Culture club: workplace culture gone wrong and how to make it right

Workplace coaches and HR gurus talk a lot about the art of cultivating a positive and productive workplace culture. But what does “workplace culture” really mean and what happens when workplace culture becomes damaged or toxic? 

The tail end of 2018 saw a series of reports in the media about failing workplace cultures in a number of organisations, all of which suffered some serious consequences.

The Google protests

In November 2018, Google employees across the globe walked out in protest against the company’s internal handling of sexual harassment complaints and lack of pay parity. The protests came in response to a New York Times article published in October 2018 exposing Google’s practice of forced confidential arbitration of sexual harassment and sexual assault complaints, which had resulted in several Google executives leaving the company in the last 10 years with multimillion-dollar payments, despite the complaints against them having been found credible.

The protesters demanded change to Google’s policies about handling sexual harassment and sexual assault complaints, as well as a commitment to pay equality.

The protests garnered international attention and Google was forced to respond. Google admitted that it had not got things right in the past and was committed to making changes to its policies, including doing away with forced arbitration.

Hospitals stripped of training accreditation

In September 2018, media outlets reported that the intensive care unit of Westmead Hospital was stripped of its accreditation to train doctors following a series of serious bullying complaints. The hospital’s senior clinician was reported as saying “We’re taking it very seriously and looking to address the issues identified, and [in particular] the culture of bullying.”

Then, in November 2018, the cardiothoracic surgery department at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital lost its accreditation to train doctors because of the bullying and poor communication between surgeons in the department.

“Toxic” culture at charity

In November 2018, the ABC reported that Melbourne’s Lost Dogs Home had a “toxic” culture that resulted in mass resignations from its board and “massive turnover of staff”, including its entire management team. One former executive was reported as saying that the organisation had a systemic bullying culture.

One current employee was reported as saying that people were resigning due to low morale, another employee said that animal welfare was suffering due to mismanagement.

As a result of the troubles at the Lost Dogs Home, donors were reported to be reconsidering their contributions to the organisation, including removing the organisation from bequests in their wills.

Workplace culture

Put simply, workplace culture is the character of an organisation.

Sometimes culture is superficially displayed as a funky office design, but at its heart, workplace culture is about the character, values and substance of an organisation.

When we talk about character in people, we also talk about their values, personality, character traits and character flaws. The same can apply to workplace culture.

Character flaws in the culture of an organisation attract criticism and foster toxicity in the workplace. As you can see from the examples above, the cost of failing to address issues with workplace culture can damage an organisation’s brand and reputation. It can also result in losses in productivity from employees for example due to walking off the job or resigning altogether. It can also lead to the loss of accreditation or industry recognition, and loss in revenue from consumers who don’t want to direct their money to an organisation whose values they do not share.

Character lives in human beings, not in desks and chairs. Therefore, workplace culture stems from the way people conduct themselves in the workplace, how they complete their work and the individual and collective decisions that are made on behalf of the organisation.

Employers, regardless of size, can build and repair workplace culture by insisting that employees conduct themselves in accordance with the values and character traits the employer desires for the organisation. For example, insisting on civility may be as simple as having employees say ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ to each other each day. The concept can then be extended to ensuring that employees treat customers or suppliers with civility and that civility underpins major business decisions. If employees deal with each other and their contacts in a civil manner and decisions are made with civility in mind, before long, it is part of the workplace culture.

The same can be said of other desirable characteristics of workplace culture such as diligence, trustworthiness, respect and care.

Positive and productive workplace culture is not created by supplying ping pong tables or nap pods. It does require:

  • an awareness from leaders that they set the standards for the employees to follow;
  • placing a premium on ‘cultural fit’ during the recruitment and probationary period;
  • not bending or changing your positive workplace values or culture to accommodate poor cultural fit employees just because they ‘bring in work/money’ – eventually they will cost you in other ways; and
  • employees understanding the role they each play in creating a positive workplace.

Shane Koelmeyer is a leading workplace relations lawyer and Director at Workplace Law. Workplace Law is a specialist law firm providing employers with legal advice, training and representation in all aspects of workplace relations, employment-related matters and WH&S.

02 9256 7500 | sydney@workplacelaw.com.au

Information provided in this blog is not legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. Workplace Law does not accept liability for any loss or damage arising from reliance on the content of this blog.

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