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Does Your Company’s Work Culture Stink? Here’s What to Do.

Sheila told herself that it was just a case of the Mondays.

It was only 1 p.m., and Sheila, an HR leader at Bobtopolis Industries, had already spotted two people crying in the hallway at work. “Well, nobody likes Mondays,” she thought.

At 2, Sheila received three resignation emails, one from an employee who had started just a few months ago. Then, Sheila discovered a new batch of Glassdoor reviews of Bobtopolis, which was even more brutal than the reviews from the week before. Finally, she checked to see if she had any responses to the job opening she had posted last month, but the only person who applied listed his email address as handsomedude$$$@hotmail.com and his alma mater as the University of Hard Knocks.

None of the crying, quitting, or angry-review writing had anything to do with Mondays. Bobtopolis Industries had a culture problem.

If Sheila’s plight rings a bell for you, don’t despair. Below, we’ve listed tested steps you can take to transform a toxic corporate culture into an environment that’s healthy, productive, and attractive to job applicants.

1. Conduct Brief, Anonymous Employee Surveys

In order to fix a toxic work culture, you have to know what’s causing the toxicity. Anonymous employee surveys can help you get to the source.

Anonymity is the key, so either use an online survey or remove yourself from the room when people complete the survey. Make sure to keep the surveys brief to keep people from losing interest and quitting before submitting. Sophie Choukah at Officevibe has some great ideas for the questions themselves. Some examples:

  • Are you inspired by the purpose and mission of your organization?
  • On a scale of 0–10, how likely are you to recommend your organization as a good place to work?
  • Do you feel that you maintain a healthy balance between work and your personal life?

As you read the results, consider what recent events could influence responses. For example, Suzanne Lucas points out that if your organization’s turnover is high, but most of the survey responses are positive, trust is lacking, especially if the responses are cheerier than the company’s Glassdoor reviews. Another consideration: If a lot of new parents have been leaving your company, and a majority of respondents answer the last question above with a resounding NO, you can start to see a culture problem.

This brings us to step number 2.

2. Create On-Site Child Care

Back at Bobtopolis Industries, Phil was having a rough day. He had a marketing meeting at 3:30, but he would need to be on the other side of town by 4:15 because his daughter’s day care had an early dismissal that day. His wife worked even further from the day care, so she couldn’t get there in time. Out-of-town clients were attending the meeting, so rescheduling was out of the question. Once again, Phil felt that he had to choose between being a good parent and giving his best as an employee.

He was already feeling guilty for missing his daughter’s dance recital because of traffic the day before. He hated being so far away from his young family, but his office wasn’t anywhere near a decent day care. Meanwhile, tuition was eating up so much of his paycheck that he wondered if it was even worth it. “No wonder so many of my coworkers don’t come back after they have a baby,” Phil thought. He sighed and sent Sheila her fourth resignation email of the day.

Companies are starting to notice how the struggles that working parents deal with affect corporate culture, and many have responded by providing on-site day care. Nike, Google, and Home Depot are just some of the businesses that have this perk.

When employees can bring their kids to an on-site day care, they don’t have to decide between missing out on games and recitals and skipping out on work and meetings. Working parents make up a huge segment of the workforce, so when companies help them take care of their kids, they’re also improving their own culture, reputation, and turnover rate.

3. Add Flex-Time Policies

Susie, who sat two desks down from Phil at Bobtopolis, wasn’t having a great day either. She spent her morning at the DMV to get her car inspected, and even though all her tasks at work were on schedule, she would have to use vacation hours to cover the difference. Even worse, she lost more vacation time driving from the DMV to work.

Organizations with healthy, result-focused cultures don’t require employees to measure every moment they’re not on the job. It doesn’t have to be this way. If Bobtopolis Industries offered flex time, which allows employees to adjust their schedules for appointments and other needs as long as they put in their required weekly hours and complete their tasks, Susie would still have that half a day of PTO. Flex time saves vacation time for its intended purpose and frees employees to enjoy a real vacation.

Organizations with healthy, result-focused cultures don’t require employees to measure every moment they’re not on the job.

Instead, managers look at the work employees produce, so everyone can get their cars inspected or go to the dentist without worrying about losing vacation time or getting fired. When employees know that their work, not every second of their time, is what matters, they’re less stressed and more productive.

4. Don’t Make Stringent, Arbitrary Dress Codes or Office Policies

Nothing ruins morale faster than severe desk policies or dress codes.

Of course, what constitutes severe varies by industry and department. The dress code of an investment firm probably needs to be more formal than that of an animation studio. But regardless of its industry, when a dress code feels invasive and persnickety, it can make employees feel infantilized and miserable, which does not exactly make for a healthy work culture.

The same goes for policies that limit personal items on desks. In fact, one psychologist found that employees with at least one plant or picture in their workspace are 15% more productive than those without any office personalization. Productivity went up to 25% when employees could decorate their cubicle or office any way they wanted. 

Nothing ruins morale faster than severe desk policies or dress codes.

Reversely, policies that restrict personalization develop a controlling, unhealthy culture.

They can also be a drag for office managers and HR professionals. Because of Bobtopolis Industries’ severe polices, Sheila had to take time away from her already-stressful day to remind Keith in Accounting that he can have only three Beyoncé bobbleheads on his desk.

That doesn’t mean anything goes. Handbooks should note that clothing and personal décor can’t distract colleagues. If Keith’s Beyoncé bobbleheads were also alarms that played “Single Ladies” every half hour, they would probably distract some colleagues. Policies that help employees feel comfortable at work but also prevent distraction play an important role in improving work culture.

5. Set Clear Expectations

Clear expectations and objectives are the foundation of a healthy corporate culture. This goes for everything from the mission statement to the roles and tasks of each employee. Clear, well-written job descriptions help employees understand what their managers expect of them from day one. They also give managers a reference when delegating work.

Writing behavior-driven job descriptions is the first step in setting clear expectations. Behavior-driven descriptions, as the University of Texas notes, prevent potential misunderstandings between employees and their managers.

Clear expectations and objectives are the foundation of a healthy corporate culture.

Instead of writing, “Be professional,” Sheila could say, “The person in this role observes work rules and practices covered during the orientation process concerning punctuality and breaks.” This gives employees the specifics of what management expects of them and notes the work rules to reference to fulfill those expectations.

The former CPO of Netflix knew this when she created a detailed SlideShare that tells all employees the behavior and work ethic expected of them and why. The SlideShare goes into the specifics of how managers should address employees who made a mistake, conditions for promotions, and more. Here, Netflix has established the foundation of its culture from the very start.

Sheila doesn’t need ping-pong tables or beers on tap to change the culture at Bobtopolis Industries. Instead, she needs to help her company move from outdated rules and restrictions to policies that reflect the mission of Bobtopolis and the work of their employees.

What other changes can improve a lousy company culture? Tell us in the comments!

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