Recent events remind us all that harassment, bullying and discrimination in their many guises remains a widespread problem. Cultures are hard to change, and many cultures that either tacitly or openly accept these behaviours, or fail to recognise them, are usually embedded over many generations. So-called banter or inappropriate actions can persist as part of a norm. For those on the receiving end, these are toxic and exclusionary, and for others, it can feel like what you have to take part in to be ‘in’ with the corporate tribe. These poor cultures won’t change when leaders are either part of these themselves, are in denial, or simply don’t recognise the issues.

Over the last couple of decades, attitudes have shifted significantly. There is far less tolerance for poor behaviours and discrimination, and the cultures where these would have taken root sre being exposed. But this is a shift for many leaders who themselves grew up in a time when a different culture prevailed which is unacceptable now. Just watch a TV series from the 70s and 80s to see how cultural norms have changed. 

This link to the past is sometimes seen as a defence. Even the term ‘woke’, which itself points to the idea of awakening to injustices, discrimination and intolerance, is now being used too frequently in a pejorative sense.  

Inclusive culture

Creating safe cultures where people can speak up, where differences are respected and celebrated, all contribute to positive business outcomes. This is not to squeeze out fun and bonding that is part of positive work cultures and good work itself, but it is to recognise the difference from behaviours that are divisive, intolerant or go beyond what most would regard as acceptable. 

The CIPD’s own research shows that working in an inclusive, supportive culture is in the top three of what employees now look for. Regulators and investors, as well as the media are paying more attention to understanding corporate cultures – and we have seen the damage that can be done to brand and reputation when poor cultures are exposed. Recent events have been a wake-up call to all business leaders. 

But it does take confidence for people to speak up, and concerns over power imbalances, detrimental impacts on career, being judged, and a lack of confidence in complaints processes or dismissive attitudes can prevent issues being raised. CIPD research has shown that around a quarter of employees think challenging issues such as bullying and harassment are swept under the carpet. 

It’s crucial that senior management teams and boards are seen to lead by example and role-model the behaviours expected by their organisations and their stated values. This should be reinforced from the recruitment and selection of leaders to how their performance is evaluated and rewarded.  

Role of managers, policies and HR

Managers at all levels should be trained in people management, being able to recognise where banter or behaviours overstep boundaries, being supportive and listening, and understanding how to fairly manage more diverse teams working in more diverse ways. Emotional intelligence is as important as technical and job skills. In turn, every individual should see their responsibility in behaving appropriately, and as part of how their overall performance is evaluated. 

Policies on bullying and harassment or discrimination also need to be clear and robust to guide actions and behaviours: what is not acceptable, what actions may result, and what does ‘zero tolerance’ actually mean. Alongside that, the need for well-communicated disciplinary and grievance procedures so people know that if they have a complaint, it will be investigated and appropriate action taken, regardless of seniority. And provision should be made for confidential feedback to be given, alongside protection as required for whistle-blowers. 

HR has a central role to play, not just in ensuring policies, processes and training are in place, but also in understanding the real culture of the organisation. Evidence needs to be built to be able to confidently challenge inappropriate behaviours from the top. This includes quantitative as well as qualitative data – staff turnover, absence rates and causes, disciplinary and grievance cases and exit interviews, for example, as well as culture and employee engagement surveys and feedback. This sort of data and insights should be part of regular reporting to executive management and the board, all of whom have a direct responsibility in understanding and leading for positive organisational cultures. 

The CIPD has a range of resources to address conflict, bullying, and harassment at work. I’d also encourage people to use our Community discussion forums to draw on the experience and expertise of other people professionals to resolve challenging issues. Together we can make a difference to working lives and create better working environments for all.

About the author

Peter Cheese

Peter is the CIPD’s chief executive. He writes and speaks widely on the development of HR, the future of work, and the key issues of leadership, culture and organisation, people and skills.

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