David Hassell, Co-founder & CEO, 15Five
With new sexual harassment scandals being uncovered almost every day, it seems an uncomfortable workplace has become the norm.
A 2016 study by the US Equal Opportunity Commission found that between 25% to 85% of American women reported having experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. If there’s an even more sobering statistic than a minimum 1/4 of women experiencing workplace harassment, it might be this one: 75% of employees who spoke out against mistreatment faced retaliation afterwards.
Toxicity has seeped into our day-to-day workplace activities and our more important company moments, like hiring practices and decisions on whether an employee is ready for advancement. Many employees, scared of retribution, are afraid to go to HR—and those that do are often told their harassment is normal, or even that they caused it themselves. Even well-meaning managers might be unconsciously contributing to an unsafe work environment, because they don’t have a safe channel by which to gather candid employee feedback.
From Uber to Harvey Weinstein to Matt Lauer, one thing becomes clear. It’s up to the people at the top to create a workplace that’s safe and comfortable for all.
How can leaders combat this toxic workplace environment?
The key is to foster a culture of open and transparent communication.
Here are 5 leadership lessons to help managers implement a system for soliciting regular feedback—and create a workplace where people feel safe:
1. Codify a moral compass
Spend time actually thinking about your team’s values and developing rituals that support them—because a weak company culture is in essence an environment where warped values and even harassment and objectification can occur. A good place to start might be revisiting the values you list on your own website. If you’ve picked trust, integrity, and compassion as core pillars of your company, sit down with executives and define what that means and how you can align existing behaviors with the workplace you aspire to be.
NBC employees likely knew that Matt Lauer’s behavior was inappropriate, but was the culture one in which people feel safe to speak up? Values inform the culture, which in turn informs behavior. If they had a simple system to voice concerns to management, and had worked to develop a culture of trust, Lauer’s toxic behavior may have come to light much earlier.
2. Create a culture of constant feedback
People are often afraid to speak up about their concerns at work, so leaders must create a structured system where employees can regularly share what’s on their minds — whether that’s a triumph, a work challenge, and especially a safety issue. While in most circumstances transparent communication is preferred, in this case, offering a secure, anonymous platform means that employees will feel safe sharing highly sensitive information. Over time, this creates an open culture of trust and makes employees feel comfortable enough to point out inappropriate behavior.
In the case of Harvey Weinstein and Miramax, thousands of employees knew about Weinstein’s abuse but had no outlet to report it—weekly employee comments submitted to managers could have turned mere rumors into facts.
3. Ask yourself: Are my employees safe?
When you lead, you’re responsible for protecting your tribe—and this begins at the most basic level of personal safety. Defending the vulnerable against the powerful is the mark of a true leader. When it comes to creating a healthy work environment, titles are irrelevant. No employee is worth more than another.
Uber’s HR team systematically ignored or marginalized reports of sexual harassment. However, a system of regular feedback that went to multiple levels of management would have made cover-ups impossible—emboldening HR to defend employees instead of company leaders.
4. Care for your employee’s well-being
Foster close relationships with your employees that help you detect when something is wrong—and then, ask simple, caring questions like, “Is everything okay?” Whether it’s a coffee meeting or a quick weekly check-in, giving some of your time and energy shows your commitment to your employees’ wellbeing.
Your employees spend almost as much (if not more) time at work than they do with their own families. So your workplace should be a “home away from home.” That doesn’t mean to abandon business ethics and professionalism—it means your office should be a place where they feel safe and supported.
5. Help your team to become better people, not just better workers
Your job as a leader is to help everyone on your team become the best people they can be. Responding to their basic human need to grow and develop will naturally translate to greater work performance. Create growth matrixes or key objectives for your employees that maps not only their professional goals, but their personal dreams as well.
When you invest in your employees, you demonstrate that you trust them. Trust is the #1 factor that separates an amazing workplace culture from one that is rife with conflict and adversity. Building trust shows that you believe in your team’s capabilities—while challenging them to grow into the best possible versions of themselves.
About the Author
David Hassell is the cofounder and CEO of 15Five, continuous performance management software that delivers everything a manager needs to impact employee performance, including weekly check-ins, objectives (OKR) tracking, peer recognition, 1-on-1s, and reviews. David is a speaker and prolific writer and was named “The Most Connected Man You Don’t Know in Silicon Valley” by Forbes Magazine.