Okay, I’m thinking out loud here, but I’ve been pondering the lines between promoting positive organizational cultures and drawing clear distinctions on when certain abusive behaviors call for sanctions.
In the U.S., the omnipresence of at-will employment — the right to hire and fire for any reason or no reason at all — and the low density of labor union membership means that most employers enjoy wide latitude to develop and implement employee relations policies and practices.
Organizations can, if they wish, clamp down on employee speech, encourage cutthroat competition, and bully workers relentlessly. Much of this will be legal, given the weaknesses of worker protections beyond employment discrimination laws.
Of course, most of us know that such practices are a recipe for disaster, or at least guarantee an underperforming, low-morale workplace. With that in mind, let’s set out a few basic parameters for something better:
1. Encourage speech — The late Peter Drucker, management guru extraordinaire, nailed it in his book Managing for the Future (1992), where he extolled the virtues of employee input and participation in problem solving. Drucker urged that “partnership with the responsible worker is the only way” to succeed in today’s knowledge and service economy.
Worker silence is a sign that many have withdrawn emotionally from the broader enterprise and are doing what they have to do to survive. An organization that encourages a robust, honest exchange of ideas and feedback is much better off than one that sends the opposite signal.
But be forewarned: Once someone is punished for stating her opinion or offering constructive criticism, trust can easily disintegrate. This has to be a “walk the talk” commitment if it is to flourish.
2. Nurture civility — Civility, fairness, and genuine inclusion should be practiced by management rather than preached. It’s all about creating a culture based on actual, observable practice and conduct.
However, imposing company civility or speech codes is problematic. The give and take of ordinary human interactions needs to make room for occasional sharp exchanges and flaring of tempers. When conduct gets out of hand, someone should step in (see below), but an everyday dust up should not be punished. In fact, it may be the canary in the coal mine that signals a deeper problem worth addressing. Take, for example, a victim of sexual harassment who is written up for violating a civility code because she is angry about organizational indifference to her reports of mistreatment.
3. Prohibit abuse — When speech becomes abusive, intervention is necessary. Bullying, harassment, and intimidation should be prohibited. Some aggressors can be coached or counseled; others should be disciplined or terminated. Targets of their behavior should be safeguarded and protected from retaliation for reporting the mistreatment.
This is an ultimate test of organizational ethics, especially if an aggressor happens to be a senior person. Strewn around too many workplaces are a lot of lumpy rugs, with very ugly, destructive behaviors swept under them.