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:

  • Know and evolve the Code of Conduct. While Codes of Conduct are often rote, uninspired documents, they also carry a lot of weight. Working in tandem with the legal function to adjust and evolve the organization’s official stance on critical issues of ethical conduct and interpersonal respect, you can use the code to redraw boundaries. The goal is a living document aligned to today’s business that can tackle pertinent challenges.
  • Define and quantify the current culture. You’ve sensed problems, but can you prove it? Aggregating organizational assessments like employee engagement, turnover, etc., can be helpful, but case examples of employee experiences can help identify a particular form of toxicity and make a case for addressing it. Even one specific example can reveal significant reputational or even legal risk for an organization.
  • Find an ally (or two) in leadership. Bring up these issues to leaders at your organization. Explain what you’ve seen and make the business case for heading off longer-term consequences. The reactions you get may be surprising; it’s possible there are others who would like to move on culture change and just needed a catalyst. They may also be more familiar with some of the root causes of the current toxic culture.
  • Find an ally outside leadership. Perhaps leadership is not very receptive or is instead actively contributing to the problem. Is there anyone else who has credibility at the organization who would agree with your assessment and help you formulate and advocate solutions?
  • Consider leadership’s commitment. Think about the personalities across the organization and gain insight into their time horizon. How dedicated are they to the organization? Are they in it for the long haul? Understanding how the leadership team might change, or whether the current team has a strong commitment to longer-term sustainability, will be helpful to gauging your chances at driving a change.
  • Be prepared for emotional responses. If it is a toxic environment, then drawing attention to what’s wrong could touch a nerve, both in those causing the problem and in those suffering its effects. People may react out of fear, anger or frustration. As much as possible, HR should remain objective and transparent. Finding a genuine and consistent vocabulary for talking about the organization’s culture problems will help build trust and encourage collaboration.

Furthermore, consider your own commitment. Whether you stay and make a case for change or go is the result of a personal risk assessment, which is why we often hear HR leaders driving change in a toxic environment speak openly about personal courage. Going it alone is not likely a viable option, and perhaps because of that, many HR leaders either ignore or walk away from a toxic culture.

The steps above will help you understand your odds. If you have taken these steps and have some partnership, it is absolutely possible to be the catalyst for change. Speak up, make the case for better culture, and it could pay dividends for you and all of your colleagues.