Don't Wait for Someone Else to Shape Your Workplace Culture

It seems more difficult to find someone without a story of a terrible boss or coworker than the reverse. Across organizations, industries, and geographies, issues ranging from subtly inhospitable workplaces to tyrannical managers are rife. The Canadian story of the CBC’s recent woes is an extreme example, but not an isolated one. In some ways it harkens back to Dominic Strauss-Khan whose proclivities revealed a toxic gender perspective; Ellen Pao, who lost her discrimination case but revealed a pattern of terrible behavior at her former firm; or any number of high-priced discrimination cases.

But these examples are more glamorous than they are the norm. The more common scenarios are subtler in creating exclusionary, inhospitable or unpredictable environments where everyone must adapt to a particular boss or colleague’s mood of the day. It is less useful to dwell on the big stories that make the news than it is to use them as a reminder that it takes good people - and many people - to bring policies to life. Without a way to effectively monitor and implement workplace policies and shape workplace culture, every organization is at risk.

There is a spectrum to bad behavior, and it is important to examine how it manifests to create an unproductive workplace. It is equally important to examine its effects. High attrition rates, distracted and unproductive staff, dysfunctional relationships or eroded trust between management and staff - all of these things cost money.

Every business and organization can take easy steps to monitor the health of its human environment and it shouldn’t take an outright case of harassment or discrimination to start. Here are a few things that even small business owners can do to keep their eye on the temperature of relationships and culture before someone takes it out of your hands.

1. Have written policies - and tell your staff about them. Policies governing your people’s behavior and the workplace they create don’t have to be a complicated, legalistic book. It can be as simple as a couple of sentences in an orientation or welcome document setting out your expectations and the organization’s requirements for interpersonal behavior. Ideally, it serves less as a warning against would-be bullies and more as reassurance that your people can expect a good working environment. Either way, it puts it on everyone’s mind, and lays the groundwork for you to be able to act if things start to sour.

2. Have procedures to put your policies to work. CBC had policies ‘on the books’, but as the recent report on the Ghomeshi affair revealed, no one seemed ready (or able) to enforce them. It is important for those at the top to figure out what policies about respect in the workplace actually mean in practice. It is important for everyone in an organization to understand basic aspects like what triggers action and how, who is responsible for taking it, what that action is and where it leads. And it’s not just extremes that should be accounted for. You needn’t be alarmist or bureaucratic to be reactive to early signs that things aren’t so swell. Having a simple, transparent process in place will equip you to turn things around while the window to do so is still open.

3. Train – bottom up, top down. Policies and procedures are important for ensuring you can handle it when things go wrong – or are about to. But even if the lifeboat were beautiful, wouldn’t you rather stay aboard the ship? Training is a key part of that. Investing resources in shaping your organizational culture is as important as investing in your fail-safes. There’s never a guarantee against issues because people are people after all. But you can be proactive in creating a workplace culture and environment that operate with a good-values perspective in place. Examine what is right for your workplace, and consider building training into your budget in areas you may not have thought of before. A small investment in training related to areas such as hidden bias, equity and equality, relationship management, or broader team building for example can give you a big return.

4. Check in. Often. Performance reviews will not be as valuable if they are only top-down. Having a sense of how managers are performing their core function of managing, organizing, motivating and mobilizing the people who report to them is a critical factor in maintaining trust, loyalty and productivity. Approaches such as blinded staff reviews of managers and management structures can prove very useful in examining not only the interpersonal dynamics at play but also organizational efficiencies that may otherwise be hard to spot. In addition, mentorship programs, well curated social programs, and even occasional surveys can be excellent vehicles for keeping your finger on the pulse.

5. Pay attention. There are always signs that something is amiss in the human dynamics of your workplace. Sometimes the signs are overt, other times subtle, but they are always there if you know what to look for. There are a myriad of informal ways to keep your ear to the ground. Keep it real, keep it simple, and keep it up.

It’s no secret that the role work plays in most people’s lives has changed significantly. Ensuring a healthy, happy workplace isn’t just good for business, it’s good for people and the broader communities they make up. Who doesn’t want to play a role in that?