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Culture is Everything

Published on Apr 13, 2017.

In my last blog post, I wrote about the importance of leadership in creating a respectful workplace. But what about organizational culture? Isn’t that a more important factor in maintaining a respectful workplace? Here is why leadership comes first:

  • Leadership forms and influences culture.
  • Culture drives behavior.
  • Behavior results in a respectful workplace.

A particular organizational culture could be inclusive, diverse, and respectful, but if a new leader comes in, all that could change over time.

So what about culture and its influence on the organization? I mentioned the 2016 EEOC study in my last post, and in that same study, the EEOC concluded: “Over and over again, during the course of our study, we heard that workplace culture has the greatest impact on allowing harassment to flourish, or conversely, in preventing harassment.” Of course, the EEOC also recognized that leadership is what drives culture.

So how does an organization assure that organizational culture will prevent harassment? I use this visual to demonstrate the different elements of a respectful workplace:

Each of these elements is important. Each contributes in reinforcing or defeating a culture of respect. What are the elements to look for in your own organization?

What are your organization’s values? Culture is set by the values of the organization. As an example, Google has been ranked as one of the “happiest” places to work. The organization places a high value on diversity and inclusion and has been one of the leaders in efforts to eliminate bias in decision making.1Google is dedicated to valuing people, celebrating successes, accountability for diversity and inclusion, and other efforts that have shaped the Google culture.2 Riot Games, an organization also listed in Fortune’s 100 Best Places to Work spent time developing their culture by looking for “workplace toxicity” (defined to include behaviors generally categorized as racist, sexist, homophobic and other forms of “hate speech”) in their team members’ gaming behaviors, and used strategies designed to eliminate it. These organizations have both worked hard to analyze and define their values and develop initiatives to further those values.

How intense are your organization’s efforts to address diversity and inclusion? Studies show that the more diverse the workplace, the less likely harassment will occur. That is one of the reasons why Google has concentrated so heavily on diversity and inclusion. The EEOC pointed to the lack of diversity in a workforce as one of the “risk factors” for harassing behaviors. Diversity helps to define organizational culture.

What types of behaviors are formally or informally rewarded? Team members do not learn workplace norms through policies, they learn through behavior, attitudes, remarks, jokes, and the organizational response to situations (spoken or unspoken). Does your organization have a high performer who has bad habits like fits of anger, bad language, rude treatment? Rewarding that person, even if it is for their money-making ability, sends the message that behavior is tolerated.

What happens when a policy clashes with the organizational culture? As Gustavo Grodnitzky writes in his book Culture Trumps Everything, when a policy and culture clash, the culture will always win out. Leaders must set culture expectations, and define organizational values.

How does your organization address general workplace civility? Studies show that in a workplace culture where there is bullying or general incivility, harassment is more likely to occur. Tolerance of disrespectful treatment may give implicit permission to engage in the behavior, and contributes to a culture of tolerance.

How does your organization encourage reporting of inappropriate behavior? The EEOC cited the effectiveness of training such as “bystander intervention” in combatting sexual violence on campus (“If you see something, say something.”) Does your organization value reporting? Encourage and reward such behavior, and develop skills in reporting, giving permission even to bystanders to report behavior. The “don’t tattle” culture many grew up with is strong. Counteract that by enhancing the organizational value that all of us are responsible for respect in the workplace.

The development of organizational culture is a complex topic that cannot be covered in depth here, but these ideas will help leaders begin to assess their own organizational culture of respect.

Written by Bobbi K. Dominick, JD, SPHR, SHRM-SCP
Gjording Fouser PLLC

1 https://rework.withgoogle.com/guides/unbiasing-raise-awareness/steps/watch-unconscious-bias-at-work/

2 https://rework.withgoogle.com/

3 https://rework.withgoogle.com/case-studies/riot-games-assessing-toxicity/