I’m confronted by the major news story centered around a senior leader who engaged in unacceptable behaviors across two decades. It’s resulted in a cascade of additional victims sharing their own experiences with the same type of bad behavior - some directly related to the organization in question and others related to their own experiences in past organizations. What is saddest about the news story is the fact that many individuals affected by the bad behavior did not feel they could speak up about it. I won’t speak to the specifics of that organization’s culture or make assumptions about the bystanders where unacceptable behavior was allowed to persist. Considering this important topic, I want to explore the importance of creating a safe and inclusive workplace environment.

In Jennifer Wilson’s article, “3 Must-Haves for Retaining Top Talent,” she explores the aspect of belonging. One part of belonging is feeling safe in one’s environment - safe from harm verbally, emotionally and physically. As a result, firms must embrace a culture that feels safe and inclusive for all employees, which involves many characteristics. Let’s explore three of them here:

1.) Embrace a “Get Better” orientation and do not tolerate bad behavior. As leaders, it is each of our responsibilities to speak up if you experience or witness bad behavior. When you don’t attempt to address the bad behavior, you become an enabler and ultimately a supporter of the behavior, allowing others in your organization to feel unsafe in their environment. There have been many examples in the media of organizations whose leaders were aware of unacceptable behavior conducted by another leader, but swept it under the rug. Eventually the wrongdoings were outed and the organization’s reputation suffered as a result. Not all bad behavior carries legal and PR consequences, but all bad behavior does carry major morale impacts, and ultimately retention issues. High-potential professionals will not stay in an environment that feels unsafe, negative, diminishing or hostile.

There is a fine line between a need to improve performance and allowing downright bad behavior to persist. There are unacceptable behaviors that have legal implications, such as sexual harassment. These types of situations would be advisable for termination on a “one strike you’re out” basis. Firms who take a more conservative – and risky -- approach to work toward performance improvement or rehabilitation must be vigilant to ensure the problems do not persist and, if they do, to take swift action. Some firms walk the edge by allowing sexualized humor, jokes or “teasing” to persist, which should no longer be engaged in, encouraged or acceptable.

Then, there are unacceptable behaviors that do not carry legal weight, but are detrimental to employee morale and workplace culture. These behaviors include yelling, exhibiting hostility or anger, verbally abusing other employees, teasing others about shortcomings and other bullying-type behavior. These behaviors may be improved with coaching or counseling, provided that the behavior is confronted and both the firm and the individual agree on a performance improvement plan for that behavior. If the behavior does not improve in the agreed-upon timeframe, then consequences should apply which may include termination.

Firms may want to define their cultural deal-breakers, including expected and unacceptable behaviors to maintain the safe, inclusive culture they're committed to.  They will want to specify what constitutes unacceptable behaviors in their employee handbook. Firms can take it one step further by promoting the types of behavior that are encouraged in the workplace from a teamwork and leadership perspective. One idea is to publish a partner code of conduct that identifies expected behaviors of the firm’s leaders, and encouraging employees to model the same behaviors. We have a sample code of conduct that you can download here.

2.) Promote an open environment where two-way communication and feedback is encouraged and prevalent. Firms should encourage managers to develop open and honest relationships with their direct reports and teach them best practices for relationship development. The direct reporting manager may be the most likely individual that the staff person would share a concern with. However, your team members must feel comfortable enough in that relationship to do so. Another idea is to assign a career advisor to each person in the organization. A career advisor is ultimately responsible for their advisee’s success by checking in with them on their career goals and overall satisfaction, sharing performance feedback from others in the firm and acting as their advocate in ensuring they remain eligible for advancement opportunities. For this to be authentic, the career advisor must build a deep relationship with the advisee. In either example, the key is that each person in the firm feels like they have one person they know they can talk to about any workplace matter – big or small.

3.) Talk as a team about how to make your workplace more inclusive for everyone. An inclusive workplace is one where employees feel equally valued and respected, and comfortable in openly sharing their insights, ideas, solutions and concerns. Research shows that employees who have inclusive managers are 1.3 times more likely to agree that their “innovative potential is unlocked.” In addition, those who feel they can bring their whole selves to the workplace are 42% less likely to seek other employment options within a year.

Firms that view belonging as a key retention driver should create opportunities for employees to get in the conversation. Your leaders don’t have the same perspective as your staff members on what it’s like to work at your firm and can benefit from their insights. Consider forming a committee with members that represent a diverse cross-section of the firm. Have the committee members solicit feedback from employees on what is working well and what can improve and determine what changes can be made to address the feedback.

Find opportunities to communicate what a safe and inclusive work environment looks like. Whether it’s a topic in various team meetings, your all-staff retreat or in smaller group settings, find ways to remind each other about the importance of open communication and modeling the behaviors of a great leader.

Part of being a “get better” firm means stopping to assess where you fall short and how to make improvements. The more your leaders and team members talk about subjects like these, the more progress you’ll make as a whole. When people feel like they work in a safe, open and inclusive environment, they are more likely to share their thoughts, ideas and solutions and bring their best selves to work.

What conversations are you having at your firm on safety and inclusion? What strategies are you employing to promote a safe and inclusive workplace culture? Where are you making strides? Share with us in the comments box below.

Warm regards,