See Something, Say Nothing: How Culture Trumps Policy and its Impact on Workplace Violence

"The nail that sticks out gets hammered down" is an old Japanese saying that took hold in our post-World War II corporate America culture. This phrase encourages an unspoken rule of conformity combined with an authoritarian hierarchical structure. Today it is important for business leaders to consider the impact this has in American workplaces.

Chicago, Baltimore, and Philadelphia are examples of metropolitan markets that wrestle with significant violence in the streets. In all three cities, law enforcement and the state attorney's offices face the headwind of a "stop snitching" culture. Stop snitching, or the suggestion that one should not cooperate with authorities by sharing information about violent incidents, is so prevalent in some areas that t-shirts reflecting an anti-snitching message have been produced and sold.

When criminals and bullies are accepted as commonplace and have greater influence than the law, their actions will not be reported, and the perpetrators themselves will ultimately not be held accountable for their actions. An anti-snitching philosophy also infiltrates many workplaces as criminals, or at least those who have yet to be found guilty, and bullies become the employees sitting in the next cubicle or office. Or, worse, they become the boss.

When individuals see something but say nothing or when organizations discourage, intentionally or not, the active reporting of concerning actions and behaviors, opportunities for violence in the workplace increase. What can an organization do to transform from a "see something, say nothing" culture to a "see something, say somethingTM" culture?

Organizational culture, policy, and practices need to be objectively evaluated and changed, if necessary. The culture of an organization will always trump policy when the two are not aligned, and culture is often best defined by the accepted behaviors and practices in an organization. While the printed or preached culture may be a positive one, if the reality of what is practiced every day is not, senior leadership needs to take steps to make the desired culture a reality.

The following are some areas that business leaders in human resources and other senior leadership roles should review, analyze and work collectively to change.

Tame Senior Management Bully Squads. If leadership fosters a workplace bullying culture, that this attitude and behavior will trickle down, permeate and dramatically alter the work culture in an extremely negative fashion. Human resource leaders, in particular, need to demonstrate to senior management that the adverse culture fails to foster productivity, teamwork, and creativity -- three vital objectives that every company wants to fulfill. Human resource leaders may consider corporate-wide surveys, implemented by a third-party vendor, that poll employees anonymously. If employees know they can vent their frustrations and share feedback anonymously without fear of losing their jobs, real change can start to occur.

Create Leadership Development Programs. Nurturing in-house talent with a well-defined leadership development program makes employees feel more connected to the business, eases the chain of succession, and empowers employees to be more creative, connected, and engaged. Just as there are companies in many shapes and sizes, leadership development programs differ dramatically from company to company. The end goal of these programs is that employees have an opportunity to improve their skills through classes and workshops, have access to promotional opportunities as they arise, and feel a sense of community and kinship with their company.

Leadership development begins with recruiting as human resource professionals seek individuals who can successfully lead their company's mission. An ongoing commitment to a leadership culture, to include developing leaders throughout the organization, is critical. Strong leadership can help develop your desired culture and support a positive work environment.

Develop a Culture of Openness. Companies that have developed a culture of openness can provide and receive feedback at all levels. A 360-degree feedback initiative can be a valuable option but is recommended only after a company has begun its journey to developing an open culture. If the workplace still fosters a see something, say nothing ideology, employees will not be forthcoming for fear that their confidence won't be kept or that the source of negative or constructive feedback will be too easily identified. A third-party survey company should be brought aboard to confidentially assess feedback by employees at all levels of the organization.

Establish Reporting Mechanisms. It is important for an organization to establish clear reporting lines. These should be made especially clear in policies and procedures and communicated frequently. For example, if an employee who is trained on the warning signs for workplace violence sees aberrant behavior or actions by a colleague, he should know exactly when, how, and to whom he should report this activity. The expectation that employees report inappropriate, violent, or suspicious activity can be realized only when there are measures in place that allow and encourage reporting.

Leadership effectiveness is dependent upon the ability to gain the trust of the people who work for them. This also assumes that the one holding the trust -- the employee -- will perform certain desired behaviors and that the leader has both the desire and the ability to "walk the talk." People who feel they are in a safe and secure environment are capable of achieving great things. It is up to their leaders to tap into this fundamental optimism and allegiance and move them forward to success.

By building a successful culture where employees feel safe, not threatened, and not maligned by their bosses, they will flourish creatively and be more productive. By developing a culture where employees understand the range and varieties of workplace violence and its warning signs, they will feel empowered to do something about it. A culture actively exhibiting healthy behaviors and practices, combined with a zero-tolerance policy for any inappropriate or troubling behavior, is a winning formula for both the organization and the individual.

Posted by Brent O'Bryan on Jun 18, 2013

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