The #1 culture problem in organizations: A lack of authenticity

Of all the underlying reasons that drama creeps into our workplaces and ruins corporate culture, a lack of authenticity is the most serious.

We know the drill: Have a policy for everything, make employees sign acknowledgments for all those policies, draft a statement about your company’s “commitment to diversity and inclusion” and post it on your company website. Defend every claim of unfairness with your standard statement that your company is “committed to an environment free of harassment” and that you are an “equal opportunity employer.” I’m not necessarily saying any of these are bad, I’m saying they are rote responses that send a clear message: “We are an average company who implements average solutions.”

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And what’s worse is a company that says these things but means none of them.

I liken a company’s promise of a “harassment-free” workplace to a restaurant that promises diners “poison-free” meals. I suppose a restaurant wants to make sure that diners know they won’t get food poisoning when they visit, but isn’t a better marketing strategy to promise them an excellent dining experience?

Similarly, promising a harassment-free workplace tells employees: “We promise to do the minimum” or “We promise to do what the law requires.” A more effective approach is to promise a healthy and inclusive workplace culture. That necessarily means that the culture won’t tolerate harassment, and it also means that employees will be respected, developed, and provided with opportunities to thrive.

Here’s a common scenario:

Company: We have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to sexual harassment. Employee: My boss tells sexually suggestive jokes and makes sexually charged comments and at the last sales conference he invited me up to his hotel room. (Employee’s inner-dialogue: This is hard to do, but I want this to stop, and I’m going to believe the company’s stated commitment to keep me safe.) Manager: Well, was he drunk? (Manager’s inner-dialogue: I have so much work to do, this is the last thing I want to deal with. And besides, this employee is complaining about a guy who brings a lot of money to the company.) Employee: I don’t know? (Employee’s inner-dialogue: Is this person serious? What happened to zero tolerance?) Manager: Were you drunk? (Inner-dialogue: I mean, it’s a fair question.) Employee: No. (Inner-dialogue: Well, I guess I know where this is going . . .) Manager: Okay, we’ll look into it, but I’m sure he was joking. (Inner- dialogue: I better not find that any of this is true . . . I can’t lose this guy.) Employee: Um, okay. Thanks, I guess. (Inner-dialogue: I should have listened to my coworker who told me to keep my mouth shut.)

How do you create and maintain a culture that says what it means and means what it says? Try this three-step process: Define it. Live it. Color it in.

Define it: You can’t “live your values” until you’ve defined what those values are. This involves more than putting a mission statement on your website. What does your company really stand for? Why do employees and leaders join and stay with your company? If your company’s focus is on increasing revenue (for example, a start-up that will perish without showing profit quickly), then don’t pretend to be a company that wants to retain employees for a lifetime. If you are a company whose passion is making the world a better place, say so and structure your culture to attract employees who buy into that philosophy. More than ever, culture matters to employees, often even more than compensation.

Live it: So now that you’ve found your company’s true north, how do you make it real? First and foremost, walk the walk. Be radically authentic. All work on defining your culture will go to waste if your employees sense that it is simply lip service. If you’ve defined integrity as a core company value, then act in all instances of ethical lapses. All of them. If you say you believe in and value diversity and inclusion, then be a champion for a comprehensively and creatively designed and deployed D&I plan.

Color it in: Simply defining and living your values isn’t quite enough. Be meticulous about linking your company culture to your company’s purpose and passion. And do so in detail. Will you draft and distribute an employee handbook (yawn) or an inspirational guide that gives employees genuine guidelines about what to expect, and also tells them what is expected of them? Will you talk about your values during interviews, at performance meetings, during coaching sessions and even when an employee is exiting your company? If not, why not? Once you’ve made your company purpose clear, it’s time to yell that message from the rooftops every chance you get.

Practicing profound authenticity is the first step on the path to a drama-free workplace.

Excerpted with permission from the publisher, Wiley, from The Drama Free Workplace: How You Can Prevent Unconscious Bias, Sexual Harassment, Ethics Lapses, and Inspire a Healthy Culture by Patti Perez. Copyright © 2019 by John Wiley & Sons. All rights reserved. This book is available wherever books and ebooks are sold.

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