In 2019, the all-time record that employers paid out for sexual harassment violations was surpassed by over $10 million. To add to the complexity, the COVID-19 pandemic and resurgence of the #BlackLivesMatter movement in 2020 sparked by the murder of George Floyd exposed racially biased discrimination in hiring practices and COVID-19 safety measures.
At this moment, both small businesses and major corporations face a rising number of legal battles over allegations of racism and sexism. Toxic work culture and communication are everywhere and they can snowball out of control if companies don’t lay the foundations for initiatives to thwart destructive communication.
Accusations against Amazon alone could fill a novel. It’s reported that hiring managers were being asked to stalk applicants online to distinguish race and gender, transgender people were being discouraged from starting families, black, brown, and immigrant workers were not given proper protection against COVID at the workplace, and more.
Bon Appetit, a food magazine, accumulated a mountain of racial discrimination allegations in 2019 and 2020, ranging from tokenism to pay inequality and beyond. Then, Reply All, a Gimlet Podcast, kicked off a series investigating Bon Appetit’s toxic culture, only to be cut short when allegations against the podcast’s employees surfaced to expose a similarly unhealthy workplace.
Both of these situations ended in not only public embarrassment, loss of employees, and poor brand exposure, but they also cost the companies lots of money in legal fees, lawsuit pay-outs, and now the cost to try to rebuild a brand. I can’t imagine what their PR bills look like!
Together, the #BlackLivesMatter and the #MeToo movements continue to significantly influence workplaces across the country—in a moment where the idea of work is in flux and as we become more reliant on digital communications.
Remote Work Creates New, Potentially Unexpected Challenges
You’d think that the exodus from the traditional office and into the home would level the playing field as people shed their business attire and became avatars and tiny square videos on Zoom.
The opposite is true. There are more channels—video calls, phone calls, text messages, chats—where remote work occurs, and many of them are unmonitored and occur outside of employer-sponsored platforms.
As a regular consumer of social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram, I’ve noticed how powerful the veil of ambiguity can be. Guarded by the mask of a social media handle, people can be much more judgemental, cruel, and relentless than they may be in person. Hiding behind their screens, many users feel empowered to push their opinions on others and forget that those they are attacking, on the other side of the screen, are people too. Twitter has even started sending a warning message to people who sling offensive replies using their service.
Words, images, videos, and behavior are threatening both in-person and online. But when working from home, there are no witnesses that would otherwise call out or at least cast a watchful eye on inappropriate behavior. Without witnesses cyberbullying, sexual harassment, and racial discrimination quickly arise and spread.
How Much Does a Toxic Work Environment Impact Business?
The risks and consequences of enabling a toxic work environment are worse than you might think. Employees who experience or witness harassment are negatively impacted emotionally, leading to miscommunication, poor work, and high turnover. Their productivity is compromised, and loyalty becomes permanently damaged. One study found that toxic workplaces can triple employees’ risk of depression.
Disgruntled employees aren’t known to hide their feelings under a rock—many look for an outlet to make their experience known. Negative employee reviews on sites like Glassdoor lower current company morale and impact a business’s ability to attract future talent.
The financial cost of a toxic culture is devastating to a business. Harassment claims and discrimination settlements are expensive, painful, and can cause an avalanche of reputation shattering media and decreased business.The brand impact can be downright fatal. Sponsors, partners, and customers will leave, some for good. Bad press could eclipse any previous brand goodwill. Brands have been boycotted and publicly shamed.
That is a lot of risk.
The Challenge to Managing Risk
If the risks are so bad, why aren’t more businesses taking steps to manage them? Obviously, some companies are, but it’s complicated—especially now. There are several barriers that prevent businesses from taking the steps they need to manage risks and stop them before they start.
Inclusion of All
Rules and expectations must be established to create an inclusive environment. Many businesses stumble when trying to tackle how to be universally inclusive to remote, hybrid, and in-office employees alongside different genders, races, and abilities.
Most businesses do not exist without a structure of hierarchy. Power dynamics are tricky but must be considered when putting procedures into place that can stop harassment and discrimination.
Many businesses use 3rd party applications for both internal and external communications. Often, this means that there is no monitoring, recording, or tracking user communications which could cause compliance gaps when issues arise.
Giving employees the tools they need to navigate and avoid situations that could turn into harassment or a discriminative situation take coordination, time, and money.
The Toxic Culture Cleanse
This is not an easy issue to navigate. Destructive company culture and toxic environments are often rooted in some pretty knotted-up issues, but companies have to start untangling those problems in order to cleanse themselves of a destructive culture. It’s well worth the effort to avoid the irrevocable damage that comes with bad company culture.
Below are a few steps companies can take to reduce toxic work culture and communication and lay the foundations for a positive and productive workplace that people want to be a part of.
Policies and Procedures
The first step to building an inclusive and supportive culture is to review company-wide policies and procedures. Don’t have policies and procedures in place? You better get on it. They help establish expectations, guidelines, and the proper communications processes.
If you have some version of these, it’s worth reviewing them. Rethink the policies and double-check that they make sense for the digital world we now all live and work in. A workplace must create policies that apply equally to employees no matter if they work in the office or on the other side of the planet. Without committing to a clear set of policies that integrate remote or hybrid teams into the culture, companies build a foundation of inequality and miscommunication.
It’s not enough to just add remote communication tools to your company’s arsenal of applications. Everyone must use those tools in accordance with set expectations to efficiently, and effectively keep remote, hybrid, and in-person employees in the loop.
Create a structure of expectations, boundaries, and use cases for your company’s digital communication channels. Employees should know when and how to use each channel.
Real-time Communications Protection
Workplace communication gets complicated. There are technology solutions that can help. For example, Fairwords helps to ensure written communications comply with policies, regulations, and legal requirements.
Fairwords is software that sits on the desktop and detects language that is non-compliant and potentially harmful. It’s a gentle nudge to alert employees to anything that could amplify a less than ideal culture and helps businesses avoid costly litigation, negative press, and a culture disaster.
Employers and customers can rest assured that their company cares about ensuring an ethical and compliant workplace.
Coaching and Training
You can’t do it alone. Most people aren’t born with the ability to jump in and lead a modern, multi-faceted culture that cleverly avoids every possible pitfall. Like most skills, it’s something that you learn over time. Businesses that emphasize learning, both from outside sources and internal training, are more likely to succeed and breed a positive culture.
Think of Fairwords as another training resource. It alerts users before they hit send, letting the user know what may be inappropriate so they can make changes going forward. Users get in-context training materials and case studies applicable to the policy they are in danger of violating so they can avoid any pitfalls.
Take the First Steps Towards a Toxic-Free Work Zone
The consequences of having a toxic work environment that breeds sexual harassment and racial discrimination are growing. Businesses that support a negative culture are on borrowed time and are sure to face a wall of legal settlements, bad press, decreased productivity, and loss of business. The rise of the digital era and remote work makes managing these risks even more complex. While there are challenges, the payoff is well worth it.
Sign up to receive a Free Tiral of the Fairwords communications protection software today!