You shouldn’t be shocked about the Brewdog saga. Sure, it’s a difficult read, but is it unique? Absolutely not. And if I had a crystal ball I’d brace for more of it in the future. It’s probably closer to home than you think.
I wish you could see the reality
Our workplaces fail people. I’ve seen the internal experience and external representation mismatch, and I’ve picked up the pieces of the impact it’s had on people. In more than 15 years of HR, the leadership / everyone else divide has been a constant theme. HR is the kind of profession where you get to hear a colleague tell you they wonder if it’s worth them being around anymore because of the pressure they’ve been under in their role. The kind of profession where you have to fight, constantly, for the feedback of the most vulnerable to be taken on board instead of dismissing it as a sign of their weakness or the fact that they “were never that good anyway”. The kind of profession where you spend your time trying to convince other people that a request for flexible working doesn’t ‘prove’ how uncommitted someone’s been all along. The profession that sees, first hand, the fast fashion approach to people – the ease with which people are thrown away in the name of ‘growth’, ‘agility’ or ‘change’ when people are ‘nice enough’ but they no longer match your agenda.
You’re not as unique as you think you are
A toxic culture isn’t anything new. It doesn’t make a grand entrance like some Disney villain with dramatic music and clouds of smoke. It’s far more subtle than that, and unlike the films good doesn’t always prevail. It shows up as an unwillingness to speak up in a meeting or a hesitation to put forward a new idea. It’s the low response rates on your employee surveys, the low uptake on exit interviews. It’s the lack of questions on the company meet up. The pregnant woman putting off telling you about their pregnancy for as long as possible or the Dad worrying about how to tell you they’ve got to look after their sick child. It’s the entire top team being white middle aged men.
What you might not see, perhaps because HR deals with it, perhaps because the affected don’t share it, perhaps because you choose not to, is how sometimes it’s panic attacks before work. Sometimes it’s sleeping all weekend because you’ve put all your energy into surviving the week. Sometimes it’s a heart attack. Sometimes it’s IBS. Sometimes it’s anxiety or depression (which, by the way, is NEVER made up to fulfil a personal agenda).
People aren’t as clueless as you think they are
Toxic cultures don’t just happen, they’re created. People aren’t so stupid as to not connect the dots between the opinionated employee who just happens to leave all of a sudden for ‘new opportunities’. Our very humanity makes us establish the behaviours that are safe and that will help us fit in, and leadership dictates that. If you’re surrounded by ‘yes’ people it’s likely you’re already on your way to something toxic. Just because you say you care it doesn’t make it true; your behaviour says more than any values you stick up on a wall. People see through your public persona and the one they experience with you every day.
The real issue is staring you in the face
You create the culture every time you recruit someone who’s going to ‘fit in’. Every time you promote someone because ‘they’re a good bloke’. It happens every time you dismiss the tears of an employee as ‘emotional’ and make the women in your team jump through hoops to get the pay rise they deserve while the ones who look like you get your time, attention and opportunity. It’s all the times you seek to blame rather than collaborate. It’s in your tone, it’s in your demeanour and it’s every time you deny your responsibility and your impact on the people around you.
You don’t have ownership of someone’s feelings
Saying that you didn’t intend to hurt someone’s feelings doesn’t make it OK. The feelings can last a lifetime and they can bring people to their knees. Providing benefits doesn’t make you a good employer, your people’s everyday experiences at work define that. People are relying on you to pay their mortgage, of course. But in a society where one of the first things we ask someone when we meet them is “what do you do?” they’re relying on you for more than just a pay cheque. You have the potential to impact someone’s life so profoundly, at the core of who they are, and yet all too often you choose to dismiss their views and their experiences because it doesn’t fit with your model of the world.
Keep up or lose out
A lack of intent won’t be good enough in the future. If you haven’t yet worked out that the pandemic has changed people’s standards about what they expect from work, you’d better catch up quick. Do you really know how your people feel? When was the last time you looked someone in the eye outside of your immediate circle and asked them what it’s like to work for you? This isn’t an HR responsibility. It’s yours. And unless you recognise that, it’s very likely that you’ll be the next name splashed all over social media dealing with the fall out of the people you’ve pushed to breaking point.
People are demanding more. It’s time to step up and deliver it, and the starting point is and always has been, you.