My Take: Transforming a Toxic Workplace Culture

Unquestionably, the biggest HR story of the last couple years was the #MeToo movement, outing sexual harassment in workplaces ranging from Hollywood and the corporate world to the mom-and-pop store on the corner. To paraphrase the famous line from Network, people are mad as hell and aren’t going to take being harassed in the workplace anymore, and HR is on the front lines as the first place employees can and should turn with complaints.

Dealing with those complaints can be difficult for HR, especially if harassment is rooted into the workplace’s culture or is perpetrated by senior staff, management, or the C-suite. But, as the EEOC reminds us, workplace harassment isn’t just unacceptable, it’s against the law. The EEOC filed a record number of harassment lawsuits in 2018, 66 in all, resulting in companies paying $70 million to compensate victims. The 2019 pace is slower but still significant. Hint: If you don’t have an iron-clad zero tolerance policy on the books, now’s the time to write it.

If harassment has seeped into the woodwork and is part of the culture in your workplace, and you’re sitting in your office right now realizing it’s your job to fix it, you might take a page from Cynthia Marshall’s playbook. Marshall, the former head of HR and chief diversity officer for AT&T, was hired by Dallas Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban after a scathing report in Sports Illustrated detailed two decades of toxic workplace culture in the Mavs’ front office. Cuban brought Marshall in as the new CEO, charging her with cleaning it up. In under a year, she has transformed the culture, busting the notion that culture change in a toxic workplace is a long, slow process. It was Marshall’s goal to get the job done in 100 days.

An article in Bloomberg Businessweek outlines how she did it.

  • An outside investigation. Striving for transparency, she allowed outside investigators full and unrestricted access to employees. They interviewed 215 current and former employees and went through 1.6 million documents, then released the investigation’s findings.
  • A 100-day plan for transformation. It involved modeling zero tolerance, creating a playbook for women in the organization, transforming the culture, and improving operational effectiveness.
  • Counselors. Not only was the workplace toxic, but the publicity involved after the SI article had employees reeling. Counselors came in to help the staff cope.
  • A safe place for reporting incidents. Marshall started an anonymous hotline for employees to report any lingering inappropriate behavior.
  • Supportive communities for employees. Also called affinity groups, these are “subsets” based on commonalities, like new parents, people of color, LGBTQ employees, women, you name it.
  • Make the new values clear. Marshall went so far as to paint mantras on the walls, including an acronym for TEAM MAVS: Team Players, Empowered, Ambitious, Motivated, Moving forward, Audacious, Victorious, Strong.
  • Invest in the undervalued. Marshall cleaned house, showing offenders the door, and focused on rising stars. Investing also meant correcting pay gaps, creating new jobs like chief ethics and compliance officer, and replacing the head of HR.
  • D-MAC. She established the Dallas Mavericks Advisory Council, composed of 26 local residents representing the Hispanic and LGBTQ communities, domestic violence shelters, business owners, Dallas police chief Renee Hall, and even NFL wide receiver Tim Brown.
  • Outplacement help. She addressed the needs of people who have left the organization because of harassment, going so far as providing financial help for those who are still out of work.

The result? In under a year, the Mavs’ culture has turned around, and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who was worried the Mavericks were the tip of a very big NBA harassment iceberg, has recommended her tactics to all of the NBA teams.

They’d work in your workplace, too.

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