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When your company culture threatens your reputation

With multiple companies and CEOs coming under fire recently for their company culture, I'm intrigued by the role for PR - and the intersection between internal and external comms - in these situations.

Picture the scene: You’ve had to respond to some negative reviews on GlassDoor, the last employee survey results were pretty bad and your internal comms colleagues are looking increasingly stressed…is this a problem for you to worry about? Likely (hopefully), your answer is 'yes' to this question. Do you think the Communications teams of BrewDog or Activision Blizzard would have answered the same way before the stories of their toxic work cultures hit the headlines?

The Communications team’s role in addressing and influencing company culture has, at times, been side-lined, but toxic culture stories are now causing reputational crises on a regular basis and the intersection between internal culture and external reputation is both striking and undeniable.

While HR takes a crucial role in diagnosing and addressing a toxic culture, Communications has the ability to reflect the audience perspective – whether that be employees, customers or journalists.

What’s the story?

I asked Amanda Coleman, Crisis Communications Specialist, why these stories are so prevalent currently, “People have been through a life-changing experience and so they’re more willing to step up when something isn’t right. We’ve seen how short and fragile life can be, so our threshold for threatening and toxic behaviours in the workplace has lowered.”

How extensive is the problem of toxic culture though? We’ve seen some high profile examples in the media, but why should we as communicators be vigilant in our own companies? Recent research from Culture Shift found that two in five employees across the UK have experienced problematic behaviour, such as bullying, harassment or discrimination at work; with 42% confirming ‘toxic workplace culture’ has impacted their mental health and 29% have taken time off due to an incident that happened at work. The Great Resignation means that companies can ill-afford to be making their employees ill due to poor behaviour and risk losing key talent.

Come together

And what about the connection between internal and external comms colleagues in dealing with these issues? Amanda Coleman continued, “Internal and external comms is a Venn diagram: each has their own areas of expertise, but they also have to be able to come together to deal with issues like this; ensuring their response is robust and that all you’re engaging with all stakeholders – importantly, including employees.”

Equally, the External Comms team’s role in understanding what’s going on early on is critical. Early diagnosis of a reputational threat is an important persuasion tactic in convincing a leadership team to act. In the case of both BrewDog and Activision Blizzard, the corresponding CEOs have also demonstrated the damage that can be done when they don’t listen to (or don’t have) their external comms team once the story has been reported.

What is a toxic working environment?

What constitutes a toxic working environment? Amy Edmondson, an organizational behavioural scientist at Harvard, explains the term ‘psychological safety’ in her Tedx Talk, ‘a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.’ When an employee feels threatened for speaking up internally, it increases their likelihood of going elsewhere. When you have a concentration of employees feeling the same way, that’s how you get groups like Punks for Purpose and their open letter to Brewdog CEO James Watt.

However, having experienced a toxic culture myself, I welcome the broader definitions encouraged by Ghassan Karian, CEO and founder of Karian & Box, the employee experience and insight agency. When I spoke to Ghassan, he highlighted the differing symptoms of a toxic culture; “Toxicity can be seen as bullying and aggressive, but it can also be ‘synthetic niceness’, a culture of passive aggression, covering up negative behaviours and pretending everything is OK. Managers will talk about how much they love their team, meanwhile they’ll be unwilling to challenge bad decisions.”

This scenario sounds very familiar, declarations of ‘we don’t do politics’ while colleagues are openly criticised and covertly side-lined for questioning leaders. As the Communications professional in this scenario it is hard to know what to do. Knowing that you too may be sanctioned, while also worrying about the impact on employee engagement, reputation…and, ultimately, what is right.

Taking care of business

No matter how well established the organisation, the culture is set from the top. A CEO and their leadership team are ultimately responsible for an organisation’s performance, but it’s their people who deliver it. If those people don’t feel safe to speak up, how can those employees be expected to innovate or foster a sense of constant improvement?

I spoke to Liz Jones, an Organisation Development Specialist. Liz describes her job as ‘helping teams have difficult conversations well’. Personally, I would firmly put the discussion about whether or not you’re making employees feel psychologically safe in the ‘difficult conversation’ box.

“The issue is whether your CEO is aware of the power they have to influence behaviours. Most are not, add a lack of self-awareness to that and the conversation can be really challenging.”

“It’s then a question of how to raise the issue in the first place. Unfortunately, if that toxic culture is delivering financial results, the leadership team may have no impulse to change anything.”

Ghassan Karian has a warning for the C-Suite willing to ignore the problem of toxicity: “The best-case scenario is status quo. No one challenging or innovating for fear of failure. Who wants zero growth in today’s economic climate? And as for status quo in today’s constantly changing environment? That’s just dangerous.”

Can we fix it?

So, you’ve persuaded your leadership team that there is a problem (backed up by data) and that the problem will cause significant risk to the business if ignored – either via reputational crisis or in the form of financial stagnation…how do you fix it?

Working with that leadership team to pay as much attention to fostering positive interpersonal and team dynamics as you do to profit is key, encouraging a culture of authenticity, openness and accountability across the organisation. Leadership acknowledging the problem and demonstrating these behaviours in a credible and relatable way is the only way to get this across. Ghassan Karian recollects working with a CEO who thanked his employees for disagreeing with him, “he truly embodied a culture of openness and that translated into trust between him and his employees.”

Liz Jones suggests, “overtly link success to the culture that you want. For example the energy company who shifted from talking about profit as a measure of success to talking about levels of safety as a measure of success.”

Jones emphasises the need to work with middle managers to address culture, due to their position of influence both above and below them within the organisation, “Inclusive management creates a sense of belonging to an organisation, along with the knowledge that an individual’s home life, beliefs and values will also be respected. That’s what leads to psychological safety. It involves asking team members for their perspective, rather than telling them what to do and including them in decision making.”

The value in a Communications team working together to understand, reflect and address company culture is clear, but can they, in fact, get in the way?

Ghassan Karian's view? “The Communications team needs to be very careful not to be complicit in the toxicity. In a culture that discourages speaking truth to power, it is hard to do, but you have to be the ears and eyes of the company and – ultimately – decide: are you the BBC or Pravda?”

A small Communications team combatting organisation-level toxic culture is never an easy fight. It is highly likely that you will face push-back and potentially worse. Sometimes it really is too much. But at the very least, as professionals, we have the skills, access and data to question what is going on…and at the very most, we can represent the experiences of a disengaged, disheartened workforce, and convince an organisation to make real change.

This article was first published in the CIPR's Influence magazine.

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