What is your preferred workplace culture?  It can be a tough question to answer, but is an incredibly important thing to be able to articulate. Take a moment to think about how you might answer that question. If it’s difficult to answer or hard to formulate an answer that you’d be proud of, then it’s probably an important discussion that your organization’s managers and employees should have.

This issue has found itself in the U.S. media a lot lately. Specifically, charges of sexual harassment at Fox News have led to discussions about how these problems can become so pervasive in an organization. A culture of gender discrimination and inappropriate behavior had become tolerated at the highest levels that it permeated the entire organization. Headlines about such charges are not new, but have certainly resurfaced more recently with lawsuits at major media houses.

An article published by Kathy Gurchiek at SHRM describes the recent attention brought to this issue. She writes about Barbara Annis, CEO, and founder of the Gender Intelligence Group, who provides gender diversity and inclusion leadership training in an effort to combat this kind of workplace culture.

Annis discusses the components of toxic workplaces in which inappropriate behavior is tolerated. These environments are created from the top down, in which higher level employees are either perpetuating this type of behavior or at the very least are bystanders to it. Although focused on issues related to gender diversity, a workplace can become toxic for many reasons. Ultimately, the responsibility lands on those at the top to communicate the type of workplace culture they want to see but then they must live by those values as well.

A toxic workplace is maintained by groupthink, in which different opinions or actions are stifled. Whether intentional or not, employees end up being rewarded for following the negative group norms rather than speaking out against them. Annis points out that in these situations, employees sometimes go along with things that make them uncomfortable and then apologize after the fact privately. This, again, reinforces the notion that everyone must follow suit and cannot publicly denounce the inappropriate behavior. Discussing it privately sends the message that this is not acceptable to discuss openly no matter how bad the behavior is.

The good news is, there are things that can be done. Taking a proactive approach to defining an organization’s culture and related values are key. Then, identifying behaviors and workplace expectations that are in line with the values will help perpetuate them. Sometimes, problems can occur when these values are not explicitly discussed and they become difficult to implement. For example, if an organization values creativity, it will be important to dedicate time in staff meetings to discuss new ideas. Praising or rewarding employees for thinking outside the box will encourage them to continue doing it rather than simply agreeing with the dominant idea.

Managers and supervisors have a large role to play here. Not only do they set the tone, but they also have a lot of power to change things. This requires leaders to take an unbiased approach when needed and assess the workplace culture. Sometimes, upper management can be so far removed from lower level employees that they do not have an accurate read on the culture. This is difficult and requires managers/supervisors to remain engaged with employees on an individual level to encourage open, honest feedback. When feedback is exclusively positive, that’s often a red flag that employees do not feel comfortable sharing their true opinions. This may be indicative of something negative that is occurring that no one wants to talk about.

While the article focuses on toxic workplaces, it’s important to think about less extreme situations as well. Workplace culture is crucial to employee happiness, retention, and productivity. As discussed, workplace culture can encompass attitudes about gender, but it can also relate to basic things such as how employees relate to each other, whose voice gets heard, and work ethic. Open, frequent conversations about these things can prevent problems from occurring. And when they do occur, it becomes much easier to correct them before they have a chance to become deeply ingrained.

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