In a 2010 survey of federal employees, only 45 percent said they were satisfied with the policies and practices of their department or agency’s senior leaders, while 55.7 percent said their leaders maintain high standards of honesty and integrity.
This approval rating, mediocre at best, reveals a troubling lack of trust and confidence in the day-to-day behavior and practices of senior leaders.
By contrast, a far higher percentage—66.5 percent—said they had trust and confidence in their supervisors.
Why this worrying lack of trust in senior leaders?
This situation is familiar to human resources leaders, compliance officers, general counsels and Equal Employment Opportunity directors everywhere, whether they work in government or the private sector. So how can we as HR, EEO or diversity leaders bridge this gap?
In a word, it starts and ends with leaders. As we have discussed in a previous post, “The 97 Percent Problem: Why Meritless Claims Matter,” the tone is set squarely at the top of the organization, where senior leaders need to make it clear that improper conduct is unacceptable, regardless of whether it’s illegal or not.
But leaders need to do more than merely set the tone; they must act, communicate, get involved and get help when troublesome situations arise and improper behavior comes to light that put the organization at risk for generating legal claims, damaging employee morale and reducing productivity.
The costs of bad, uncivil behavior in the workplace have never been higher, as I pointed out in the post “Dismissed Claims Cost Time, Money and Productivity.”
When you do the math, EEO and other employment-related complaints consume huge amounts of time and money. Depending on the size of the organization, the annual costs of complaints in distractions, lost productivity and legal fees can easily total in the millions. However, it’s not only the legal claims that impact your organization.
Even though 97 percent of complaints may be found to be legally meritless, they still extract an extremely high price in terms of lost productivity, distraction, broken trust, failure to raise concerns and reduced employee engagement.
If leaders followed up with civil treatment behaviors and practiced just a few simple skills, their actions would not only limit claims but also reduce problem behaviors that cause daily disruption and frustration, even in cases where the conduct doesn’t directly lead to charges or lawsuits.
Here are six behavioral principles and practices that senior leaders should follow:
1. Guard words and actions at all times. Whether they are written, e-mailed, texted or verbally communicated, derisive jokes and comments related to race, religion, age, sex or other characteristics don’t belong at any level in government or private sector workplaces.
2. Always address colleagues with civility and respect. This means senior leaders should not yell, scream, raise voices, or use insulting, demeaning or bullying language or actions. This conduct may not be illegal but it is disruptive and can lead to claims and present “bad evidence.”
3. Watch the body language. Tone of voice and body language can also be demeaning or considered bullying and must be avoided.
4. Get involved—and get help. Top leaders must get involved and speak to colleagues and others when they observe the violation of workplace standards. By the same token, leaders should get help from EEO professionals and HR leaders. The goal should be not only to avoid claims, but also to build a truly civil, inclusive and productive workplace when problems arise involving staff interactions and workplace disputes.
5. Welcome concerns. Leaders must communicate that they want to find out about issues and problems and welcome concerns they receive. That means encouraging individuals to come forward, listening in a responsive way, and then following up and taking action. Using this behavioral model, leaders can help surface issues fairly and is vital to building a No FEAR [Act] workplace.
6. Speak up. Make a commitment to talking about the importance of civility and harassment and discrimination training with colleagues and team members across the organization.
Consistent leadership actions like these six principles have been shown to reduce claims—the 3 percent that are legally merited as well as the other 97 percent of those that are ultimately dismissed—and, more importantly, help build a civil workplace so vitally needed in today’s challenging times.