If you haven’t experienced it, consider yourself lucky. Most of America’s workers have, at one time or another, faced problems with a toxic workplace culture. It might have been bias against a minority (including women, even if they’re a company’s majority). It could have been a difficult manager who was allowed to target others with impunity. Or, it simply might have been a culture that failed to support its workers’ dreams and wellbeing adequately. Whatever the issue, most American workers have quit a job that came wrapped in a dysfunctional culture.
The Great Resignation has launched this trend into the stratosphere. In the month of March, alone, more than 4.5 million American workers quit their jobs. This is not going to change anytime soon. And it’s expensive. Every employee who flees your toxic culture will likely end up costing you several thousand dollars to replace.
It’s time to cut off any culture concerns before they consume your organization. Here are some ideas and steps to help you ensure your culture is avoiding toxic situations and proactively developing a positive, supportive culture that will sustain your workforce, your nonprofit and your mission.
Common Culture Concerns
In nonprofits across the nation, shared beliefs and behaviors lead to the way employees interact. It leads to the way nonprofit leaders, and ultimately, nonprofit employees make decisions. Whether you want it or not, your nonprofit has a culture.
You might be imagining culture as some nebulous concept floating in space. The truth is, most workers will point directly at their manager to place the blame for negative work experiences. Here are some reasons why:
- They don’t feel safe being honest with their manager about job-related or personal problems.
- They feel there is no transparency or open communication coming from their manager regarding job expectations, burnout prevention, training, mentoring, career advancement pathways or even a status update on the health of the organization.
- They don’t feel their manager has protected them from workplace discrimination.
- They can’t expect a positive outcome from reporting harassment, sexual or otherwise, to their manager.
- They may actually have been targeted for harassment, sexual or otherwise, by their manager … with no larger oversight.
- They don’t feel truly valued by their manager, and hence, the organization.
Why It’s Important
Even if your employees choose to stay with your organization, you will likely experience a negative effect on individual and team productivity. People who experience any of the above reasons will have difficulty concentrating on projects and working effectively in teams. And your employees’ daily sense of wellbeing can impact your recruitment efforts, as they will react with poor reviews on sites like Glassdoor, thereby damaging your employer brand irreparably.
Don’t underestimate the destruction caused by burnout brought on by a toxic culture. Problems that you might not know about could be affecting your workforce. For example, proximity bias has become a serious problem for remote workers, particularly as some of their colleagues return to the workplace. Those who remain remote, either for geographical or health reasons, have been discovering that they’re not in line for training or leadership opportunities simply because they don’t physically walk into their employer’s building to work.
Yet, this can be difficult for an employer to see, especially one who relies on remote workers. It would take some effort to track conversations and career tracks for everyone on staff to determine accurately if you’ve been remiss. For instance, have you been showing the same interest in your remote workers careers as the paths allowed to those you see in the hallway at the office? Remember, you don’t have to be aware of a bias to have one.
Determine Your Culture’s Toxicity
The first step is a willingness to accept the possibility that your culture isn’t perfect. From there, you should ask these questions and search for signs of dysfunction:
- Gloom and doom. When you look at the faces of people around your workplace or in remote meetings, do they reflect any happiness? Or do they look like they just lost their luggage? Lagging enthusiasm at work is an easily notable feature of a toxic work environment.
- Error Terror. It’s normal for people to fear making a mistake at work, but trying to avoid an embarrassing moment and living in anxious fear of the threat of consequences means they’re working in a culture that penalizes failure.
- The Slow Boil of Constant Turmoil. When communication fails, teams fall apart, individuals lose connection and nobody knows what to do in their role. From there, trust dissolves and power struggles ensue. Collaboration will fall by the wayside, derailing projects, people and your nonprofit.
- Drama Trauma. Some gossip is normal in any community setting, and workplaces are no exception. But when the rumor mill spins out of control with malevolent half-truths at tennis-match levels, it’s a clear sign that workers are trying to operate in a communications vacuum as part of a dysfunctional culture.
- They Come, They Go, They Don’t Even Show. Higher than normal employee turnover is an undisputable sign of a culture in need of repair. Many are leaving positions without securing a new job elsewhere first. Mental health and the need for wellness is affecting your employees’ decisions. In these trying times, workers won’t just walk away from a toxic culture. They’ll run.
Cut off Culture Concerns
You can think of your culture as a tree with many branches. Over the years, people have developed initiatives that worked at the time, or habits have developed that may have been overlooked. Some of the branches are robust and strong, green with leafy foliage and hosting birds’ nests. Some of the branches are scraggly and half-dead, bringing nothing to the tree but dead weight. Every branch came from the center or from another branch, just as your cultural practices have come from the leadership and behavior of your employees over time. Now is the time to shape your culture by pruning away that which doesn’t serve your workforce and mission and to allow which is healthy to blossom as a beautiful part of the community.
What to do next:
- Ask. Conduct a company-wide anonymous employee engagement survey. Ask about problems in key areas, such as harassment, bias and inclusion. Find out if your culture supports Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Access and a sense of Belonging for everyone. Ask them to describe their experiences. Look at age, religion, race, gender, gender identification, sexual orientation, distance (remember remote workers), physical and mental abilities — plus as many additional categories as you can find. Make it bold and encompassing, so that all staff members understand that you’re really addressing their issues. Do not retaliate against any whistle blowers.
- Listen. Talk to your employees. An open door policy and a respectful ear might lead to some honest comments that will strengthen your culture.
- Learn. Learn from the results. Look at your team leaders to discern any additional issues.
- Apply. You may need a professional consultant to help your team launch the initiatives that come from this new information. Or, you may be able to figure out some strategies that will empower your team to overcome what has been going on. Give it time, but don’t let it slip away. Be sure to use additional surveys and metrics regularly to guide your actions as you move forward.
Seek and Destroy
Five major forms of dysfunction will lead to all kinds of trouble in your culture. Clean these up and your culture can shine. As categories, they are:
- Disrespect. Loss of dignity or consideration.
- Non-inclusivity. Biased against subgroups, cronyism and nepotism.
- Dishonesty. Unethical behavior or failure at regulatory compliance.
- Ruthlessness. Cutthroat or backstabbing behavior and competition.
- Abuse. Hostility, harassment or bullying.
Equity vs. Equality
While both are vitally important, equality and equity are not the same. Understanding how they differ will help you find a way to enshrine both as central themes within your renewed culture.
- Equality: Everyone is paid the same for equal work. It doesn’t matter if they’re male or female, local or remote. Making pay transparent throughout the company is one way to ensure that it happens.
- Equity: Take the needs of individual employees into consideration for the sake of fairness. A two-story building with offices upstairs — but no elevator — would not be equitable for a person in a wheelchair. While everyone has equal freedom to use the stairs, not everyone can.
Your culture probably doesn’t suffer from all of the ills mentioned here, but understand this: No culture is perfect, and every organization could benefit from an honest discussion, at least, to address the concerns of the hardworking people you need to achieve your mission. Handle it with a caring heart and deep concern, and you will be able to achieve a world-class organization where people really want to work.
This blog post was written by Beth Black, consulting writer and editor to UST. Visit PracticalPoet.com to view Beth’s online portfolio and learn more about her editorial services.