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How Should You Act when Workplace Culture Goes Awry?

How Should You Act when Workplace Culture Goes Awry?

Get more information about business degrees at American Public University.

By Dr. Marie Gould Harper
Program Director, Management at American Public University

I have been in the workforce long enough to realize that we have to take the “good, the bad and the ugly” when we work with other people. Workplaces have a diverse population with employees coming from many backgrounds and experiences.

Unfortunately, we also have employees who bring their baggage, insecurities and dysfunctions into the workplace culture. What are we to do?

Workplace Culture Can Override Common Sense

Here is one extreme situation of a workplace culture gone bad. A group of supervisors at Capital One ignored their Human Resource department’s approval of making reasonable accommodations for an obese employee with body odor. The employee was fired and sued for reinstatement under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Yes, you heard that right. A group of company officials decided to overrule the organization’s HR Department and, as a result, they violated the law.

Capital One Workers and Managers Created an Environment in which Bullying Was Acceptable Behavior

In the Capital One case, coworkers AND managers created an environment in which it was acceptable behavior to bully and make derogatory comments about their coworker’s weight and health. Can you imagine going into work every day in a hostile zone where no one seemed to have the power to get it under control? You are the “bad” person, and the harassment continues until you are forced to leave.

After reading this story, I recalled a conversation I had with a CFO on how to handle “managers gone rogue.” His response was, “If they cost us a small amount of money, we will take it from their budget. If they cost us a lot of money, then we will probably use their salary to cover the costs.”

No further explanation was needed. I got it!

It took everything in me not to reach out to Richard Fairbanks, CEO of Capital One and offer my services pro bono to help him clean up the situation, even as his HR team worked with the legal and PR departments to clean up this mess. I do not believe that the bank’s situation was unique; it’s just an extreme example.

But this type of bullying behavior happens in other organizations. Sometimes it’s just more subtle.

The lawyers handling the case brought up some key points that I think all senior management teams and HR professionals need to consider and evaluate:

  • How could a department have such a destructive workplace culture and no one at the top knew about it? How were the offenders allowed to fly under the radar and maintain a hostile work environment that was in direct violation of EEOC laws?
  • What do you do when your leaders insist they run the show, regardless of what your HR team advises them? What if their philosophy is “we run the show” and “we are above the law”?
  • How much liability are you going to allow your organization to be exposed to as a result of managers who are out of control? What do you do when managers push back because they believe some policies and procedures are too burdensome?

Some Employees Act on Their Personal Beliefs, Regardless of Legal Consequences

Situations like the Capital One case bolster my argument that training is not always the solution. Based on what was reported about the Capital One case, I do not believe there was a lack of knowledge.

Instead, I believe some employees elected to act on their personal beliefs regardless of the consequences. Also, they may have thought that if they forced out the targeted employee, no one would know or care what they did (i.e., a example of a mob mentality).

I have been both an HR professional and a line manager. My response to this type of situation has been the same. I say, “I can’t be a part of that.” That’s the short version for “I’m not going to allow myself to be sued for something stupid.”

Many managers and corporate executives do not realize that they can personally be sued. Although there is a labor policy called “employment at will,” there is also something called “wrongful discharge.” Know the difference before you act!

Executives don’t realize that they can be sued by their employees and held personally liable for just doing their jobs. And that’s an eye-opening realization, says Daniel Green, a local attorney who specializes in employment litigation.

Individuals at Work Are Not Shielded from Personal Liability

According to a November 2011 article in Green’s blog, “People think they are personally protected by the corporate veil when it comes to anything they do on the job, but that’s not always the case. When you’re talking about employment litigation, that corporate veil may not shield individuals from personal liability for actions based on their conduct while performing their job.”

When I speak to leaders about similar circumstances, I always ask, “What are you going to do when you are not part of Company X?” I am asking what will their responses be when they must appear in court without the protection of their organization?

Rules on the outside can be different from what leaders are accustomed to. A judge doesn’t know who you are, so you may not get the same pass that your superiors would give you.

It’s easy to get caught up in the moment and want to go along with the crowd. However, be sure you don’t make short-term decisions that have long-term effects on your career and life.

In the words of the “Bad Boys” song from the movie starring Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, “Whatcha gonna do when they come for you?” What will your response be in court when you are personally held liable for your actions?

Get more information about business degrees at American Public University.

About the Author

Dr. Marie Gould Harper is the Program Director of Management at American Public University. She holds an undergraduate degree in psychology from Wellesley College, a master’s degree in instructional systems from Pennsylvania State University and a doctorate in business from Capella University. She is a progressive coach, facilitator, writer, strategist and human resources/organizational development professional with more than 30 years of leadership, project management, and administrative experience. Dr. Gould Harper has worked in both corporate and academic environments.

Dr. Gould Harper is an innovative thinker and strong leader, manifesting people skills, a methodical approach to problems, organizational vision and ability to inspire followers. She is committed to continuous improvement in organizational effectiveness and human capital development, customer service and the development of future leaders.