SHRM Chief HR Officer on the signs of an unhealthy workplace culture and how to fix it

Ladders recently spoke with Sean Sullivan, Chief Human Resources Officer of HR professional society SHRM, on the tech that’s changing the industry, the data behind an unhealthy workplace culture and to how to cultivate a healthy one. 

Can you tell us a little bit about SHRM and the purpose it serves?

SHRM is the recognized leader and authority on all things work, workers and the workplace. We work every day to empower our more than 300,000 HR and business members who live in more than 165 countries. Collectively, we impact the lives of more than 115 million workers and their families every day.

As the voice of all things work, SHRM is shaping the way employers and employees thrive together: Through trainings and educational resources, influencing policies impacting work, creating original research and insights, and showcasing our expertise. We are the driver of social and economic change in the workplace, and we foster mutually beneficial work environments that serve both businesses and employees. We believe that when we create better workplaces, we can create a better world. Our purpose is to elevate HR and our mission is to empower people and workplace by advancing HR practices and maximizing human potential.

What technology/innovation/platform has had the most profound effect on the field of HR/recruiting in the past year or two, and why?

AI has had the most profound effect on the field of HR/recruiting in that timeframe. It’s is used to advertise jobs, conduct employee performance reviews, help with pay equity issues, and address a myriad of other issues. AI is encouraging because it can show trends, help identify discrepancies in pay, and lessen some workplace biases. While it will never eradicate biases, when carefully constructed, it is a step in the right direction.

What are the key signs of an unhealthy workplace culture?

Poor management and leadership are key signs of an unhealthy workplace culture. Our new culture report found that roughly 1 in 3 working Americans say their managers don’t know how to lead a team. That’s a serious problem since there’s a huge correlation between poor management and low levels of employee trust and communication. And even beyond that, there’s a huge ripple effect. That low trust directly impacts employee engagement and happiness in the workplace—which can then ultimately lead to higher employee turnover and lower productivity.

But as the saying goes, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” Meaning, if a people manager hasn’t been trained, then how would he or she know what to do? That’s why employers must make the investment in training, education, and empowering managers—so managers can then feel confident telling employees what’s working and what’s not.

How big of a problem is it on a broad scale? What cities have the biggest problem?

Ageism, harassment, equal pay, work-life fit — these and others are all real and big workplace culture issues affecting every day Americans. According to our new research report, 1 in 5 Americans has left a job in the past five years due to bad company culture. And the cost of that turnover to companies is staggering — at an estimated $223.2 billion. Our fulfillment index found that workers in Boston and St. Louis report the lowest levels of fulfillment. Flexibility, meaningful work, and ethical and honest leadership were rated as the most important cultural factors in workplace fulfillment.

Moving forward, what steps should companies take to build a healthy workplace culture? What are the best practices?

Regular and transparent conversations, in general, are key, because conversations have the power to solve some of the biggest workplace culture issues and drive change. The issues SHRM is looking to improve through our new culture initiative include: management practices, discrimination, harassment, recruiting, the skills shortage, pay equity, workforce development, diversity, inclusion, employee engagement, productivity, compensation, and data.

Conversations are just one step, but we view these conversations as the first step toward positive change. That said, SHRM is also providing other solutions to employees and employers via its new website: That site also provides employers with access to tools, how-to-guides, and follow-up tips, and a new learning program for people managers.

Where do you see the field of HR/recruiting/talent acquisition headed? Crystal ball view?

Some of the biggest things we’re seeing right now are exponential organization growth, lifelong reinvention, technology and talent transformation, and the changing ethics of both the workplace and society.

Some other impacts that are currently, and will continue to impact HR, include having a multigenerational workforce and adapting to the needs of each of those groups. Additionally, there has been an evolution of work as a concept. The gig economy and changing nature of employment contracts will and are requiring creativity. Also, the pace of technological change includes automation, virtual reality, apps, and other tools are affecting HR’s role in interfacing with employees and candidates.

What has been the most satisfying moment of your career/proudest career achievement, and why?

Joining SHRM as the head of HR earlier this year has certainly been one of the high points. I’ve always had the privilege of working for purpose-driven organizations and SHRM offers that up in a number of different ways. From the work we do to develop our own workforce to the broader services and support that we provide to our over 300,000 members, we’re striving for better workplaces for a better world.