It starts at the top: A boss’ behavior defines corporate culture

I was at a meeting a few years ago when a senior executive from the client company called me the “B” word (rhymes with witch) to my face. Perhaps he was caught up in the heat of the moment, as I was leading a crisis scenario training session that might have been so realistic and so threatening to him that he slipped. But I doubt it. His boss, the company president didn’t say anything, nor did my colleagues. So I kept going with the session without comment, but never forgot how angry that made me feel.

That incident came to mind this weekend when I read about a high profile gender discrimination lawsuit in Silicon Valley, filed by a woman against her former private equity firm employer. Diversity and inclusion are fundamental to a company’s social responsibility. Most companies have policies addressing sexual harassment, age discrimination and equal employment opportunity. But it’s one thing to have a policy published and another to develop a truly respectful, inclusive and diverse workplace culture.

My colleague John Gaudet is president of J. Gaudet Associates, a Human Resource consultancy providing turnkey, outsourced HR services to small business. He says there are several things a company ought to do in order to develop an inclusive and supportive workplace culture, and they all start at the top:

“Setting the tone for corporate culture starts with the person in the top leadership role.” John says. “For instance, if the boss uses expletives or derogatory language in meetings or mistreats people, this sends a message to the workplace that it is ok to behave that way; and, some will follow that lead. He adds, “Employee behavior will generally be reflective of leadership’s behavior.  A leader concerned about workplace behavior should look inward to discern whether or not his or her own behavior is setting a low standard.  It can be helpful to take a long look in the mirror and make adjustments.”

There are serious consequences to a non-inclusive workplace culture. “Any time behavior makes people feel estranged from the organization it impacts productivity, quality, safety, and ultimately the bottom line,” John notes. “‘Presenteeism,’ when an employee is present but not focused on his responsibilities, will drag the organization down.”

Of course we are all human and occasionally slip up. When we do, he says the best thing to do is be humble enough to apologize. It can go a long way.

The good news- you can change behavior in any organization when you start at the top. Real change is made through true leadership. Not only should leaders model ideal behavior, they must hold individuals accountable for bad behavior as it happens.  The boss must be clear in communicating to the offender – in front of others if necessary – that his or her behavior is unacceptable. And, John adds, the boss should follow up with a private conversation with the offender, and be prepared to impose appropriate consequences.  And what if the boss is the offender? Ideally, someone at the organization should feel comfortable speaking with the boss privately, and have the same type of conversation.

There are many companies that have welcoming, inclusive corporate cultures that make good role models. Consider Unum, a global leader in disability, life and financial protection benefits. They’ve long been a leader in hiring people with disabilities and making reasonable accommodations, from voice-interactive keyboards to creative schedules. Unum also went further, and helped form the Council for Disability Awareness, an organization that works to increase awareness and the financial implications of disability.

Companies like Unum recognize a bottom line benefit to building a diverse and inclusive workplace culture. In some cases, John points out; the effort is required, as in situations where a company holds government contracts. Contracts generally require a company demonstrate that the employee mix represents the community. The hiring company needs to show it included a diverse candidate audience in its recruitment.

But just because the workforce is diverse doesn’t mean its culture is inclusive, John warns. In addition to correcting poor behavior when it happens, the employer’s stewardship role gives it the responsibility for creating positive opportunities to strengthen workplace relationships over time. Social events at the office or off-the-clock create opportunities for colleagues to know each other and help contribute to a stronger, more inclusive work culture.

A recent news article on the rise of corporate community gardens is an example of how colleagues from different departments can interact in a positive, safe environment and get to know and care about each other on a new level over the course of several months. The annual summer barbeque or holiday party is another venue where employees are congratulated and offered the opportunity to interact in a more collegial environment.  The New England law firm Pierce Atwood  has an annual day of service, where attorneys and staff volunteer side by side in the community, adding to a corporate culture of inclusion and care.

But for corporate culture to be truly inclusionary, eventually, by following the path presented by leadership, inclusionary efforts will grow organically, like the weekly pot-luck lunches at some departments at University of Southern Maine. There’s no secret to developing a respectful and inclusive corporate culture, John says. Look at how you maintain your own relationships with family and friends- get together for a game, share a community project – and do it with company sponsorship.


About christengraham

President of Giving Strong, Inc. Christen advises businesses, foundations and families for how to make a greater social impact.