Detoxifying the Workplace: What can we do?
High visibility coverage of workplace harassment and sexual assault have helped elevate the need to address toxic work environments. Even if it hasn’t risen to the level of assault, many organizations foster unsupportive and hugely problematic work places. What can be done about it—at the organizational level?
High visibility coverage of workplace harassment and sexual assault have helped elevate the need to address toxic work environments. Even if it hasn’t risen to the level of assault, many organizations foster unsupportive and hugely problematic work places. Gordon Gottlieb, Human Resources Consultant, TDC, gave a presentation about what can be done about it at the organizational level. Gordon has more than 20 years’ experience at TDC, advising and supporting nonprofit organizations with their human resource and board development needs. Prior to TDC, Gordon managed human resource functions at nonprofits in the Greater Boston area, including Northeastern University and the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.
He led the discussion about policies and procedures, about creating a positive work climate, and about the need for leadership.
First, there is no clear, obvious path to detoxifying the workplace and no clear definition of what constitutes a toxic workplace. The spectrum of a toxic workplace ranges from awful to unlawful. There are a lot of negative activities that are destructive, but not unlawful, such as shaming, hostility, and showing a lack of respect for others. In fact the largest amount of toxicity in the workplace is lawful. However, sexual harassment is unlawful and is less frequent than nonsexual harassment and hostility. It is more insidious because it is more covert. Toxic work activities or practices usually need to be either severe or pervasive to justify disciplinary actions.
Organizations should have written anti-harassment policies in place to cover sexual harassment and behaviors such as bullying, disrespect, etc. Employees and managers should receive training about these policies. And finally, anti-harassment policies need to have the have the support and leadership by senior agency managers and executives. Senior managers need to be clear about what values it supports (such as diversity) and what behaviors are unacceptable (such as bullying).
An example of case that might need to be addressed is the star manager who gets great results, but is verbally abusive to other staff. Often, the attitude of his/her superiors is “that is just the way it is.” The abusive employee may not be doing anything illegal and may be a good asset to the organization. However, the situation still needs to be addressed in an appropriate manner. If the person being abused cannot go to their supervisor, then he/she should go to the Human Resources Dept. or to the Executive Director. Confidentiality is a very big issue in the complaint process and having a written investigative procedure is very important. You can go to the EEOC website for guidelines for conducting an investigation. If there is a hearing for a grievance, there should be two hearing personnel present, one male and one female. Sometimes it is helpful to ask the complaining employee what outcome they hope to accomplish.
The nonprofit sector is generally conflict averse and often finds it difficult to have conversations about abusive and hostile behaviors. Senior management needs to be very clear about what the expectation are for acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Often, remedial steps can be included in the offending employee’s performance evaluations, with clear expectations for improvement. The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) can help with agency wide trainings.