Key Influencers Can Transform a Toxic Workplace

HR professionals can ensure sexual harassment doesn’t go unchecked

By Kathy Gurchiek May 8, 2017
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Barbara Annis recalled walking across a London trading floor years ago to meet the man who had hired her to transform his firm's culture.

His male-dominated firm was rife with inappropriate behavior, and the organization couldn't retain women as traders or in administrative roles. Annis, CEO and founder of the Gender Intelligence Group—which provides gender diversity and inclusion leadership training—was there to make changes.

As she wound her way through the trading pit, she noticed men putting up flashcards with numbers on them, but the numbers had nothing to do with buying and selling financial assets. The traders were rating her looks from zero to 10.

"You got an eight. Good for you," she recalled her client telling her when she reached him.

It's an example of the kind of inappropriate workplace culture that has been making headlines recently.

On May 1, a Fox News Channel on-air personality filed a lawsuit alleging gender and disability discrimination. That same day, Fox News co-president Bill Shine announced his resignation. While Shine has not been accused of harassing behavior, he has been named in a number of lawsuits or allegations involving sexual harassment or racial discrimination at the network. There have been questions about how much he knew about allegations against Fox News founder Roger Ailes, who resigned as CEO last year after more than two dozen women accused him of sexual harassment, and whether he enabled or covered up any of those incidents, according to a CNN report.

Weeks earlier, Bill O'Reilly, host of Fox News Channel's "The O'Reilly Factor," was let go after more allegations surfaced that he sexually harassed female employees

And Fox News founder and then-CEO Roger Ailes resigned last year after more than two dozen women accused him of sexual harassment.

"All of this is so preventable," Annis said. She is co-author of the forthcoming book Results at the Top: Using Gender Intelligence to Create Breakthrough Growth (Wiley, 2017). She said the attitude of key leaders sets the tone for an organization's culture. 

"The C-suite has to start modelling the [appropriate] behavior, then roll it down to manager level," she said in a follow-up e-mail to SHRM Online.

"At Fox, there was a level of 'male-code' tolerance that got created within that culture," she said, noting that inappropriate behavior by high-achieving, successful men or women was dismissed. 

Some men feel helpless when they witness or hear about such behavior, she said. When one man cracks a joke that some of the other men don't find funny or appropriate, they may slightly chuckle but not speak up. They may even later reach out to the woman who was the object of the joke and let her know they didn't think what was said was appropriate, "which, of course, doesn't make women any happier," Annis pointed out.

"I've seen so many men over the years who apologized after the fact" for not speaking up on behalf of colleagues who were victimized. They didn't because "there [were] consequences to their career, especially in cultures like a trading floor" if they were seen as "a disturber or … breaking the team 'code,' " she said.


Toxic workplaces are "created from the top down when managers or supervisors are the root of the problem," according to a University of North Carolina (UNC) Kenan-Flagler Business School paper, "How to Cleanse a Toxic Workplace."

"Leaders ultimately bear the responsibility of establishing an environment free from toxic behaviors," wrote Kirk Lawrence, program director for UNC Executive Development, in the paper.

"Documenting behavior and incidents, counseling on the need to change behavior, and eventually firing the employee may be necessary to eliminate the toxic buildup. When leaders take action and let their employees know these behaviors will not be tolerated, the change to a positive environment can be drastic. On the other hand, if the leadership of the organization is the root cause, employees must be bold enough to address and seek recourse through HR and talent managers," he wrote.

Annis' client company in London went through gender inclusiveness training at the C-suite level but two of the men, whom she described as "arrogant, alpha males," were uncoachable. The CEO fired them, even though they were his top producers.

"That spoke volumes," she said, noting that to uphold an organization's values "you've got to do something symbolic."

[SHRM members-only tools and templates: Sexual Harassment Policy and Complaint/Investigation Procedure]

There are companies that hold employees accountable even for behavior outside the workplace, Annis said. She told of one organization whose head of sales was reprimanded for telling colleagues over drinks after work that women weren't aggressive enough to be good salespeople.

"The head of HR dragged him in and sat him down and said, 'You don't get to say that. That's a stereotypical assumption you're making' " and pointed out that some men aren't aggressive, Annis said. The man protested that he had been joking, but it was made clear, Annis said, that his remarks were no laughing matter.

An organization can transform its culture but "you have to be really, really clear on what your values are and be clear on what the means are in how to achieve [those] values," Annis said. Some organizations, for instance, have stopped reimbursing employees who meet in strip clubs or in bars and restaurants that have overt sexual overtones.

She shared the following tips for preventing sexual harassment:

  • *Build awareness. 
An accounting firm Annis worked with held 175 gender awareness workshops for employees across North America that addressed gender differences, inclusive behavior and communication. This approach gives employees the tools to address unwanted behavior when it occurs and is different from training that focuses on legal compliance or gender bias.

  • *Raise and uphold your standards.
"If HR can target 20 percent of [the organization's] population [to raise awareness] … they will shift the culture," Annis said. That focus, however, must be on the organization's leaders, she added.

"Bill O'Reilly should never have gotten away with" sexually harassing women, Annis said. "If a couple of men had taken this on [and spoken up], there would have been some change [in his behavior], without a doubt." 

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