Avoiding the Wild West at work: how good culture starts with respect, fairness and company values

People want the great positive experiences at work, but they also want to avoid the bad, unfair, disrespectful ones.

Avoiding the Wild West at work: how good culture starts with respect, fairness and company values

In the UK we have recently had a whole series of scandals about poor behaviour at work. The Metropolitan Police and the Fire Service being just the latest two that show misogyny and racism are still rife in many organizations. And it’s not as if we can really look to the government for leadership when over 50 MPs are currently under investigation for sexual harassment or, and I quote, “more serious wrongdoings”. These figures work out as about 1 in 8 male MPs and this does not even include further accusations of bullying.

In my work I regularly run workshops on happiness at work and I normally ask people to reflect on when they were happy at work. They tell me wonderful stories of teams working together to tackle challenging and worthwhile goals. Of great managers and leaders who gave them direction and guidance but also the freedom to shape their own work and make their own mark. Great experiences that always inspire me.

However, sometimes I also ask the opposite question - i.e. to think about a time when they were unhappy at work. I have learnt the hard way to only ask this when I know we have time to process the responses; regrettably most people have had at least one genuinely bad experience. Overwork and stress come up of course, but more often they recount stories about issues such as: lack of respect, unfairness, disregard, discrimination, bullying, creepiness, sexual harassment and even threats of violence (shockingly this was the case for someone who had been a whistle-blower in a company fraud case). Most of them have changed jobs since and many say that they are attending a workshop on happiness at work precisely because they want to make sure they, and others, don’t suffer the same bad experiences.

After running a workshop where we have explored these issues, I am always reminded that there can be no happiness at work without fairness and respect. People want the great positive experiences, but they also want to avoid the bad, unfair, disrespectful ones.

Indeed, I would go as far as to say that fairness and respect are the bedrock on which all good company cultures are built and need to be embedded in the values a company holds. Although some businesses have value statements that are on their websites but then ignored within the business, these values should be treated with the utmost importance; they are akin to the visible aspects of a company’s culture. And having them written down, at the very least, provides a touchstone for employees to know what they can expect.

To avoid the risk of unhappiness (and possibly lawsuits too) it is critical that respect and fairness are encoded in a company’s set of values. It is also important that other values are cross checked back to these. Sometimes a value that sounds innocuous such as “speak your mind” or “be your authentic self” can lead to some people thinking it is okay to be completely unfiltered and say whatever they think, with no regard to how their words land.

This is a tricky tension to navigate. Amy Edmondson, the Harvard Business School Professor, highlights it in her work about psychological safety at Google. She defines it as “the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.” But she is also clear that this is not a carte-blanche for an anything-goes environment. It is about creating an atmosphere which is safe and free, and respectful and open.

If values are the visible aspects of your company culture, then how people and teams work together is the experience of your culture. The role of team leaders is critical to how teams operate. It is not always an easy role to play but it is also clear from workshop participants that it is the leaders who provide both guidance and freedom that are most valued.

Providing guidance and freedom is also something People and HR directors should and do lead on. This guidance should be aimed specifically at teams and team leaders, as most people’s experience of work is shaped by the colleagues that they work most closely with.

Avoiding the Wild West

HR often gets a bit of a bad rap when it comes to setting directives, but I think that is very unfair. Without good practice outlines it would be a Wild West out there - precisely the anything goes scenario that needs to be avoided.

In fact, I think that businesses are quietly and sensibly leading the way in how we navigate this tricky tension between safety and freedom. Sensible, fair policies about inclusion and diversity are being written and actioned every day. These directives can help people make much stronger connections with their colleagues by building trust and creating a strong sense of belonging.

Clearly guidance isn’t enough, and it needs to be backed up with procedures and reporting. It is important to have a safe complaints process where people feel heard, and the process is transparent and fair to everyone involved. The stories from the Metropolitan Police and Fire Service about women making complaints and then nothing being done, or taking years to be processed, shows how corrosive a not-fit-for-purpose complaints process is. It’s worth making the effort to get it right as even if it is rarely used, it makes everyone feel safer to know it is in place.

Reporting is also important. Think about how publishing data on internal gender pay gaps has opened up a whole host of unseen inequalities, which are no doubt also reflected across all diversity and inclusion challenges. Reporting, in this instance, creates a healthy transparency and closing the gap becomes a natural goal. However, reporting shouldn’t always be linked to targets. It’s not a good idea to have a target for reducing complaints as it is a feedback system, and it is important to hear quickly about things when they aren’t going well. No one makes a complaint unless they are unhappy and whatever the merit of their specific complaint, there is something to be resolved.

Fairness and freedom both matter

The recent very public scandals are a stark reminder that toxic cultures can and do exist in organisations. The way to ensure they are rooted out is through good, fair policies that are implemented thoroughly. The psychologically safe environments that Google has put into practice and Amy Edmondson has written about, provide the very best conditions for teams to be successful.

Fairness and freedom can and do go together. These are the qualities that my workshop participants regularly say make for a good team leader. They are also two of the core qualities that make for a good work culture where teams and individuals can thrive. So, making sure your business’s policies and practices are in good shape is a critical part of building a happy, successful business.