Does Your Staff Feel Safe at Work? Here’s How to Help

The Problem

Can you confidently say that 100% of your employees feel safe at work? For business and HR leaders, ensuring the health and safety of everyone on the job is imperative. But sometimes, reality has other plans.

Fraud, misconduct, harassment — even the most prepared organizations may face these challenges at some point. That’s why it’s vital for employees to feel free speaking up. Whenever issues arise, a speak-up culture can help you respond more swiftly and effectively. It also helps employees feel safe, which in turn, leads to increased overall wellbeing and productivity.

Over the years as a risk management consultant, I’ve discovered that ensuring people feel safe at work is no easy feat. But the following practices can help your organization establish and maintain a sense of psychological safety:

The Solution

1. Start With a Comprehensive Anti-Retaliation Policy

A zero-tolerance anti-retaliation policy can act as a baseline for all employees — including C-suite executives — to guide expectations around retaliation in the workplace. But what exactly does anti-retaliation really mean in an HR context?

In organizational settings, retaliation presents itself through actions such as marginalizing or shunning people, impromptu negative performance reports, and regularly assigning unwanted work shifts to targeted individuals. Illegal retaliation can even go so far as firing someone for speaking up. A zero-tolerance policy ensures that any person responsible for retaliatory behavior will be terminated.

Rather than disciplining people who speak up, managers should be encouraged to address employee concerns with understanding and act swiftly to investigate and resolve the issue. Anything less, and employees may be too scared of possible retaliation to report a problem.

The policy should clarify key factors, such as:

  • Specific types of conduct that should be reported,
  • How your organization facilitates the reporting process,
  • Actionable process steps, and
  • How this policy complies with local laws and regulations.

The zero-tolerance principle should also apply to discussions about workplace discrimination allegations, because this can result in unintentional retaliation. Finally, to ensure that your policy reflects new needs as your organization grows, review your documentation periodically and update it accordingly. 

2. Implement Anonymous Reporting Tools

An anonymous reporting system is a broad term for tools such as help lines and intake forms that make it easier for employees to report misconduct. Anonymity is vital because it adds a layer of protection that further shields those who speak up.

Organizations can invest in an in-house reporting system or outsource this process to a third-party provider that specializes in managing and tracking reports. An outsourced system helps employees feel safer, because they know others in the organization won’t be able to undermine or dismiss their concerns.

Also, implementing multiple reporting tools can be beneficial. Creating multiple reporting avenues encourages employees who need to report an issue or incident to speak up in a way that is most comfortable for them.

For example, in addition to offering a helpline, some organizations also provide an online intake form in various languages so it’s accessible to more people. Often, reports submitted through online forms contain sensitive information that some individuals may not be comfortable communicating out loud. Or a safe space may not be available where people can speak confidentially, so the online form serves as a trusted alternative.

Of course, implementing these tools is only the first step. It’s also important to provide ongoing education, training and monitoring to ensure that everyone in your organization understands the policy and how to use any reporting tools you provide. To ensure widespread adoption, this educational process must be a top-down effort across your organization. It must also serve as a cornerstone when onboarding each new member of your workforce.

3. Train Managers in Conflict Resolution

As an executive or HR leader, you’ve most likely been involved with conflict mediation as a fundamental aspect of the managerial role. In fact, 85% of U.S. employees have reported some level of conflict at work. You can help mitigate this by ensuring that lower-level managers develop conflict management and resolution skills. This can support a more cohesive strategy for spotting issues sooner and getting to solutions quicker, so you can avoid having to deal with situations after they’ve reached a boiling point.

Understanding the root cause of a conflict is often the first step in resolving these issue. The most common conflict triggers are workplace stress, clashing egos, lack of support, or poor leadership. There is room for middle-level management to identify potential issues before they escalate, engage with staff, reduce conflict directly, and evaluate how they can improve workflow management to better support their teams.

Disputes between managers and employees will still need to be handled with bias-free executive attention. However, the more conflict management and resolution training managers receive, the more likely employees will believe to trust “open door policies.” Ultimately, this can reduce conflict and increase well being across your teams.

4. Ask Employees for Feedback

You won’t know if people are satisfied with your efforts to help them feel safe at work unless you ask. That’s why you’ll want to find a viable method to gather feedback and channel key insights to decision-makers. By periodically gathering and acting on feedback, you can continuously improve employee satisfaction and retention over time.

But keep this in mind: Research says 78% of employees are willing and happy to participate in workplace feedback surveys. Yet, only 50% think their input will lead to meaningful change. This means you’ll want to be sure you close the loop if your survey reveals gaps or weaknesses in your policy or process. Otherwise, you could undermine your entire strategy.

When People Feel Safe at Work, Wellness and Productivity Follow

The ideal solution combines clear guidelines with anonymous reporting tools and conflict resolution training for managers, in conjunction with employee feedback surveys. Each mechanism works in tandem with the others to create a more holistic approach to maintaining well-being in the workplace. When thoughtfully implemented, this approach can increase trust and confidence across your organization.

Once you implement a zero-tolerance policy alongside anonymous reporting tools, training and feedback, you’ll be able to address areas of concern more proactively. Over time, you can expect to improve productivity and retention because you’ve invested effectively to foster an environment that supports workforce wellness and safety.

How to Fix a Toxic Workplace Culture

We’ve all worked in toxic cultures. You know the signs: team members are afraid of speaking up, there’s an abundance of rules and hierarchy, communications flows in one direction – from the top-down, and silos are standard.

Toxic cultures have a huge impact on employees. In fact, multiple employee engagement studies point to a majority of the workforce being disengaged. Gallup’s 2017 State of the Global Workforce shows that 67 percent of workers are disengaged, or two out of every three employees. It is difficult to work and thrive in toxic workplaces, and toxicity contributes to turnover in the workforce.

No one wants to dread going to work. Let’s look at key characteristics of a toxic culture, and then break down strategies for improving a toxic workplace.

4 Characteristics of a Toxic Culture

Fear of Speaking Up
When employees are afraid, they keep quiet even when they should speak up. They withhold positive and not-so-positive feedback alike. In these workplaces, employees have learned that speaking up is bad, and as a result, they don’t share ideas or sound the alarm when they see things headed for disaster. These are the types of workplaces where harassment and other harmful behaviors thrive. These are the types of companies that discourage diversity in terms of race, sexual orientation, religion and viewpoint. Even if an employee considered the lack of diversity a problem, they’d probably be too afraid to raise the issue.

Abundance of Rules and Hierarchy
In hierarchical cultures, every step the employee takes is controlled by a long list of policies. Rather than trusting employees to make sound decisions about things like what to wear to work, whether they can use social media at work, or when to travel first class versus coach, policies create a tightly controlled environment that not only keeps employees in line but stifles creativity. Additionally, in these workplace cultures, there is often favoritism or unevenness in who benefits from policies and how they’re applied. Managers routinely point to the policy to support their decision rather than having the freedom to consider the nuances of a particular situation and make the right decision.

In cultures where there is hierarchy for the sake of hierarchy, communication has to flow through a tightly defined chain of command. There isn’t an opportunity for open communication and collaboration.

Top-Down Communication
In workplace cultures where the communication is typically top-down, team members are brought in on a “need to know” basis. Open, transparent dialogue is discouraged rather than fostered. I’ve often come across organizations where decisions are made by the executives and input from employees and managers at all levels is rarely solicited. If employees don’t share a sense of ownership in both the company and the company’s direction, they are unlikely to fully buy into the vision of organizational leadership. Moreover, they are unlikely to bring their best and full selves to the work.

In workplaces marked by silos, leaders tend to run their own shops and shun collaboration and sharing of ideas. As a result, most people don’t know the priorities and focus of other departments in the organization. Team members feel isolated and disconnected from the broader work of the organization. When this happens, employees are limited in their ability to be effective advocates for the organization. Additionally, departments balloon because managers hire and pad their staff, often duplicating work that is being done elsewhere in the company.

Fortunately, leaders can control these issues. Leaders set the tone for the organization, and it is incumbent on them to model the behaviors they wish to see in their companies. Here are three strategies to shift a toxic workplace culture.

3 Strategies to Build a Better Culture

Purpose-Driven Work
We all want to know the “why” behind our work. Think about your mission. While you might be a tech company hiring developers, your purpose is to build tools that give a voice to people and their passions. Communicate how your work serves others. In his book, “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,” Dan Pink shares that autonomy, mastery and purpose are critical to creating a motivating and engaging work environment. It’s critical to show employees the “why” behind their work, then give them the opportunity to innovate and own their contribution.

Inspiring Leadership
Too often, we promote leaders because of their technical skills. But people skills and leadership skills are just as important. Leaders need to be authentic and connected to each person on their team. When you care about people, you make the time to appreciate them and what they do, and you make time to foster a two-way feedback loop. Leaders make time to share the “why” behind the decision and engage their teams in sharing their ideas.

Empowering Culture
Ensure your culture fosters a win-win attitude and collaboration. Ultimately, it’s not about one person getting promoted at the expense of another or one team winning over another team. We want everyone to collaborate and work together to advance the goals and purpose of the organization. And, when we have an empowering culture, we are also valuing differences and creating an open, transparent environment for people to share ideas and debate openly. Organizations such as Nordstrom, Ritz Carlton and Netflix all have empowering cultures where their employees are empowered to make decisions to please their customers.

As leaders, we have a choice every day. We control how we behave and what tone we set. When we focus on building cultures with purpose, inspiring leaders and empowering employees, everyone wins. Employees feel bought in, meaning they’re able to bring their highest selves to the work. Productivity increases and the company is able to meet the needs of its employees, customers and stakeholders alike. This is what a win-win for all looks like.