Too Important to be Nice?
“You’re nothing but white noise to me.” The topic was jerks and this was the winning slam. I was speaking with a group of women who are alums of my alma mater, Scripps College. Without exception, they are accomplished individuals with employment that has ranged all over the map. Many of them have had the “pleasure” of working with people who have an advanced degree they don’t possess, i.e., MD, PhD, JD, etc. Far too many have felt the sting of being dissed as less-than.
I wish I could say boorish behavior is uncommon, but I can’t. Decades ago, a friend reported that the owner of the company where she worked wouldn’t greet anyone who wasn’t in management. It wasn’t long ago that a client reported that the some of the executives where he worked regularly walked past the staff members in the outer office without a greeting or smile. Nothing. They apparently didn’t register as being worthy of notice. These are the same people who make your travel arrangements, executive. If I were in their shoes, you’d probably find yourself on flights with multiple plane changes. Don’t even ask what I’d do with the hotels…
The MIT Sloan Management Review featured two important articles on workplace culture this past year, both by father-son researchers Donald Sull and Charles Sull. Why does corporate culture matter? Because when it stinks, the amount of effort that people put into their jobs (also known as discretionary effort and employee engagement) goes down—and not by a little bit. Turn over goes up. People talk trash about your organization on Glass Door steering others away from working there. As a consumer, you feel it when you can’t get the things you want, stores and services are understaffed, planes don’t fly.
The Sulls’ article, “10 Things Your Corporate Culture Needs to Get Right,” reports on the most important cultural elements according to employees. Number one is, “Employees feel respected. Employees are treated with consideration, courtesy, and dignity, and their perspectives are taken seriously.” This factor was almost eighteen times more important than the second highest scoring area, leadership.
The other article (by the Sulls with co-author Ben Zweig), is titled, “Toxic Culture is Driving the Great Resignation.” It is important to anyone who wonders why over twenty-four million people have quit their jobs since April, 2021. Last November, a record four and a half million left their employers in one month. While this is not equally distributed across industries, it’s not just blue/pink collar jobs that are affected; white collar workers have also thrown in the towel. It’s not just an entire sector of business, it's the specific company within an industry. For example, grocery stores in general ranked low but Trader Joe's did not. Toxic corporate culture was the most significant predictor of attrition, ten times more important than compensation in affecting turnover. Ten times. They aren’t leaving for more pay.
I’ve sat with executive teams to review the results of employee engagement surveys where the data are quite clear that people are unhappy. The leadership team hypothesize why this would be and pay is always where they start. They ignore the comments about disrespectful leaders or pass them off with, “well, you can’t satisfy everyone” or “people are always unhappy in that department.” This should be a wakeup call that prompts investigation—not just of a few departments but the way in which the culture is lived through the daily actions of everyone who works there.
Most of the company values statements I’ve read (or helped organizations to formulate) include the word “respect.” It’s on a plaque, on the website, maybe on the letterhead or a tag line for branding purposes. But they fall woefully short when it comes to behaving as if people actually matter—that they deserve a hello, are known by name, asked to participate, and included because they are valuable people, not because they possess a certain job title. No one deserves to be demeaned, ever.
Employees have been using their feet to vote on their former employers. I know we can do better at treating people with dignity and respect, so let’s do it.