Leaders Set the Tone for a Healthy Workplace

January 30, 2020

Leaders Set the Tone for a Healthy Workplace

Until society changes, we’ll continue to witness sexist behavior in organizations. Messages about women’s roles, appearance and their “rightful place” are everywhere. The stereotypes are not subtle, and they are pervasive in our entertainment, advertising and gendered language. Parents unwittingly pass these messages on with their goal of raising boys to be “smart” and girls to be “pretty.” Those desires were revealed by looking at the most common searches parents perform in Google. When gender roles are that ingrained it can’t help but inform how people think and show up at work. 

Until harassment, discrimination, and assault are eradicated in companies, leaders need to be thoughtful and intentional about the choices they make when these unfortunate and unwanted incidents happen in their organizations. My experience has shown me that when leaders set a tone rooted in respect and values, they create a more inclusive culture with fewer distractions and less uncivil behavior. 

Is This Really Still Happening?

The #MeToo movement had a resurgence in 2017, following reports and investigation into allegations of sexual harassment and assault by Harvey Weinstein at Miramax. Some people are calling for an end to #MeToo, saying that the movement has run its course. Yet two years is only a drop in the bucket compared to the decades of harassment, discrimination and microaggressions that have been perpetuated against women and other underestimated groups at work. 

Some companies have developed a thorough response to #MeToo. They have increased employee education and training on topics such as anti-harassment and unconscious bias. They’ve updated their policies and added confidential reporting mechanisms so that employees can raise confidential concerns, sometimes even using independent third parties. Diversity, equity, and inclusion consultants have been hired to root out bias in interviewing, hiring, assessments, and promotions. Unfortunately, the majority of US companies have failed to take any action whatsoever. When companies don’t take a holistic approach to addressing and preventing bad behavior, the onus falls to individual leaders. 

Isn’t That HR’s Job?

I spent 15 years as an HR professional in companies ranging in size and industry including technology, coffee, gaming and real estate. Each had its own culture—formal, informal, hierarchical, hard-driving, fun, creative, etc. I’ve done this work for long enough to know that in most large organizations there’s a mix of personalities, power dynamics, stress and pressure at different times. Add morale events like team outings and sales rallies where people get together in a casual setting to unwind with alcohol flowing, and I can virtually guarantee that eventually something will go awry. 

With the support of leadership, HR can make sure a company has appropriate policies in place and that they are communicated to employees. HR can help to swiftly investigate and resolve complaints. HR is often responsible for creating and delivering employee and manager training including anti-harassment, anti-discrimination and unconscious bias. What HR cannot do is take full responsibility for an organization’s health and culture if there’s a lack of alignment with leadership. 

I’m not suggesting we stop teams from going out and having a good time. Spending time outside of work and forming personal relationships is a meaningful way for coworkers to build trust. It is however incumbent on leaders to set the tone for respectful, professional behavior when teams are working (and playing) together. 

Leaders Set the Tone for a Healthy Workplace

For several years I was the HR leader responsible for a group of 700 technical employees. Were there ever incidents of harassment and discrimination? There were. And yet, when employees shared their concerns with me, I knew that leadership had my back. The CEO ran a very no-nonsense organization, where violating company policies (or laws) was not tolerated. As an HR professional, that gave me the confidence to recommend clear consequences when people behaved inappropriately. 

Those consequences often included sending people to training and having them review and confirm their understanding of the relevant company policies. Depending on the severity of the issue, consequences might include a reduced performance rating, decreased bonus or even termination. I learned that HR can only do its job well in these situations with the full support and backing of senior leadership. 

There are circumstances that create more complexity for leaders who are not seasoned or who lack conviction. A few examples:

  • Was it really that serious? Leaders may want to know if someone crossed the line between asking a woman out once vs. harassment which typically includes egregious and/or pervasive unwanted behavior. 
  • But he’s a high performer. When an individual behaves in a way that is illegal and/or violates company policy, performance of their day job is not relevant. Still, releasing that person from the company will leave a bigger hole to fill. 
  • We go way back. People who work together often form strong bonds. It can be difficult for leaders to look at what’s happened objectively especially when the allegation is against someone they consider a friend.

Leadership requires self-awareness, integrity and the ability to put the company first. When leaders declare certain behaviors as intolerable, they don’t get to make exceptions based on performance or personal relationships. 

Organizations Emulate Their Leaders 

When you’re in a position of power, people are watching you to determine what’s important to you, what values you hold dear and what your non-negotiables are. They will follow your lead, not necessarily what you say, but what you do. 

The best leaders find ways to talk about values early and often. They recognize and reward people who demonstrate company values. It may be uncomfortable, but when leaders see team members behaving in a way that contradicts company values, they must speak up. 

Most leaders follow the wisdom “praise in public, criticize in private.” The exception to that rule is when someone makes an inappropriate joke or remark—in those cases, the leader cannot remain silent. If leaders say nothing about bad behavior in the moment, others will take that silence as condoning the unwanted behavior. Following up in private is not effective unless the whole team is made aware of it after the fact. 

If you’re in a leadership role, you can find a way that’s comfortable for you to address inappropriate remarks when they happen. Find a phrase that works like “I didn’t find that funny” or “We don’t say that here.” The reward for your courage and presence of mind is that speaking up helps you establish clear boundaries for others to follow. 

A colleague of mine once shared a simple litmus test for what is and is not appropriate at work. She said, “Imagine this appeared in the press. What if someone shared it on Twitter? Is this something you would say or do in front of your spouse, a customer or family member?” If not, it probably doesn't belong at work. 

In summary, you may be well aware of how you’re showing up and holding your team accountable. If so, remember to continuously reinforce good behavior. If you need to change the example you set, here are some places to start:

  • Review your company policies, complaints process and investigations protocol. Work with HR to update if needed. 
  • Create a communications plan to remind employees about your values. Examples and stories help make them memorable. 
  • Talk to your HR leader about your nonnegotiables and how you can support each other in difficult situations. 
  • Prepare to address inappropriate jokes and comments by choosing a phrase that works for you. 

This work of creating a healthy, inclusive culture is never done, but there are many best practices you can put in place beginning today. 

The Authors: 

Mikaela Kiner is author of Female Firebrands and founder of Reverb. She spent 15 years in HR leadership at Microsoft, Starbucks, Amazon, PopCap Games and Redfin.