Feeling Trapped: Can HR Leaders Take On a Toxic Culture?

Feeling Trapped: Can HR Leaders Take On a Toxic Culture?

Culture is having a moment in the sun. In our analysis of earnings calls, Gartner discovered that culture was the most frequently discussed talent issue in 2017, while mentions of the word increased 12 percent from the previous year. When we discuss culture change with HR leaders, their objective is usually to align the culture to changing business models or strategies, in order to accelerate and improve the outcomes of those transformations. A culture challenge is often phrased as: “We need to be more innovative,” or “we’re not as inclusive as we could be.”

But recent events have prompted another set of conversations on what to do when you find yourself in a culture that requires not just an adjustment, but a true overhaul. Many companies have recently faced public scrutiny for possessing workplace environments deemed “toxic”—in terms of enabling sexual harassment, bullying, discrimination, or other forms of unethical conduct. Over the past two years, we’ve seen several high-profile organizations undergo significant organizational restructuring to address this issue. In the #MeToo era, as the corporate world engages in a long-overdue reckoning with sexism and sexual harassment, more of these toxic workplace cultures are sure to be uncovered.

When we talk about a “toxic” culture here, we mean something more than just a low-performing culture demonstrated by low employee engagement, siloed workstreams, or high turnover. Those issues are worth addressing, but cultural toxicity is higher stakes. Toxic cultures engender malevolent harassment or corrupt business practices, protect the perpetrators of these toxic behaviors, and create an unsafe environment for employees, permeated with fear and anxiety. While the symptoms may vary, toxic cultures can directly and acutely damage a business’ reputation, profits, and employer brand, while doing real harm to employees and their careers along the way.

Many HR leaders have walked into a new position, only to find themselves in a deeply toxic culture, and wondered what’s next. Of course, since the door is right there, many of these leaders give feedback with their feet, understandably unwilling to fight a force as large and as nebulous as culture. On the other hand, fixing a toxic culture is one of most powerful and positive legacies an HR leader can achieve, in terms of both employee welfare and the health of the organization.

Before leaving a culturally toxic organization behind, HR leaders should determine whether there is an opportunity to partner with relevant stakeholders and address this problem. Here are some steps you, as an HR leader, can consider:

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