How to Improve a Toxic Workplace Culture
Picture this. As a young entrepreneur you took a risk and started a new company. Maybe your company changes an industry and achieves a valuation of millions, even billions of dollars. You were driven to this level by an insatiable desire to succeed, to win, and to achieve. Just as you didn’t follow a yellow brick road to unprecedented success, neither did you plan for your workplace culture to become so toxic that talent would flee, management would be released, and your very role as the head of the company would come to an end.
Uber’s unprecedented success and the uniquely entertaining aspect of the company’s former head, Travis Kalanick, made its spectacular fall intriguing to watch and easy for the news to report. However, Uber’s toxic workplace culture isn’t unique. Companies from every industry in every part of the world are being damaged by a toxic workplace culture that can be brought on by everything from misguided ambition to poorly constructed employee norms. Fortunately, every company doesn’t have to endure the same public embarrassment, loss of talent, and personal injury to it’s employees. Companies have repaired a toxic workplace culture, and there are priorities companies can adopt to positively impact this work.
Employees, especially millennials and Gen Z, expect to give and receive continual feedback. Consulting firm Deloitte identifies that “Companies need tools and methods that measure and capture employee feedback and sentiment on a real-time, local basis so they can continuously adjust management practices and the work environment at a local level.” Of course, as Susan Fowler’s experience at Uber reminds us, companies need to actively respond to feedback from their employers or it is more damaging than if it wasn’t ever given.
However, having real-time employee feedback gives companies an opportunity to respond to employee concerns and to begin making adjustments based on their feedback.
There is no doubt that a positive workplace environment benefits the employees, the company, and the customers. Everyone wins when people like where they work. However, it’s easy for companies to become indifferent to their employees concerns because they wrongly believe they can achieve a successful business regardless of employee satisfaction. The Harvard Business Review encourages leaders to show empathy by listening to employee concerns and being deliberate about being helpful. This is based on conclusions by a Harvard University study that found “a culture of safety…in which leaders are inclusive, humble, and encourage their staff to speak up or ask for help leads to better learning and performance outcomes.”
Companies who empower their leaders to demonstrate empathy will begin the personal path toward recovering their workplace culture.
One of the most frustrating aspects of Uber’s overhaul was the vague promises for improvement and change. Many valuable employees have been fired and their leader is no longer in charge, but it’s unclear what changes are being made that actually improve the culture. Therefore, companies serious about improvement will enact changes that are measurable.
Using the real-time feedback mentioned above, companies can begin to measure the impact of company-wide changes to ensure that they are doing more than talking about change.
By 2015, Amazon achieved drone delivery of diapers in under an hour, but they still struggled to create a workplace culture in which employees thrive. A detailed 2015 story by The New York Times exposed Amazon’s toxic workplace culture, and it became impossible for Amazon to ignore its problem. Among the many grievances listed in the article is the expectation that employees not only work long hours but that they remain available after leaving work.
In 2016, Amazon announced that it would offer employees the opportunity to work on established part-time teams that allow employees to work 30 hours a week while maintaining full benefits and an equivalent portion of a full-time salary. This move was intended to address the accusations that it was a workaholic culture that punished those who didn’t commit to its demands. The Harvard Business Review believes that “this experiment can work, benefiting Amazon and its employees.”
Obviously, one policy change doesn’t fix everything at Amazon, but it’s a strategic move in the right direction, and Amazon is on its way to improving its culture. Amazon is a reminder the companies, even the largest companies in the world, can make intentional decisions to improve workplace culture.
Engaged companies that encourage empathy and measure growth will begin improving their workplace culture, and this is a benefit to everyone involved.