By Louisa Baczor, Research Advisor at the CIPD
Toxic workplace cultures have recently been very prominent in public debate. Last year’s scandals included allegations of bullying and harassment in Westminster, and the exposure of Sir Philip Green’s use of non-disclosure agreements to cover up claims of abuse by employees. Most recently, staff at Ted Baker launched a petition to complain about the CEO’s inappropriate behaviour and ‘forced hugging’. These revelations have raised pertinent questions around how organisations can create environments in which individuals feel safe and supported to speak up. This is important not only because of the reputational and financial risks to organisations in failing to properly address these workplace issues. Employers should not overlook the impact on the workers themselves.
Psychological safety in the workplace is employees’ feelings about taking risks and sharing thoughts with others in the organisation, and it provides a bedrock for employee voice. Before an individual speaks up, they make a judgement about whether doing so will be effective, and assess any risks or potential negative outcomes they may face as a result. As you’d expect, people are more likely to remain silent if they believe that the costs of speaking up outweigh the benefits – for example, if they feel that nothing would be done about it, or that their position in the organisation would be threatened. A Unions21 report found that many low-skilled young professionals feel they’re treated unfairly at work, but a lack of empowerment means speaking up could harm their career prospects, so they opt for leaving the company instead.
Power dynamics can therefore be a significant barrier to voice. Individuals may have great ideas to improve the way things are done in the organisation and foster innovation, but hold back because they worry about being judged negatively or treading on the toes of a more senior colleague. While preventing important suggestions and issues from being raised, this can harm their sense of well-being and motivation at work.
So, how can employers provide opportunities for all workers to speak up on matters that are important to them? Like so many areas of people management practice, managerial behaviour has a vital role to play. While they may have good intentions about encouraging people to openly share their feelings, line managers may inadvertently show attitudes or behaviour that discourage voice. For example, they may appear too busy or stressed to discuss personal matters. This points to the need for all managers to be trained to understand the value of employee voice and the impact of their leadership style on individuals’ ability to voice issues.
Our upcoming research with Nottingham Business School provides insight on people’s experience of speaking up at work, and the factors which enable or prevent them from doing so. This is based on a new employee survey and is due to be launched at the end of February.
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I have had to deal with a situation where I had to lead a complaint about bullying and harrassment of a senior colleague only to have the accused turn the matter on me and accuse me of being the ring leader to oust her and also of homophobia. I wonder how people have the strength to make claims when the process is so difficult even for a senior HR professional.
Toxic cultures derive from a poison or poisons which permeate through the company (often the most vulnerable) and is highly destructive. This is something that is likely to have been boiling away for a long period of time.
Not all unhappy employees leave, if they are low skilled they may not have the confidence to find another role, there are also other factors such as long serving employees that ‘put up and shut up’.
If the employer (CEO and senior management team) is the problem then employees often reach a stumbling block. Unfortunately, cases such as Ted Baker are rare where people come together to complain about the most senior person in the organisation.
I will always promote ‘safety in numbers’. Groups - can be extremely powerful, it is harder to shut down or push out a group of people!
Where the CEO/ SMT are the issue, LM training would do very little as they are not the problem.
Sadly, employees often do not speak out because of the fear of losing their jobs. There are also instances where staff do speak out and they are not believed and subsequently pushed out. Laws do not always protect in these scenarios e.g. bullying. It is sometimes very hard to prove, especially if the employer has a fabricated response to explain away the issues.
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