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This is how your workplace culture can snowball into toxicity

Cultures that allow discrimination don’t happen in a vacuum but are the result of bad behaviors going unchecked.

This is how your workplace culture can snowball into toxicity
[Photo: Chris Clor/Getty Images]

Workplaces everywhere are trying to determine how to foster cultures of inclusivity, acceptance, and diversity. These things are paramount to business success in today’s world, but far more important is how essential they are for humanity.

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Too often though, workplaces get it wrong, and they hurt people in the process. Consider Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: Just a few years ago, the show was heralded as a win for diversity, equity, and inclusion. So, it came as a shock when a former cast member, Suni Reid, filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaint against the show in October 2021.

Reid, a Black, nonbinary actor who performed in coast-to-coast productions of Hamilton, described a retaliatory toxic work environment that included Reid being physically threatened, intentionally misgendered, and eventually released from their contract after requesting a gender-neutral dressing room.

Similar examples abound throughout the corporate world. Applebee’s was ordered to pay $100,000 to settle a sexual orientation and race discrimination lawsuit in July 2022. Thirty-two fulfillment center workers have filed EEOC complaints against Amazon due to a racially hostile work environment in Joliet, Illinois. Electronic auto manufacturer Tesla is in EEOC’s crosshairs currently, as the agency investigates hundreds of complaints about racist activities against Black workers.

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Toxic workplaces aren’t the result of accidents, nor are they created in a vacuum. Left to their own devices, workplaces will reflect and reinforce the behaviors that help sustain the dominant culture. If you want to prevent discrimination in the workplace and assure EEOC compliance, you must proactively change your surrounding conditions to be more supportive of inclusivity and equality. Here’s are some methods to fight against discriminatory behavior.

Learn how to talk about workplace discrimination

The notion that you and your employees can’t talk about discrimination in the workplace outside of approved DEI training programs is a detriment to everyone. We have to be able to speak to one another as human beings if we want to find a shared sense of understanding.

Of course, that’s easier said than done. Confronting your own biases and how you’ve, inadvertently or not, upheld systems of oppression can be emotionally triggering. At the same time, those who regularly face injustice don’t want to become the spokespeople for all things workplace discrimination. The emotional labor of discussions about anti-racism, for example, should never fall on the shoulders of Black employees.

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To foster more productive discussions, remember that we all harbor unconscious bias that profoundly impacts how we move through the world. When you cultivate safe environments for people to explore their words and actions, as well as the reasons behind them, you’ll minimize shame and strengthen receptivity. At the same time, you need to clarify that DEI is inherently uncomfortable. By telling employees what to expect (such as guilt, anger, or defensiveness), they’ll be less likely to shut down completely when those feelings inevitably bubble up.

Most important, set some ground rules. For example, employees are not allowed to “tone police” those who’ve been victims of discrimination at work when they’re sharing their experiences. Telling victims how they should feel or act is never a good idea. As a society, we need to collectively work on de-centering white, cisgender people in these discussions. Requiring marginalized folks to share their lived experiences in a way that’s palatable to the dominant culture is just another way to disempower people.

Stop trying to sterilize human issues

In my experience, even leaders who are engaged in good-faith DEI efforts feel paralyzed by the idea of confronting incorrect behavior or handling instances of workplace discrimination. So, to ensure EEOC compliance, they have their legal teams develop and enact processes that result in incredibly sterile responses to very human issues.

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For example, when someone files a workplace complaint of harassment, what leaders are (and are not) allowed to do and say to those involved is often tightly controlled. That leads to confusion for everyone–but especially for the victim and perpetrator, who now feel oddly left out of a situation that otherwise centers on them.

This process of “handling” harassment disputes often leads to an unsustainable work environment that becomes intolerable. In the end, it usually results in performance issues that lead to termination or “constructive discharges,” where people feel like they have no other option than to quit. In both cases, further legal action often follows, compounding leadership’s woes.

Additionally, too many organizations rely on legal definitions of “discrimination” and “harassment” to trigger internal policies and procedures. That sends the message that leaders are only (or mainly) concerned with potential legal liability. It also results in leaders (biases and all) making in-the-moment judgment calls about what does and doesn’t constitute harassment.

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Instead, you need to be prepared to engage in straight talk with both victims and perpetrators to deescalate confrontations, regardless of potential legal liability. Use simple language. The maxim “don’t be a jerk at work” is much easier for employees to understand and implement. The issue shouldn’t be whether a word or action rises to the level of illegal workplace discrimination, but whether employees are behaving respectfully.


Matt Nusbaum is the director of the BCG Institute for Workforce Development (BCGi).

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