The avalanche of harassment claims currently dominating the headlines has highlighted just how much unacceptable behaviour is still going on in the workplace. The allegations against Weinstein, Spacey et al are being played out in public, but behind the scenes there are many equally pernicious examples of harassment, discrimination and generally bad behaviour taking place.
At one end of the scale there are incidences of sexual harassment and discrimination, many of which never come to light because people are either too scared to speak out, or because organisations do their best to sweep them under the carpet. Equally damaging to businesses are the many incidents of bullying, unethical behaviour or simple non-compliance with the rules that everyone knows is happening, but no-one does anything about.
Recent high profile examples have encouraged some of those who have previously been silent to speak out – but have also underlined the need for employers to create safe and inclusive workplaces and to have robust procedures in place to support victims of bullying or harassment.
But there’s a wider issue at play. It’s not just about dealing with the fall-out from bad behaviour – it’s about making sure it doesn’t happen in the first place. So, what can organisations do to create cultures where people are driven to take responsibility for doing the right thing?
1. Lead by example
As Simon Sinek points out in his book ‘Leaders Eat Last’, the buck stops at the manager’s desk. If leaders want people to behave ethically, morally and appropriately, they have to display those values and character traits themselves. If employees see their leader behaving badly, flouting rules or being dismissive about procedures, they will find it difficult to see why they can’t follow suit. Sinek also emphasises the importance of creating environments where people are valued and encouraged to fulfil their potential. If employees feel connected to the business and are treated well, they are more likely to feel that the ‘rules’ apply to them and will act responsibility. We don’t have the power to change people, but we can change the environment they operate in, is Sinek’s core message.
2. Make responsibilities clear
All organisations have ‘rules’, whether they relate to customer response times, security procedures, data handling or what to do if you’re off work sick. But having those rules in place doesn’t necessarily mean people will follow them. Part of the problem is that in today’s fast moving and increasingly virtual environments, it can be difficult for people to get the subtle messages about ‘the way we do things around here’. Priorities change, reporting lines shift and people find their role and responsibilities can change almost overnight. They are often confused about who they report to, who they need to please and where the boundaries of their role lie.
Information overload is also an issue. Faced with a daily onslaught of emails, updates and messages, it can be difficult for people to identify what’s important and what they personally need to pay attention to. Leaders and line managers need to make sure they communicate regularly with their teams, making it clear exactly what they are expected to do, which rules they need to follow and how they are expected to behave.
3. Nudge people to do the right thing
The ‘nudge’ principle, first introduced by the Cabinet Office a few years ago, is a great way to encourage people to do the right thing. Nudging uses behavioural science to encourage people to make better decisions. There have been some high profile successes. 100,000 organ donors were added to the national register, for example, when people were prompted to sign up when they paid for their car tax. Forward-looking organisations are now beginning to look at how they can use the nudge principle to encourage the actions and behaviours they would like to see in the business. Reward and recognition schemes are a good way to create a domino effect.
Teams can be recognised, for example, for demonstrating good practice with data management (particularly relevant with the advent of the GDPR) or for going the extra mile to help customers. Gentle nudges can also be useful in ensuring compliance with corporate systems, such as performance management processes. Software systems can be set up to nudge managers when appraisals are due, for example, and to show them how their completion rates stack up against other departments.
4. Build strong relationships
In a recent report, Deloitte points out how globalisation, coupled with the rise of remote working and virtual teams, has led to a breakdown in the strong working relationships that were once inherent in organisations. Their report (How leaders can build a culture of responsibility in a digital age), suggests that in a digital environment, the societal guardrails that encourage people to follow often unspoken rules have been gradually eroded.
Technology has connected us, but it has also driven us apart. Managers need to help their people build a strong network within the business – perhaps through social events or collaborative projects – in order to create a sense of unity. If people feel they are ‘in it together’, they are more likely to invest their energy in a positive direction for the benefit of their colleagues as well as the wider business.
5. Make it easy
Sometimes, people do the wrong thing, because they are not sure what the right thing is. This is particularly pertinent when it comes to corporate systems (such as IT or HR security procedures). Employees may have been given information when they joined the business, but have quickly forgotten it in the excitement and confusion of settling into a new role. Or maybe a process or system has been changed and they haven’t been fully updated about new rules or requirements.
Organisations need to ensure they are making it easy for people to access clear information about corporate policies and procedures – maybe through the internal social portals that come with many of today’s HR software systems. It’s important to recognise, however, that in some organisations not all employees have ready access to automated systems. Managers have a responsibility to make sure everyone in their team is up-to-date with information that impacts their role and provides guidance on how the business expects them to act and behave.
Erika Lucas, Cezanne HR