Turning toxic cultures around

Our webinar at the end of last year explored how toxic cultures are created and maintained, and what HR can do to tackle them

Weinstein and Hollywood harassment scandals, bullying in Westminster, bad banker behaviour contributing to the global financial crash, worker exploitation concerns at Sports Direct, the Google walkout… the list goes on. Yet these are just a handful of examples where organisations have learnt the hard way what can happen when culture goes wrong.

And, while high-profile, they are evidently by no means isolated cases. A worrying four in five respondents (83%) to an audience poll taken during HR magazine and O.C. Tanner’s recent webinar reported having worked in an organisation they would describe as having a toxic culture. A meagre 17% have been lucky enough to have never worked at an organisation with a toxic culture.

So it was against this tumultuous backdrop that our webinar panel set out to debate the topic of‘Culture shock: Turning toxic cultures around’ and HR’s role in changing things for the better.

Diagnosing toxicity

Speakers on the panel shared their own experiences of working in sectors or specific organisations tainted by toxic culture.

Shokat Lal, assistant chief executive at Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council, spoke about the cultural problems at his organisation that contributed to the Rotherham child sexual exploitation scandal, something he described as “the biggest casualty of our time”. (Lal was appointed in 2016 to a post specially created in light of the findings of the government inquiry into the scandal.)

“The culture and behaviour at the council were fundamental in empowering and enabling abuse to take place,” he said. “What happened at Rotherham was an absence of leadership so right at the top a toxic culture was allowed. People role model those behaviours so the tone is set at the top.”

As a result the new senior leadership team has had lots of work to do around risk, procedures and governance, he said: “We can’t change the past and it’s really sad we can’t as so many children were abused. But what Rotherham has done is set a template across the public sector.”

Lucy Becque, HR director of Coventry Building Society, agreed that “leadership sets the tone”. But there are other factors that lead to toxic cultures, she said.

“Without doubt culture played a part in the 2008 financial crisis,” she said, pointing to the sector’s focus then “on short-term gains and taking high risks” as contributing factors.

Financial services now play by “a very different set of rules”, she continued, adding that rules have been key to changing this culture: “I’d say there’s now a different set of rules and culture will then follow. You’d hope culture sets the right path but where it doesn’t regulations have to.”

Guy Pink, former executive director of HR at Addaction and now portfolio careerist, said that cultural issues in the third sector – specifically at Oxfam and Save The Children – came from “failures at a number of different levels”, including lack of HR influence.

“Where was HR in both of those?” he asked. “At Oxfam there wasn’t a senior enough HR person on the board or executive team.”

“The voluntary sector deals with a huge number of vulnerable individuals and sometimes the staff they employ can be similarly vulnerable,” Pink said, adding that HR checks are “crucial” to avoid things “slip[ping] through the net”. Many charities demonstrate good practice already, he said, adding that he hopes the revelations over the past year will “shine a light on the sector” and encourage HR to ensure its practices are up to speed.

Fighting harassment

Yet even in organisations where culture is generally healthy bad behaviour can still emerge. “For most organisations their cultures are made up of many subcultures, so even in a company with a decent reputation there can be pockets of toxicity,” said David Sturt, executive vice president of O.C. Tanner and author of Great Work: How to Make a Difference People Love.

It’s partly for this reason that instances of sexual harassment will unfortunately prevail, said Becque: “Workplaces are microcosms of society … so we can never stop it all.”

It’s unsurprising then that just 21% of respondents to an audience poll taken during the webinar reported never, as HR professionals, having to deal with issues of sexual harassment or bullying.

Social media can “help enormously” though, Becque said. “For the vast majority of employees they’ll have looked at things like Glassdoor”, which means that people are “bring[ing] the culture from organisations into the outside world”, so employees know whether they want to work for a company, she said.

Pink agreed that employee pressure is critical to bringing about change. “We’re getting to a tipping point where people are not prepared to put up with sexual harassment now in 2018 and going into 2019, in the way we have for the past 40 years,” he said.

Taking a stand can depend on an employee’s job security, however, pointed out Sturt. Citing the example of the recent Google walkout, he said that because of the reputation that comes with having worked for an organisation like Google “people may [have felt] confident that they can get another job somewhere if they get sacked”. But not everyone – particularly those in more precarious, lower-skilled and less in-demand work – will “feel safe to do that”, he pointed out.

When asked about the future of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) in tackling cases of sexual harassment, Pink recommended HR look into, not removing the use of NDAs, but the frequency with which they are used in an organisation. That’s “the telling point” of there being a problem, he advised.

Cultural remedies

Toxic cultures could partly be the result of a wider issue with HR’s understanding of what culture actually is and how to change it, the webinar found – with the function appearing to fall short. An audience poll revealed that only 8% think the wider HR community has a very good understanding of culture, with nearly half (45%) agreeing that it has only a moderate grasp, and 18% feeling that this is poor.

It was a sentiment shared by the panel. “I think culture is still fairly new for lots of people,” said Sturt. “The word has been around for generations but from an HR perspective, for many, it feels squishy and ambiguous.”

Unlike other business and HR practices such as lean and Six Sigma this isn’t a well-understood discipline yet, said Sturt. Becque spoke of witnessing a shift throughout her career to culture featuring more firmly on HR’s agenda. “The first half of my career was grievances and the second half has been employee engagement and work environments and that’s a big shift,” she said.

As part of this shift HR professionals should use data to understand their organisations’ cultures, she said. “Data is always your friend – be it positive around engagement or negative around attrition, make sure you have access to data. As [even] if your employees don’t voice issues then you [still] have evidence,” she said.

HR’s role in changing culture comes down to their own and other leaders’ “emotional intelligence”, commented Pink. “That’s, for me, been the catalyst to significant organisational change,” he said, giving the example of England football team manager Gareth Southgate.

Ultimately there’s one key question HR should ask itself in assessing its role in avoiding cultures that allow exploitation or unethical behaviours, said Lal: “Do you speak truth to power?”

A recording of the webinar is available here for those who missed the live event