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Transform a Toxic Workplace Culture with Shared Values

An illustration of a megaphone on a yellow background.
​In 2017, the #MeToo movement ushered in a new era of awareness regarding sexual assault, sexual harassment, and gender inequities in the workplace. Since then, newspaper headlines have been replete with allegations of gender-based misconduct across virtually all industries. Examples include: Harvey Weinstein (entertainment); Roger Ailes, Matt Lauer, Les Moonves, and Bill O’Reilly (media); Alton Delane, K & L Gates, and Morrison & Foerster (law); Steve Wynn, Travis Kalanick, and Andy Rubin (business); Brett Kavanaugh and Roy Moore (justice system); Larry Nassar (sports); Donald Trump and Al Franken (politics); University of California Irvine (education); U.S. Military Academy, U.S. Naval Academy, and the U.S. Air Force Academy (military); and Charlie Walk, L.A. Reid, and Robert “R” Kelly (music). 

The breadth and depth of these allegations raise many important questions, one of which is: How do organizations go about changing their culture to reduce pervasive misconduct? This article will explore how utilizing the Giving Voice to Values (GVV) framework can transform a culture by establishing a values-driven orientation that promotes respect, integrity, and fairness.

Why Workplace Culture Matters 

Although the focus of this article is on the GVV framework, a brief description of organizational culture is warranted. The term “corporate culture” refers to specific values rooted in an organization that guide the activities and behavior of that entity. Organizations should strive to ensure company values align with those of its employees.1 By doing so, corporations can boost employee morale, increase employee performance, and improve employee retention.2 All of these outcomes are beneficial to both organizations and employees. 

Examples of Dysfunctional Corporate Cultures

Two recent examples illustrate how toxic workplace cultures can have long-lasting and far-reaching implications. 

Ford Motor Company. Ford is one of America’s most iconic companies. Yet, it has struggled for decades with problems of sexual harassment at its plants. A New York Times article characterized the workplace environment as one where “bosses and fellow laborers treated women as property or prey.”3 Women at Ford were not only assaulted, harassed, threatened, and ostracized, but demeaned when they complained about such behavior. 

Although Ford changed some of its written policies and procedures, it did little to alter its day-to-day culture. For example, it declined to report investigation results to accusers, delayed punishing the offenders, offered sexual harassment training on an inconsistent basis, and failed to protect those who reported harassment from retaliation. All of these actions—or inactions—signaled to employees that Ford did not take sexual harassment seriously. Written policies, without more action, could not change its dysfunctional culture.

Nike. Nike is the largest seller of athletic footwear and apparel in the world. Despite Nike’s public portrayal of itself as a company that values women and their access to sports, the reality inside Nike’s own headquarters is far different. The data reveals a company devoid of women in high-level management positions: 77 percent of Nike’s leadership team is male; 71 percent of its vice presidents are male; and 62 percent of its directors and senior directors are male.4

In early 2018, women at Nike—alarmed by the departure of several top-level females—conducted an internal survey about discriminatory treatment and forwarded the results to the Chief Executive Officer Mark Parker. This was not the first time women complained about the working conditions at Nike. Indeed, women complained for years to human resources managers about the “boys’ club” culture, demeaning atmosphere, and discriminatory treatment.5 

The CEO responded to the survey information by investigating the claims and, soon after, fired 11 senior managers, apologized to workers, and pledged to make changes to the compensation and training programs. Nike also reported that “more than 7,000 employees, or about 10 percent of its 74, 000 employees worldwide, will receive raises following a pay review.”

Despite these commendable actions, it may have been too little, too late. In 2018, four women filed a federal class-action lawsuit against Nike claiming it violated the Equal Pay Act. The complaint accuses Nike of engaging in systemic gender-based discrimination that included hiring women at lower salaries than men, providing smaller bonuses to women for the same work as men, utilizing practices that adversely impacted pay increases and performance ratings for women, channeling women into less valuable positions, and passing over women for promotions.6 

​An Alternative Course of Action at Nike

In 2017, Nike advised employees in an email it would investigate claims of gender pay disparity. A month after making this announcement, the head of HR sent an email stating, “Nike had reviewed whether there was gender discrimination, that any issues that had been identified were corrected, and that there were no remaining gender discrimination issues.”10 No data or supporting information was provided to validate these assertions. Employees were expected to believe the statements on faith alone without any tangible evidence. 

Nike’s action failed in several ways to provide the requisite informative and transparent response. 

  1. First, embedding a company’s culture with values-driven leadership means being forthright and candid with employees. Simply telling employees what they should believe regarding a company’s practices—especially after a company has engaged in wrongful conduct—does not build an environment of mutual trust. Instead, Nike could have provided detailed information on the number of pay discrepancies, the steps it took to remedy the pay inequities, and what specific processes it put in place to ensure such discrimination would not occur again. This would have signaled a shift in the culture that allowed such practices to exist and provided assurance that the issue had been adequately investigated. 

  2. Second, the communication could have come from the CEO rather than the head of the HR department. Having the CEO deliver the message demonstrates support from the top of the organization and underscores the issue’s importance. 

  3. Finally, the message could have been delivered face-to-face at a companywide meeting. Delivering the information in person would enable the CEO to field questions and demonstrate the organization’s sincere commitment to cultural change.

Applying the GVV Framework to Transform Culture

GVV is an innovative approach to values-driven leadership developed by Dr. Mary Gentile.7,8 It begins with the premise that people want to act on their values, but often feel unsure how to do so or whether such action will be effective. People must believe they have a choice to act—and that such action has a chance of success—before they will be willing to voice their values. Accordingly, GVV focuses on preparing individuals to effectively implement their values in the workplace by anticipating common reasons and rationalizations, preparing scripts in advance to counter common arguments, and developing appropriate strategies for the situation. 

We will examine a hypothetical scenario based on real-life events to demonstrate how the GVV framework might be utilized to transform a company’s culture. (The hypothetical example is based on an amalgamation of several real-life events. The names, type of industry, and other identifying features have been changed to protect confidentiality.) For purposes of this article, assume the following facts: Miguel Fernandez is the human resources manager for Lawyers-R-Us. During his 10 years with the firm, he has received multiple complaints from female lawyers about harassment, discrimination, and unequal pay. Although Fernandez investigated the issues and recommended appropriate action, the behavior and pay differential has continued. Fernandez believes the law firm’s culture must change to eliminate the unethical and unlawful behavior. He has decided to take action by raising the issues with the managing partner, Peter McDonald. 

Anticipation of Common Reasons and Rationalizations

Before Fernandez voices his concerns, he should consider possible rationalizations McDonald may offer for the behavior and pay differences. Anticipating these justifications will enable Fernandez to prepare responses so McDonald cannot silence him or justify unethical actions. Four of the most common rationalizations are: standard practice, materiality, locus of responsibility, and locus of loyalty (see Table 1).8

Table 1: 
Common Rationalizations and Responses
​Standard Practice
​The standard practice argument is best captured by the statement, “Everyone does it” or “It is just the way it is.” This justification assumes that an action is acceptable simply because the majority of the people engage in it or because it is something that has been done for a long period of time. 
​Materiality refers to the argument that an action is insubstantial, does not hurt anyone, or does not make a difference in the long-term outcome. Framing the question in terms of materiality shifts the focus from the action to some external method of measurement. 
​Locus of Responsibility
​Locus of responsibility refers to our sense of who we think should act in a situation. We tell ourselves either, “It is not my problem” or “I’m just following orders.” By doing so, we shift responsibility to another person. 
​Locus of Loyalty
​Locus of loyalty is characterized by the statement, “I know this isn’t fair to x, but I don’t want to harm y.” Such a rationalization assumes that loyalty to one group necessarily means disloyalty to another group. 
Standard Practice. The standard practice argument is best captured by the statement, “everyone does it” or “that is just the way it is.” This justification assumes that an action is acceptable simply because the majority of the people engage in it or because it is something that has been done for a long period of time. Such an argument can be particularly entrenched in organizations with a history of improper behavior or in male-dominated departments or industries. This type of thinking appears evident in the Ford and Nike cases where inappropriate behavior was condoned, or at least permitted to continue, for decades. 

Fernandez should probe any claim by McDonald that this type of behavior always occurs by looking for counter examples in other departments or at other firms. Such examples would demonstrate that harassment, discrimination, and unequal pay are not as “standard” as McDonald claims. If McDonald insists such practices are standard—and by standard, he is implying it is acceptable—Fernandez can respond that if such practices were accepted, there would be no need for laws to prohibit them. He could also ask whether the firm would be comfortable with the harassment and pay information becoming public. If not, McDonald may be forced to consider why he would be uncomfortable with it being public if the behavior is indeed standard. Another tactic would be for Fernandez to accept McDonald’s statement that the practice is standard for argument’s sake and ask whether the firm would consider doing things differently than other firms in the legal industry. Fernandez could suggest that changing the status quo might give the firm a competitive advantage in attracting and retaining top talent. 

Fernandez should also be prepared to address the longevity of the unlawful and unethical practices. McDonald may argue that women’s salaries were based on what individuals in those positions were previously paid. This argument, however, fails to examine whether the initial salaries were discriminatory and should have been modified.

Materiality. Materiality refers to the argument that an action is insubstantial, does not hurt anyone, or does not make a difference in the long-term outcome. Framing the question in terms of materiality shifts the focus from the action to some external method of measurement. McDonald might try to downplay the offensive comments or inappropriate behavior as nothing more than innocent jokes or suggest that the employees are being overly sensitive. Similarly, McDonald may argue that there is no need to act because the conduct fails to reach the level of legal liability. Such narrow thinking deprives companies of an opportunity to change their culture. The fact that conduct in one instance may not result in legal liability—or may be a single, isolated incident—does not alter the improper nature of the underlying behavior. In addition, this type of tolerance can foster misconduct in other areas. Fernandez can emphasize that it is easier to address such behavior before it becomes more egregious and frequent. 

With respect to pay inequality, McDonald might claim, “It really isn’t that much. It is just a few thousand dollars.” This argument misses the point that if it is wrong to pay people different amounts for the same work, it is wrong regardless of whether it is $1 or $100,000. Further, the argument fails to consider how these “immaterial” differences compound over the lifetime of a person’s career and impact raises, bonuses, and benefits. Fernandez can also point out that because it is a relatively small amount—at least at this point—it is easily rectified before the costs increase or litigation ensues. 

A materiality argument can be insidious because it distracts companies from examining the intrinsic nature of the conduct. A related danger is that looking at materiality can obscure the breadth of the issue. In the Nike example, 7,000 employees—10 percent of the workforce—required pay adjustments after a pay review. The sheer volume of the pay inequities is staggering. Yet, it continued undetected—or at least unexposed—for decades. 

Locus of Responsibility. This refers to our sense of who we think should act in a situation. We tell ourselves either, “It is not my problem” or “I’m just following orders.” McDonald may claim the market set the salary, the employees themselves negotiated their pay, or their area of practice is simply paid less. All of these reasons signal a certain amount of discomfort with the situation and an attempt to deflect responsibility for the behavior to an external factor or other person. In the Ford or Nike examples, it is possible employees who observed or were aware of the improper behavior used a locus of responsibility argument to convince themselves to remain quiet by claiming it was someone else’s problem to rectify. A strategy to ensure the conversation focuses on problem solving rather than assigning blame is to offer suggestions for joint action. Fernandez could offer to have his department work with a team of administrators, associates, and partners to standardize compensation across tiers and experience levels. 

Locus of Loyalty. This standard excuse is characterized by the statement, “I know this isn’t fair to x, but I don’t want to harm y.” Such a rationalization assumes that loyalty to one group necessarily means disloyalty to another group. McDonald may claim it is unfair to the female lawyers, but the company cannot afford to raise their salaries without causing the firm to suffer financial harm. He may interpret Fernandez’s stance as loyalty to the female lawyers and disloyalty to the company. Indeed, the women in the Ford and Nike scenarios experienced this response when they were criticized for “not being team players” and labeled as disloyal to the company because they reported harassment. Fernandez could explain that it is his loyalty to the firm that caused him to raise the issue. The current situation is untenable and risks legal liability, harm to the firm’s reputation, and damage to employee morale and retention. 

Preparing a Script

For Fernandez to increase his chances of successfully voicing his values, it is crucial to plot a course of action. Before deciding on a particular strategy, Fernandez should consider various procedural aspects of his communication. These include identifying his audience, deciding on a communication style, determining the availability of information and data, exploring the complexity of the situation, and considering the risks (see Table 2). 

​Table 2: 
Preparing a Script—Process Considerations 
​Asking yourself several questions will help focus your talking points on matters that resonate with your audience.
  • Is the audience a single person, multiple people, or an entire department or organization?
  • What is at stake for the audience? 
  • What values or issues are most important to the audience? 
  • Are there individuals or entities to consult before meeting with your intended audience? 
​Communication Style
​Answering the following questions will help you determine the best time and manner to approach your audience. 
  • Do you want to convey the information verbally or in writing? 
  • If you decide to communicate verbally, is it best to do so over the telephone or in person? 
  • If you decide to communicate the information in person, should the discussion take place in your office, a neutral space (like a conference room), or a communal space outside the office? 
  • Is time of the essence due to employee safety or legal considerations (e.g., a timely investigation or statute of limitations on filing a complaint)? 
  • If time is not critical, is there a particular time of the day, day of the week, or week of the month when it is best to talk? 
​Availability of Information
and Data
​It is useful to have relevant and objective data. In the hypothetical situation posed, the relevant information may include: 
  • The number of gender-related harassment and discrimination complaints filed with HR, including the names of the departments or individuals involved and the results 
  • Employee retention/departure statistics
  • Information on other types of harassment or discrimination (e.g., race, national origin, age, sexual orientation, disability)
  • Dates of any anti-harassment training
  • Salary, bonus, and benefit data by department and job title
  • Firm compensation structure
  • Firm procedures regarding reporting harassment and any handbook polices prohibiting discrimination 
​Complexity of the Situation
​When assessing the complexity of the situation you should consider not only the employees involved in the incident but also other employees who may have witnessed or heard about the incident. Unethical or unlawful workplace incidents can impact morale, hinder productivity, increase turnover, affect individual health, influence recruitment, threaten client relations, impact business opportunities, and tarnish the firm’s brand. The more complex the situation the more likely it will require a multi-stage approach.
​There are inherent risks with voicing one’s values. Risks may include retaliation such as being demoted, fired, or marginalized; harm to physical or mental wellbeing; or harm to professional reputation. Equally important to consider are the risks of remaining silent. Such risks may include continued harm to those involved, perpetuation of a toxic culture, decreased likelihood others will report concerns, legal action, harm to the company’s brand, and loss of clients. 
Once Fernandez has considered how and when to approach McDonald, he should determine which strategy or strategies would work best in the situation. Three common GVV strategies are reframing, bridging the gap, and building coalitions (see Table 3).

​Table 3:
Preparing a Script—Strategic Considerations
​Reframing requires a person to step out of his or her current view and embody an opposing view, searching for common ground among the principles both sides share, and creating a new frame of reference rooted in shared principles.
​Bridging the Gap
​This strategy refers to making a connection between a company’s overall mission and the actions being proposed.
​Building Coalitions
​This strategy relates to finding allies inside or outside an organization to help further your cause.
Reframing. Reframing requires a person to step out of his or her current view and embody an opposing view. If Fernandez does this, he can search for common ground among the principles both sides share and create a new frame of reference rooted in shared principles. Fernandez may be able to reframe the issue of loyalty more broadly as loyalty to a harassment-free or equitable work environment. He could argue that protecting the firm from lawsuits demonstrates loyalty to firm. In addition, he could explain it is a false choice to claim there are only two options—loyalty to the firm or loyalty to the female lawyers. He sees himself as being loyal to both groups and he can convey this by reframing the issue as being loyal to the firm’s overall longevity and financial wellbeing. 

Bridging the Gap. This strategy refers to making a connection between a company’s overall mission and the actions being proposed. Fernandez could remind McDonald of the law firm’s mission to help those in need, ensure access to justice, and rectify legal wrongs. Fernandez’s proposal to transform the firm’s culture and prioritize equitable treatment is consistent with the firm’s purported mission. This change would allow the firm to demonstrate its support for the values it claims to protect. Alternatively, Fernandez could focus on the firm’s mission to eliminate bias and suggest the firm reexamine its pay model to see if the practice of paying different salaries based on area of concentration is fraught with a bias for male-dominated areas of practice over female-dominated areas of practice. Finally, Fernandez could seize on the firm’s regard for hard work to point out that the females perform a substantial amount of additional work—pro bono work and administrative work—for which they do not get credit. Given that such work brings value to the firm, he could suggest the partners reevaluate how they assign, value, evaluate, and compensate employees. Perhaps some of the work not given credit could be counted toward billable time or employee pay and bonuses could be based in part on total hours. 

Building Coalitions. This strategy relates to finding allies inside or outside an organization to help further your cause. Fernandez could enlist the help of the firm’s insurance carrier to obtain data on the cost of defending the firm from harassment and discrimination lawsuits. The costs of legal fees, damages, and reputational harm may be greater than the salary differential. He could also work with the marketing department to develop an advertising campaign that highlights the firm’s initiative to ensure equal pay for equal work. This would allow the firm to garner positive publicity and distinguish itself from other law firms if it commits to equal pay. Alternatively, Fernandez could enlist the help of his department to develop an evaluation form that includes criteria for serving on committees, volunteering for administrative tasks, and handling pro bono cases. Fernandez could also work with outside consultants to conduct an independent audit of the firm’s pay practices and workplace culture. Finally, external women’s rights organizations or bar associations may be allies in supporting the changes Fernandez proposes. There are many internal and external allies Fernandez could partner with to gain support for his ideas.

Competitive Advantage

Research demonstrates that companies with positive cultures attract better talent, experience higher productivity, report higher profits, experience less turnover, and achieve higher employee engagement.9 Corporations should dedicate the time and energy to developing and maintaining corporate cultures where employees can thrive. Creating an environment embedded with values-driven leadership can help transform a culture and create competitive advantages for companies. Examples of steps an organization can take to embed a GVV framework into its culture are listed in Table 4.

​Table 4: Cultural Transformation Strategies to Embed GVV Values
​1. Embed organizational values during employee onboarding.
Ensuring alignment between a company’s values and its employee’s values is paramount. Establishing a company’s values before employees begin work sets expectations and allows those with different views to go elsewhere. A company on its culture can signal its values by (a) including information on its culture and mission in job descriptions; (b) asking interview questions about what attracted the candidate to the company and how the candidate handled previous workplace conflicts; (c) inquiring about a candidate’s workplace ethics during reference checks; and (d) conducting training on workplace culture, ethical expectations, and procedures for reporting misconduct. Signaling the company’s culture early in the employment process encourages employees to speak up when confronted with inevitable ethical conflicts and conveys the message that voicing one’s values is a legitimate choice.
​2. Establish a mentoring system.
The onboarding process should include assigning a mentor to each new employee. Mentors can emphasize the company’s values and provide an avenue for new employees to ask questions they may not feel comfortable asking in a larger setting or to their supervisors. Mentors also can explain the GVV framework, provide ideas for scripts, and offer to rehearse scripts. Mentoring programs can positively impact the reporting of ethical violations, increase perceptions of a company’s caring ethical climate, and improve commitment to the organization.
​3. Create a complaint procedure that investigates allegations and works to improve culture.
Companies should have clear, concise, and accessible procedures for employees to report ethical violations, harassment, or discrimination. Such procedures typically provide employees with several alternatives for reporting issues without being needlessly rigid if employees do not follow such procedures. Once reported, HR should conduct prompt, objective, and thorough investigations of all allegations not only to establish the extent of legal liability, but also to promote fairness, encourage reporting, demonstrate the firm’s commitment to its values, and identify organizational patterns and potential problem areas before they become more serious problems. The central position most HR departments occupy—at the intersection of employees and management—provides them with a complete perspective and an opportunity to affect change.
​4. Ensure consistent application of written policies.
Organizations must make long-term commitments to their corporate culture by consistently and uniformly following their procedures. Sporadic action, selective application, single references in annual reports, or inadequate training do not engender confidence in the company’s purported values. Employees must see continuous evidence of commitment to values in both words and actions.
​5. Re-evaluate organizational metrics and include questions about ethical behavior in evaluations.
Organizations use data to evaluate their operations, set performance goals, and manage employees. What an organization measures tells a lot about what that organization values. Organizations that want to change their culture must change what they measure and how they measure it. For example, if a company wants to change a sexist culture it must track allegations of harassment, conduct questionnaires about offensive conduct, monitor employee satisfaction and turnover, and include criteria on evaluations regarding equitable treatment of employees. An organization could add a GVV-based survey that assesses whether the culture encourages employees to speak up, the impact of speaking up, and any perceived repercussions when employees voice their values. Without overt actions and tangible surveys, an organization’s claims about change will ring hollow.
​6. Support transparent and informative communication.
A company must balance its interests with those of the employees. On one hand, a company must protect proprietary information, guard against releasing information that could be used against it in a lawsuit, and protect its brand. On the other hand, there are instances when a company must provide information to ensure credibility, garner trust, and signal a change from past practices.
7. Strive for continuous improvement.
An organization must review its policies and practices on an annual basis. A continuous feedback loop allows an organization to incorporate lessons learned and ensure improvement to existing procedures. To do this, an organization should collect and review GVV surveys and data, conduct discussions across all levels in the organization (i.e., by department or functional unit), and elicit input regarding what enables or disables employees to speak up in the workplace. Without some method for capturing learning, policies risk becoming outdated, ineffective, or inconsistently applied.


Illegal, unlawful, and inappropriate behavior do not occur in a vacuum; conditions must exist that allow such conduct to occur in the first place or to continue without consequences. An organization’s culture can have a significant impact on the actions of its vendors, customers, employees, officers, and board members. Empowering employees to voice their values when they see potential problems can help stop unethical practices before they take hold and become part of a company’s culture. Organizations can take steps to embed GVV values in their culture and thereby promote an environment free of harassment and discrimination. Such an environment can improve employee morale, reduce the risk of actionable behavior, lower employee turnover, and increase employee engagement.  

Carolyn M. Plump, J.D., is an Associate Professor in the Management and Leadership Department at La Salle University. She is the author of Giving Voice to Values in the Legal Profession: Effective Advocacy with Integrity. She can be reached at


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6 Cahill v. Nike, Inc., Case No. 3:18-cv-01477, Complaint at pp. 1-4 (August 9, 2018). Retrieved from Dkt-1.pdf

7 There are a myriad of GVV resources available. In addition to the GVV book, there are numerous titles in the GVV book series, software programs, online courses, and a curriculum.  

8 Gentile, M. (2010). Giving Voice to Values: How to Speak Your Mind When You Know What’s Right. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Yale University Press. 

9 Barney, J. B. (1986). Organizational culture: Can it be a source of sustained competitive advantage? Academy of Management Review, 11(3), 656-665.

10 Fernández, C. A. (2018, August 15). Why the gender discrimination lawsuit against Nike is so significant. Vox. Retrieved from