How Leaders Can Prevent Inappropriate Behaviors in the Workplace

When we talk about misconduct, we’re often talking about toxic behavior that became normalized as part of a toxic workplace. When leaders use their voices and put appropriate action, they help create a culture with ethical values at the core, establishing a safe space for reporting misconduct without threat of retaliation while emphasizing a zero tolerance policy.

In a recent episode of the podcast We Can Do Hard Things, author and host Glennon Doyle did something unorthodox while modeling to her staff and listeners that disrespectful behavior would not be tolerated around her show, no matter who you are.

During the tech check for an interview, a guest’s companion (husband) was aggressive and disrespectful to a staff member, who reported the incident. After convening, one of the show’s three hosts (Amanda Doyle) informed the scheduled guest that aggression with staff members was not tolerated and the consequence was that the interview was being canceled. When confronted about the behavior of her companion, the guest reportedly dismissed the staff member as “sensitive” and justified the aggression by saying they’d had no problem with similar behavior at another podcast show.

In lieu of the scheduled interview, the team instead recorded an episode called “The Episode That Wasn’t” to review what had just happened. The podcast team spent the unplanned episode deconstructing their response to the inappropriate behavior. While not the same in tone or scale of review as a large organization, by any means, several valuable behaviors were nonetheless demonstrated:

  • They provided a workplace in which the staff member felt safe to report the incident. 
  • They took the reported incident seriously and gave weight to it, even when the reaction was trivialized and the behavior was defended as acceptable.
  • They followed their principles for ethical conduct despite inconvenient and disruptive consequences to business as normal.
  • They held their cultural standard even when it was challenged as an anomaly, visibly modeling a clear social expectation for all future guests and team members.

The Ways Misconduct and Inappropriate Behavior Take Place at Work

When we talk about misconduct, it’s important to acknowledge that we’re not always talking about behavior that is egregious - for example, aggressively  shouting at an employee. We’re often talking about toxic behavior that previously became normalized as part of a toxic workplace - and does not belong in a healthy and inclusive workplace. 

As pointed out in Harvard Business Review (HBR) by Nicholas Epley and Amit Kumar, it is also a misperception that behavioral transgressions are a result of a few bad individuals. Both context and cultural dynamics contribute to people being more or less ethical. According to the authors, “a large body of behavioral science research suggests that even well-meaning and well-informed people are more ethically malleable than one might guess.”

For example, when it comes to addressing a microaggression or inappropriate behavior, as an active bystander, people are less likely to respond if other bystanders are around and likely to think someone else (more qualified to do so) will handle it. Or when people are instructed by an authority figure to do something, they have been shown to behave out of character in following orders, even when it harms others. Also people may prioritize a more salient and immediate concern (helping someone you like and know) that governs their behavior while having an ethical lapse (taking opportunity from other candidates).

Organizational cultural weighs in greatly. Organizational climate is the best predictor of the occurrence of sexual harassment, for example. News reports have shown that inappropriate behavior is more common the more lenient the culture and leadership are towards any misconduct and the less consequences and accountability are anticipated. How middle management and peers actually behave (descriptive norms) also exerts a huge amount of social influence on defining the range of acceptable cultural behaviors. From interruption in a meeting room to asking a female employee to get the coffee, many toxic dynamics first developed as distorted and rationalized social norms. People in high intensity performance-based cultures, which have a low mistake and risk tolerance, may also take shortcuts or cut corners or mistreat others, out of the pressure to achieve at all costs.

In short, when ethics aren’t consciously and intentionally centered in the day-to-day conduct of your organization, they too easily can slide - contagiously so - and create harmful consequences and ripples.

Fostering an Environment of Ethical Conduct and Accountability

The strongest way to deal with misconduct is to create a clear cultural expectation that inappropriate behavior is not tolerated. Do not leave room for it to exist within your culture and do not leave any ambiguity about leadership’s stance on it. Researchers reported that best single step leaders can take to reduce sexual harassment is to be vocal to employees that preventing it is a top priority. This creates the expectations that harassment will not be tolerated, that reports will be taken seriously and people will be held accountable for their behaviors. 

One of the best approaches to prevent inappropriate behavior is to deeply embed ethical values at the core of your organization. Epley and Kumar emphasize having a simple, short, actionable and emotionally resonant mission statement that underlies how you do everything - from hiring to promotion to operations. Each person should be clear on, and able to embody, the values expressed through the mission statement. The values should be introduced at the hiring process, and candidates can even be asked to consider a time they modeled a core value (e.g., inclusion, customer attentiveness). 

Another recommendation to reduce misconduct is to keep ethics at top-of-mind and at the center of attention every day - whether creating processes, establishing practices or making decisions. The more salient the subject of ethics at the time of decision-making, the more people are guided to act in accord with what is right and in alignment with deeper principles. Highlighting how individuals are stepping up to embody ethical behavior is a way to leverage the influence of social norms to catalyze a more healthy culture. 

A culture that embraces learning and growth, and offers psychological safety, creates the norm that “how” things happen around here is as critical as work outcomes - how we treat ourselves, and others, in the process of work matters as much as what we achieve. Equally, incentivizing people through awareness of how their behavior impacts positively upon others can also be effective, as positively connecting with and contributing to others has a greater positive impact than individuals or companies tend to estimate. Empathy expands perspective and action.

Individual embodiment of a company’s ethical principles should also be included in performance evaluations, evidenced in behavior and rewarded. 

The Impact of Role Modeling in Organizational Accountability

The role of leaders in modeling and upholding the values of a culture can never be underestimated. Researchers found that how a CEO spoke about reported incidents of misconduct (sexual harassment), regardless of having the same factual details, directly influenced on how employees thought about the seriousness of the issue and whether it was a high or low priority problem to the organization. When leaders remain silent, downplay or do nothing about acts of misconduct, they help to foster an environment which proliferates them.

It is also critical to address small microaggression as an upstander to raise awareness of toxic workplace behaviors. Leaders set the standard for what behavior is appropriate - either by their own behavior or whether they hold others accountable for microaggressions, non-inclusive comments, “jokes”, and behavior. One approach used by the US Navy to address these types of behaviors relied on a “traffic light” analogy. While the military tried to define what fell into each group, the greater opportunity is for individuals to check in on each other, asking the person who is the object of the action if the observed behavior is red, yellow, or green. What feels okay to one person may not be okay to another. This enables upstanders to approach these discussions with a growth mindset, rather than with a heavy hand.

With clear leadership expectations in place, leaders know when they need to step up, how to exercise the power of their voice inside and outside of the organization, what behaviors are required and the high expectations to which leaders must be held, and hold themselves accountable. Checks and balances are necessary at leadership level. Boards should be engaged in the matters of cultural governance. Peer accountability is also critical as a channel for lateral feedback at senior leadership and executive level - as upwards and horizontal management is about 50% more important to business success than subordinate management. Reflection and self-governance - the abilities to appraise and refine one’s impact upon the environment - are essential. 

You can create the culture your organization wishes to stand for by putting ethical values at the core, establishing a safe space in which to report misconduct without threat of retaliation while emphasizing a zero tolerance policy, and having leaders that embody your values, use their voices and put appropriate action behind them.

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