Exploring Some Causes of Toxic Workplace Cultures

Describing a workplace as “toxic” has become almost cliché in recent years; although all offices have a negative element or two, there are some that are truly toxic, meaning the culture is so negative that it has negative impacts on the business. These impacts can range from poor morale and lowered productivity to employee disengagement and high turnover.

Toxic Cultures and the Turnover Tsunami

In an article for BBC Worklife, Katie Bishop tells us that about 20% of U.S. workers have left their jobs because of toxic environments and that 64% of employees in the United Kingdom “said that experiencing problematic behaviors at work had negatively impacted their mental health.”

Of course, no one would argue that toxic workplaces are desirable, but they exist nonetheless. So what are some of the factors that contribute to toxic cultures, and how can those factors be mitigated?

Factors Contributing to Toxic Workplace

A toxic culture isn’t necessarily about the size or structure of the organization. “A common conception is that toxic behaviors are often found in large corporations where competition is fierce and accountability is low – and yet some workers report that the same damaging culture can just as easily be found in smaller, less hierarchical organizations,” says Bishop.

Instead, toxic cultures often thrive when one or both factors are present: resource constraints and weak leadership and culture. Looking first at resource constraints, it makes sense that employees in companies with less money to spend on staff or other resources will be stressed and struggle to keep up with their workload, and stress is always a potential source for negative attitudes, hostility, and general toxicity.

When Toxicity Is Pervasive and Ongoing

Negativity and unhealthy behavior can crop up in any organization. What sets truly toxic cultures apart, though, is that they take root and stick around. That’s where the second factor comes into play. Organizations that lack strong leaders to stamp out toxic behavior or strong cultures that make such behaviors unacceptable become fertile ground for toxicity to grow and thrive.

While some workers might casually throw around the term “toxic workplace,” there are some organizations that truly deserve the label. Companies that are resource-strapped and lack strong leaders and robust cultures are often ripe for toxicity to spread. Addressing these underlying factors may not only help address existing toxicity but also prevent it in the future.

Preparing the Workplace for Another Challenging Year

As we enter the new year, the risks of COVID-19 may recede, but the trauma, pain, and disruptions of these past two years will still be with us, affecting our lives and our work. We’ve all struggled, sometimes in ways we can’t pinpoint. 

In her book Bearing the Unbearable, Joanne Cacciatore describes grief as “a process of expansion and contraction.” Cacciatore explains that in a moment of contraction, we may feel unsteady and unsafe, and we “feel the call to self-protect.” In a moment of expansion, we “become more willing to venture out and explore” and “take risks.” This process isn’t exclusive to grief, of course. Whatever the cause, many of us right now are experiencing one or the other, or both. 

A recent guest on the HR Social Hour Half Hour Podcast, Julie Turney, founder and CEO of HR@Heart Consulting, observed that people today recognize that they deserve better, and they are demanding better. They are less willing to settle, less comfortable with the way things are. People are fleeing jobs that are physically or psychologically unsafe. Others are chasing their dreams with a newfound passion. 

For the foreseeable future, people will seek environments that are both flexible and strong enough to support a process of contraction and expansion. They will desire work that gives them a safe place to be and a fulfilling place to go. They will crave a future they can own and a course they can chart, and their jobs will either help or hinder them. Jobs that help them will be in high demand.

Fortunately, such sought-after work environments can be achieved with some basic practices. Let’s look at some.

Talk About the Future
Ask your managers to talk regularly with their direct reports about how they’re feeling today and what they’d like to be doing in the future. Due to the circumstances, you can expect the answers they hear to vary and to change. On a given day, an employee may feel optimistic and ambitious, eager to take on a new project or a new role. But a week later, that same employee may feel hesitant or anxious about taking on any new responsibilities.

Don’t assume an employee expressing conflicting feelings isn’t up for the task at hand. In normal times, it’s natural to second guess big decisions, and these are not normal times. Some employees may need a little extra encouragement. Others may truly be happier continuing to do what they’ve been doing.

Through these conversations, managers can help their people make informed decisions about their future that make sense for them and for the company.

Don’t Be Afraid to Set Deadlines
Giving employees time to decide what future makes the most sense for them can go a long way to building trust and gratitude. There will come a time, however, when a decision needs to be made. A manager who has been talking with a member of their team about a new career opportunity in another part of the company, for example, will need a definitive answer eventually, probably sooner rather than later.

When a manager has a conversation with a team member about opportunities for growth that require significant change, they should, as soon as possible, make it clear to the employee when a final decision needs to be made. That way the employee has a set timeframe to work through their feelings, and a deadline isn’t unexpectedly thrust upon them.

Provide Grief Support
A lot of people are grieving, and grief takes work. People grieving need the time, space, and freedom to do that work. The option to take bereavement leave after a loss can be invaluable to them, but so too is the liberty to take days off down the road when they’re needed. The grieving process isn’t linear, and the unbearable pain of grief can resurface unexpectedly, months and years later. The life of grief is long. Whatever you can do to enable employees to safely take the time they need to process a loss and heal, do it. 

Take Care of Yourself and Your HR Leaders
Lars Schmidt, the founder of Amplify, points out that, while the “market for HR roles has never been hotter,” the work of HR has taken a “sustained toll” on those doing that work. They’re “carrying the emotional burdens of their employees (and their own).” Burnout is common.

Be sure to give yourself and anyone else caring for your people time to rest, recharge, grieve, or whatever else each of you needs to do to stay healthy. “Resilience is not an infinite resource,” executive coach Sarah Noll Wilson reminds us. Take time off. You need it, too.  

Don’t Take Departures Personally or Draw the Wrong Conclusions
When an employee leaves an organization, it’s always a good idea to understand why and consider what changes you could have made to keep them. What you learn may not persuade that employee to reconsider their departure, but it may assist you in keeping others. That said, sometimes employees quit and there’s nothing you could have done to convince them to stay. The best possible workplace in the world will still see people go elsewhere simply because those people want a change or because of circumstances beyond their control.

When your employees tell you they’re leaving, do your due diligence to find out why, but don’t overthink their departures or take them personally. If everything was good and they still left, that just means everything was good and they still left. It doesn’t mean that you didn’t do enough or should have done something differently. Believe in the work you’re doing. Be kind to yourself. As Lars Schmidt says in his book Redefining HR, “we’re on the front lines of the highest of highs and the lowest of lows of all our employees.”    

Inspire Hope
Whether we feel the strong urge to self-protect or we’re jumping out of our seat to pursue a risky venture, we could all use a little hope. The philosopher David Utsler writes, “Hope offers no guarantees. Hope does not promise that life or the world will get better. Hope only insists on the possibility.”

You can inspire hope by expanding the scope of what is possible for your employees. Talk with them about their dreams and ambitions so they can imagine what possibilities lie before them. Talk about where your company is going and what you’ll need from your employees. Help them envision a place where they can explore, take risks, and be supported.

Then work together to get there. 

What is HR Compliance?

Running a business comes with no shortage of perks: the freedom to be your own boss, invest in an idea, steer its trajectory, and, with a little luck, create wealth. It has its challenges, too. Competition may be fierce. Demand for what you offer may be low. Costs may not be sustainable. But even if everything else is going your way, there’s one challenge that’s ever-present. We’re talking, of course, about HR compliance.

Defining HR Compliance

HR compliance is the work of ensuring that your employment practices conform to federal, state, and local laws. This work requires learning which laws apply to your organization and understanding what they require you to do. That’s easier said than done.

HR compliance is truly an art. It requires knowledge, skill, and cooperation. You have to be able to decipher legalese, know where to go to ask the right questions, and create policies and procedures that minimize business risk. You have to ensure that everyone from the executive team to newly minted managers know what they can and cannot do. You have to conduct investigations and enforce your rules consistently. And all this is just the bare minimum—necessary, but not enough to create a truly successful culture.

The work of compliance is never entirely done. Not only do new legal requirements appear on the regular, but, as you’ll read below, compliance obligations are often unclear. While some compliance obligations are definitive, others are unresolved, and a good number of laws require you to make a judgment call. Let’s look at each of these in turn.

Why HR Compliance Can’t Always Be Assured

Some employment laws take the form of “Do this” or “Don’t do that.” The requirements may be simple, like minimum wage, or complex, like FMLA, but either way there’s usually no real question about what you need to do or not do. Compliance with these laws is pretty straightforward. Don’t pay less than the minimum wage. Provide leave to eligible employees for the reasons that qualify, continue their health benefits (if applicable), and return them to their position when their leave ends. As long as you’re clear on the details, you’re not likely to lose sleep wondering if your policies and procedures are compliant.

Sometimes, however, those details are unsettled. Lawmakers don’t always specify everything a law requires before it passes or takes effect. Even when laws seem clear, trying to put them into practice often raises a lot of questions. And the legislature isn’t the only source of law: regulatory agencies demand their say, and courts get involved, too. To complicate matters, these branches of government don’t always agree with each other, and what they say today may not be what they say tomorrow. Keeping up with the latest official guidance takes time and persistence. It can feel like a marathon, when what you want is a quick sprint to the answer. You have other demands on your time, after all. 

Finally, a lot of employment laws have standards you have to follow, but they don’t tell you how. Neither the IRS nor the DOL, for example, tells you whether your workers are employees or independent contractors—unless there’s an audit or complaint. Instead, these agencies publish tests with general criteria that you use to make case-by-case determinations.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) works this way, too. Under the ADA, an employer is required to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities, with a few exceptions. One of the exceptions is that the accommodation doesn’t create an undue hardship on the employer’s business. The basic definition of an undue hardship is an action that creates a significant difficulty or expense. Although the law provides factors to consider in making this determination, the onus is on you to decide whether an expense or difficulty from an accommodation is significant. And, ultimately, your conclusion could be challenged in court.

Why HR Compliance Looks Like This

If HR compliance seems convoluted, that’s because it is. Our current legal landscape is the result of three competing philosophies about how the workplace should be governed, who should govern it, and whose rights in the workplace should be prioritized in the law.

Owner Control
According to the first view, business owners should have control over their workplaces and the work that takes place for the simple reason that they own the business. It’s their property, and as owners they should have the legal right to govern it. Employees have no right to control aspects of the workplace because the workplace isn’t theirs. They don’t own it. It’s not their property. If their desires don’t align with the owners, or if they don’t like the terms and conditions of their employment, they can and should go elsewhere.

Of course, an owner might employ managers or an executive team to make decisions about who to hire and fire, what to pay, how to assign work, and other such matters, but in principle the owner is still in charge. Advocates of this view include the economist Milton Friedman who, in 1970, famously wrote that corporate executives have a direct responsibility to conduct business according to the desires of the owners. The will of the owners reigns supreme. 

Worker Control
According to the second view, workers should have a say in the decisions that get made simply because those decisions affect them and their livelihoods. In this line of thinking, the governance of the workplace should adhere to the principles of democracy, although proponents for this view differ on how democracy in the workplace should be practiced.

In the 1930s, Senator Robert F. Wagner introduced the National Labor Relations Act to guarantee the “freedom of action of the worker” and ensure that workers were “free in the economic as well as the political field.” And, today, talk of democratizing the workplace usually refers to bolstering unions. But there are other proposals to note. Some champions of workplace democracy, like Senator Elizabeth Warren, have pushed for employee representation on corporate boards. Others favor cooperative models in which the division between employers and employees doesn’t exist.   

Full-fledged workplace democracy is still a fringe view, though. The very definition of an employee remains a worker who does not have the right to control what the work is, how it’s done, or how it’s compensated. However much authority employees are given to make decisions, however much influence they have over their superiors, they are not legally in charge. 

Societal Control
Advocates of the third view argue that the government has an interest in exercising some measure of control over the work and the workplace. In the employer-employee relationship, employers typically have significantly more power than employees—especially an employee acting as an individual. Frances Perkins, who served as Secretary of Labor and was a key architect of the New Deal, believed that government “should aim to give all the people under its jurisdiction the best possible life.” She saw a role for legislatures in countering long hours, low wages, and other conditions unfavorable to employees. 

How These Philosophies Have Played Out

In the United States, HR compliance is the result of these three competing and arguably incompatible philosophies. Government action with respect to employment has tried to empower workers and afford them certain rights, protections, and freedoms in the workplace, all while preserving the employer’s control over their business.

We can see this balancing act in the differences among state laws. Some states prioritize the right of owners to control their workforces and are loath to restrict that right through legislation. Other states act out of what they see as a duty to secure the rights of workers. Imposing obligations on employers doesn’t bother them.

We also see this balancing act in the way that employment laws tend to set parameters rather than dictate exactly what employers must do. You can pay employees whatever you want, so long as you pay at least the minimum, offer an overtime premium when applicable, and meet equal pay requirements. You can theoretically terminate employment for any reason or no reason at all (though we don’t recommend it); but you can’t fire someone for an illegal reason. Even laws that require a new practice, such as paid leave, allow flexibility provided the minimum conditions are met.

Takeaways

First, when you’re assessing your compliance obligations, understand that not all compliance obligations are clearly delineated or settled law. Unsettling as that may be, it’s how our system has been set up. In those cases, you’ll have to weigh your options and the risks involved, and then make a decision. Sometimes you may need legal advice in addition to HR guidance. Remember, though, that despite all the many employment laws on the books and in the imaginations of legislators, the system is designed to keep employers in charge of their work and workplaces. You can’t eliminate all risk, but by understanding the nuances and open questions, you can significantly minimize it.

Second, document your actions and decisions. It only takes an employee filing a complaint for enforcement agencies to get involved, but you are better protected if you can quickly and clearly explain to them the reason for your actions.

Third, evaluate whether your policies, procedures, and practices are satisfactory to employees. No employment law gets written in a vacuum, and no law is truly inevitable. The Fair Labor Standards Act came to be because workers and the general public felt that labor standards were unfair. Today we wouldn’t have people pushing for predictive scheduling laws if they felt that work schedules were already sufficiently predictable. Harassment prevention training wouldn’t be mandatory (where it is) if sexual harassment weren’t widespread.

Fourth, lead by example. Make good employee relations a key part of your brand and competitive advantage. Employees have higher expectations today than they used to. Meet those expectations and motivate other employers to do the same, and you may find that the compliance landscape of the future is less winding and boggy than it could have been.

Finally, we have an online portal (HR Support Center) that is available to our clients where you can learn about your compliance obligations. Our laws section breaks down federal and state employment laws in a way that people can understand, and the News Desk keeps you up to speed on the latest compliance obligations and contingencies you should consider. HR compliance is an art, and the first step to mastering it is learning what it entails and how it works.

Take a 30 day trial of our HR Support Center for FREE! Simply email linda@azhrhub.com today.

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Difficult Downsizing Decisions

As we are all well aware, many companies are in the process of reorganizing their talent pool. Of course, with the Coronavirus how to do this is top of mind.  No matter what causes downsizing, resizing, or “right-sizing” leaders must carefully evaluate their workers to determine who to keep, who to furlough, and who to downright terminate. 

How is this done?  How do you decide?  There are some key questions to ask yourself when making these determinations:  Who is already causing concerns or issues? Will seniority alone be a consideration?

These questions are important to consider.  On top of these, however, is the diagnosing each person’s competency for performing each of their work tasks.  One of the best ways to do this is using Blanchard’s SLII®.  This is a model for determining competency and confidence to perform a specific task.  When the analysis is done for each person’s responsibilities, you will have a great picture of their value to your organization. 

For example, you have an employee that has been around for about six months that is not great at cold calling yet, but really brings in the sales when they get a lead.  They are learning about cold calling and they are very enthusiastic.  Would you keep them?  I would.  They are exhibiting the behaviors of a good salesperson as demonstrated by their sales lead calls.  With more time and training they most likely will be able to transfer their skills and to do better at cold calling. 

In another scenario, you have someone that is not doing very well at sales calls and they do not show motivation or enthusiasm for the work.  You’ve coached them and provided training for the past several months.  Would you keep them?  No. If I’m downsizing and both the competence and motivation is lacking, I would not consider them as a viable long-term employee. 

When you evaluate each person’s task – not the person as a whole, you will have more data to help you make very difficult decisions about downsizing.  When you list each person’s responsibilities and rate them on both competence and confidence to achieve the task you will get a list of gaps in your workforce.  It will also help you to determine training, coaching, and other interventions.  Lastly, it will help you with succession planning.  We’ll talk about that in  my next article.  

I have provided very basic examples, and you may have many other considerations when reorganizing.  I’d love to hear what your processes are.  Please share!

COVID-19 may be an uncomfortable spot for workers

As we near a re-opening phase of the Coronavirus crisis, many workers are leery about stepping back into the workforce. Some essential workers are even refusing to come to work out of fear of contracting the coronavirus. It’s important for employers to think about the employees’ legal rights and health concerns as well as trying to meet the organizations’ business needs.

Start with a conversation with the employee. As a general rule, communication is the key to a strong employer / employee relationship. Therefore, if a worker is hesitant to come back to work, it is important that the employer speak with them to determine the basis of their fears. This allows the employer to understand the issue and then work with the employee to mutually work through their concerns together. This simple act can mitigate any escalation of the issue.

Your employee has rights!

Remember before you react abruptly that your employee has rights. Think about the legal ramifications of your acts and ask yourself if putting a nervous employee on leave may be a better choice than firing them.

As you go through the decision of how to address an employee that will not come to work, you should also consider any time-off policies you currently have and how they interact with an employee on unpaid leave. These time-off policies could include vacation or Paid Time Off.

There are laws in place to protect your employee that must be considered.

ADA

Employers should accommodate employees who request altered worksite arrangements, remote work or time off from work due to underlying medical conditions that may put them at greater risk from COVID-19. The EEOC’s guidance on COVID-19 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) points out that accommodations may suggest changes to the work environment to reduce contact with others, such as using Plexiglas separators or other barriers between workstations.

OSHA

It’s likely that the employee is covered by OSHA if they believe that there is a threat of death or serious physical harm likely to occur immediately or within a short period of time. OSHA prohibits employers from retaliating against workers for raising concerns about safety and health conditions.  OSHA addresses these concerns as they relate directly to Coronavirus and it’s a good idea for employers to get to know this information.

NLRA

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) grants employees at unionized and non-unionized employers the right to join together to engage in protected concerted activity. Employees who assert such rights, including by joining together to refuse to work in unsafe conditions, are generally protected from discipline.

FFCRA

So what if a health care provider advises an employee to self-quarantine because of COVID-19? The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), states the employee may be eligible for paid sick leave. The FFCRA applies to employers with fewer than 500 employees, and the quarantine must prevent the employee from working or teleworking.

FFCRA regulations permit employers to require documentation for paid sick leave.

WARN Act

Keep in mind laws such as the Workers Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN). The WARN act requires employers with 100 or more full-time employees as defined by the Act to provide at least 60 calendar days advanced written notice of a plant closing or mass layoff affecting 50 or more employees at a single site of employment.

The act extensively defines “plant closing” and “mass layoff”. It also has specific provisions requiring notices to employees, unions and certain government entities.

Be Proactive

Inform and Protect Workers

All employers should keep employees apprised of ways in which the employer is taking action to maintain a safe workplace. Information from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) should be made available, for example posting infographics such as these can provide quick reference for employees. OSHA information and local law and regulations should also be posted or made available and updates should be communicated as the situation changes.

We suggest to discuss your particular situation with your attorney if you are not sure how to mitigate potential penalties.

For more information regarding Hiring Procedures and help or HR policies during the COVID-19 crisis, COVID-19 support and information or other HR needs, contact AZ HR Hub at 480-510-7921or email linda@azhrhub.com.

Now is not the time to sweat the Small Stuff

Now that our pace has slowed down during this virus period, our minds can begin to wander and our thoughts can quickly turn to hyper focus on the trivialities that make up our routines and affect our normal pace. I believe this period of isolation should help to put these thoughts into perspective and allow us to devote the resources of our minds to the big stuff.

Issues that were seemingly big suddenly become much more trivial when our concentrations turn to the status of the world economy or the health of a loved one during this pandemic or the lack of such a basic need as toilet paper. What was a “big” issue just isn’t so important anymore.

We can all learn from this time period – to be more receptive and put things into perspective. Putting our concerns and issues under bigger lenses and choosing to look at things from a different perspective increases our mental capacities and provides us some control. Ask yourself, “Will this matter to me next month or next year or in five years?” “Is this something within my control or should I move on instead?”

We all have the ability to control our basic mind set. Looking for a silver lining now can have a profound impact on attitudes, moods, and behaviors. In any given circumstance, asking simple questions can ease the burdens we put on ourselves.  Examples during this pandemic: “Do I really need to go out to dinner or can I just be happy that my family is together during this time around our own dinner table?” “Is it really so bad to have canceled our vacation? Look at all the money we’re saving!” A simple change in perspective changes everything.

Written by guest blogger, Tina Garner

Your HR Partner

AZ HR Hub

 

4435 E. Chandler Blvd., Suite 200, Phoenix, AZ 85048

877-294-7482

linda@azhrhub.com

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