expect people to be if their knowledge consumption includes the DJ on the morning commute and three hours of sitcoms every night?

Now imagine you’ve given them some tools to help further generate ideas and encourage creativity. I’m feeling more confident in our ability to innovate with the latter!

Carrying it further

If you get into the midst of a program like this and find that it’s working well for you, there are ways to make it even more engaging. Some organizations have libraries where employees can borrow books to continue building their professional development. Companies can even hold workshops and lunch and learn sessions to explore the main themes from the books.

Infinite Options

There are so many great books out there to fit the program to your organization that I hesitate to recommend specifics. From customer service and technology, to innovation and leadership, there are hundreds of excellent books to target your needs and have the most impact on your company. It defeats the purpose if you require someone to read a book that isn’t remotely connected to your organization or industry.

Better Than a Company Book Club!

I can hear it now. But wait, we have a company book club. Isn’t that the same thing?

Face it, book clubs might sound neat, but it’s really just made up of people who would be reading whether there’s a club or not (hail, fellow geeks!). Or it’s full of people who feel like they need to do it because their buddy is in the group as well and they’d like yet another opportunity to socialize. And the nonparticipants? They just look at the book club as a silly fad that will die off eventually. Getting everyone engaged and involved by setting some required reading is a better alternative and less likely to seem like an exclusive clique.

Top 3 Benefits of Developing an Employee Reading Program

  • Common ground for all: Employees know after they read The Pursuit of Something Better what your feelings are on the topics of customer service, ethics, and leadership. There is no ambiguity or “here’s how we did it at my last job” involved when you get everyone on the same page from the very beginning.
  • Kinship: It seems funny, but there is a certain connected feeling that exists if you know someone has read the same book as you. At seemingly random times you might strike up a conversation about that chicken-catching idea from Be Bodacious: Put Life in Your Leadership. Helping your people to feel like a part of the team early on is a must if you want great collaboration.
  • Cost comparison: If you were going to bring in a high-dollar speaker to talk to your employees, some people would undoubtedly miss out on attending. And new employees would not be a part of that experience. Other team-building programs can cost a lot of money with little results. However, purchasing a few books per employee is relatively cheap in the larger scheme of things, and the potential benefits more than outweigh the associated costs.

What if they hate reading?

Yes, this is the default response I always hear. But my employees can’t/won’t/don’t read now. What do I do?

Let’s look at reading as a job requirement. Do your employees hate staying current on industry trends and competitive news? Is “I don’t like reading” an acceptable excuse when it comes to reading company reports? This excuse will only be a barrier if you allow it to be.

There are so many great book options that are short enough to hold some great ideas for any attention span.  One of the things I often tell people is everyone can love to read if given enough time and encouragement, and if presented with material that is significantly interesting to them.

So, what do you think? Is this something that you might explore for your own organization? Why or why not?

Subscribe for updates and get the free Organizational Culture Change Manifesto eBook

Subscriber Preferences
  • 2 thoughts on “Company Book Club? There’s a Better Way

    1. At the current company I work for we have kind of an “unofficial” mandatory book club that we are all a part of. Every new hire has to read “Predictable Revenue” by Aaron Ross and Marylou Tyler, “Traction” by Gino Wickman, and “Lean Start Up” by Eric Ries. We have based our business model off of these books and reference them in weekly meetings.

      However we don’t discuss the books after or make any effort to record our thoughts, we just assume the new hire is knowledgeable about what they are reading. After reading this article I think you’ve made a good point about finding common ground and kinship between coworkers – I think I will head up a book club where we turn our “unofficial book club” into an official one and get everyone on the same page.

    2. Curious about how you see this in a FLSA context. Requiring employees to read a book would require that they are compensated for their time reading. Even if you only imply that the reading is tied to their performance evaluation, you are making it a condition of employment. I’m all for the idea of a reading program that encourages a strong culture, but for non-exempt employees, you may be creating a large wage and hour liability

    Leave a Reply to Erin Borgerson Cancel reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *