Culture Change is Crucial—and Challenging
If we know what a healthy workplace culture looks like, why can’t we make it a reality?
When a problem is as pervasive as sexual harassment in the workplace, it’s not enough to simply blame the most flagrant offenders. Most experts agree, the problem is not just with specific individuals but with the policies, values and systems that foster an organizational culture. To reduce sexual harassment, they say, you have to change that culture, sometimes dramatically.
Virtually all organizations say they want to create a positive culture, where everyone feels safe and free to do their best work. And it’s easy enough to describe what such an ideal workplace would look like. But each positive attribute comes with obstacles that make culture change incredibly challenging.
In an ideal workplace: Everyone would be subject to the same rules, regardless of rank.
In reality: Organizations have superstars. Some are called ‘rainmakers’ or ‘top performers.” In health care, the person is often a prestigious surgeon or researcher who is responsible for a large percentage of the institution’s funding.
These superstars are not just paid more than everyone else, they are also granted special rights and privileges. Their every “need” is accommodated; their behavioral “quirks” are tolerated. For some, this is where the privilege ends, but for others, says Sepler, “The rarefied air they work in brings about a kind of cognitive dissonance.”
“The eminent individuals begin to believe that they are of a different order of human than those they work for and with. They treat people poorly or they exploit them. They use their status to threaten those who challenge them. They become abusive or harassing or both, and they know that their leaders, dependent on them for income, grants, reputation or other key contributions, will tiptoe around the bad behavior.”
In some industries, such as health care, professionals in general enjoy privileged positions, while those around them are considered merely “support staff.” Most of these highly trained professionals treat others with consideration and respect. But not all.
When doctors become abusive, the hospitals they work for increasingly find themselves in a quandary about how to respond. That’s because the growing number of physicians who now work directly for hospitals are generally considered outside the purview of the institution’s Human Resources department, which is where sexual harassment cases are generally dealt with.
According to Strange, “Traditional HR procedures and policies haven’t been used in the physician workforce, because there was a feeling doctors would be dealt with through the medical peer review process.” Attempts to change this two-tier system are often met by fierce resistance from physicians who find the very idea of reporting to HR demeaning. The best approach for now, suggests Strange, is for hospital HR departments and medical leadership to work together in dealing with offending physicians.
In an ideal workplace: People would feel comfortable giving and taking feedback about their behavior.
In reality: “Human beings are terrible about correcting one another,” notes Sepler. “We find it really awkward to give people bad news about their conduct.” And often with good reason: many of us are also terrible at accepting criticism.
The ability to graciously give and accept criticism is a learned skill, and it takes people who have mastered it, who can model it and teach it to others, to help create a culture where feedback is commonplace. At a minimum, says Strange, “You need folks who have the skills to resolve the issues so people can work together going forward.” That’s eminently doable, but an organization has to recognize and prioritize the need for such emotionally intelligent people.
In an ideal workplace: Everyone would trust the system, confident that all complaints would be taken seriously and investigated thoroughly, with outcomes determined by clearly established facts.
In reality: In some workplaces, many employees don’t know how to file a complaint, if a formal procedure even exists. In others, the procedure may look good on paper, but fails is practice. If the victim ends up being ignored or humiliated, the harasser avoids any real consequences or an innocent person is dismissed without clear evidence of wrongdoing, word gets around quickly that the system doesn’t work. Once that happens, people are unlikely to come forward or, as Sepler noted, they wait until the situation becomes unbearable.
Investigations that are thorough, objective and fair are key. But they take time and resources organizations are often loathe to provide. And conducting an investigation requires a skill set not generally found among those given the job. “It’s unfair to expect an HR person to know every nuance of conducting an investigation when that’s not their training,” says Strange. “I would urge organizations to make sure that whoever is doing their investigations is properly trained in how to do them.”
In an ideal workplace: People would accept, support and care about one another.
In reality: One of the biggest obstacles to an inclusive, caring culture is a rapid change in diversity. As new people are introduced to workplaces that have historically been homogeneous—an increasingly common phenomenon— the result is often friction.
Another obstacle to a caring culture is what Sepler calls “tough-skin jobs,” such as correctional guards, journalists and medical personnel. “Thick skin insulates you from feeling pain when you are dealing with difficult, sometimes awful situations,” notes Sepler, “but it also insulates a person from the sensitivities of those around them.”
When these obstacles accumulate in one field, the challenge can be formidable. Sepler offers the example of nursing. “In nursing, for instance, you have a single gender dominated profession interacting with the more than occasional dynamic of physicians with unearned privilege. Add to that the requirement for thick skin and you land squarely in the two riskiest places for harassment in medicine, the OR and the ER.”
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