Is Your Organization Sitting on a Ticking Time Bomb?

Over the last five years I have dedicated much of my time to organizational dynamics with a focus on culture and climate. This work is captured in a number of published articles, over three hundred blog posts and two books, the most recent being, ‘From Bully to Bull’s-Eye: Move Your Organization Out of the Line of Fire’. What I have found is that most organizations have a culture of fear and open secrets where leadership (including boards) either is oblivious to what’s going on; or they are at the root of the problem.

A recent survey of Canadian of C Suite executives indicated that 94 percent of them believe that there is not a sexual harassment problem in their organizations. My bet is that if they were asked if there were any other improprieties in their organizations, the number would be the same. I would also bet that if a similar survey were conducted in the United States, the number would be the same. In Canada last week, within 48 hours, Patrick Brown – Ontario’s Leader of the Opposition, Jamie Baillie – Nova Scotia’s Conservative Leader, Kent Hehr -the Federal Sports and Disability Minister, Paul Bliss – a prominent CTV reporter, and a Royal Canadian Mounted Police doctor were ousted over sexual harassment allegations. To those 94 percent I suggest you reconsider this.

Since I started working on organizational dynamics, we have been overwhelmed by stories in the media about organizational wrongdoing. The consistent reaction from boards and senior executives have been claims of not being aware. After exposures have been investigated, another constant has been revealed – these improprieties and wrongdoings were open secrets for years and in some instances decades.

The recent #MeToo exposures has certainly highlighted these dynamics and I must say, with little satisfaction, validated what I have been harping on. And the horrific USA Gymnastics scandal is a gut wrenching illustration. My prediction is that the #MeToo movement will start to go beyond politics, government, the media and entertainment; and it will go beyond sexual harassment.

Employees are coming to realize, that they have been conditioned to accept the abnormal as the norm. They are also coming to realize that they have a responsibility to expose situations that put them and their coworkers at risk; and they are looking for ways to do this.

This is a tsunami just waiting to happen! The next industrial revolution!  And because of this, “The time has come the walrus said to talk of many things…”

For boards of directors, “the time has come” to recognize that “Houston we have a problem”. From this point on, board directors should not get off the hook by deflecting exposures of abuse, harassment and ethical breaches to management. They must act now to assess the culture and climate of their organization and determine whether there is problem; and if there is, they must determine who knew what, when did they know anything, and what they did about it. And then they must take measures to hold people accountable and punish the offenders. More importantly, take must measures to ensure that the behaviors or actions stop and do not recur. It’s time to build trust again between the organization and the employees

To fast track this, boards should determine how employees feel and why they feel the way they do about the work they do; the relationships they have at work; and the organization. The Faas Foundation and Yale Centre for Emotional Intelligence have developed a method by which to conduct this diagnoses.

We have found that this model goes well beyond engagement surveys, and uncovers unnecessary stress factors. More importantly, this is also an indicator of the ability for employees to be open, honest and direct in communicating issues and opportunities.

A quick way for boards to determine if there is a problem is to get the head of Human Resources to fess up on what the ‘open secrets’ are, communicating in no uncertain terms that if they do exist and are not disclosed, they will view that person as being incompetent and/or complicit. My research has shown that in over 80 percent of situations where there is a toxic culture, Human Resources is part of the problem versus part of the solution.

To reduce the fear factor, I have advised many organizations to engage a neutral ombudsperson resource for employees to seek advice on issues. Board directors, like it or not, this is your responsibility. Failing to understand what is going on in your organization must result in the same consequences as the USA Gymnastics Directors have experienced. Some have referred to this entire process has been nothing but a witch-hunt. Nothing could be further from the truth. As Margaret Sullivan suggests in her Washington Post article,  “I’d call it the rough beginnings of justice.”

(Andrew Faas is the author of ‘From Bully to Bull’s-Eye: Move Your Organization Out of the Line of Fire,’ and a Public Voices Fellow at Yale University)


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