What You Disregard, You Accept: Red Flags for CEOs

Here’s an under-discussed point in many accounts about workplace harassment and discrimination:  people who have experienced problems describe having reported them to someone with leadership authority.

Sometimes more than one.

Yes, women who have been harassed often assume positive intent on the part of their organizations.

In my experience, when wronged, an employee rarely goes straight to the internet or to an attorney.  Most want to believe that someone in your company will do the right thing.

If you’re a founder, executive, or HR/People lead, you can set the stage for your company — a community you are co-creating —  to do the right thing.

First, assume that employees will have concerns.  Some will be small.  (Snacks.)  Others will not.   Plan to have concerns, and to handle them.  Before they arise:

  • Create and communicate a clear process people can use to raise their concerns.
  • Assume the positive intent of anyone who has raised a concern.
  • Make an effort to hear and understand the problem, and its potential effects.
  • Respond visibly, adequately, correctly, truthfully, and in a timely manner.
  • Follow up with, at a minimum, a clear, actionable statement of any required change.

What you disregard, you accept.  And there’s a compounding effect at play.

I’d bet good money that inviting a new employee into a polyamorous relationship was never anyone’s first stab at harassment.   Many “small” indignities likely paved the way for that biggie.

Handling the “small stuff” when it’s small keeps it from becoming intertwined in your organization’s ecosystem.

You can right many wrongs before harm is compounded.

Shortly after Susan Fowler published her account, a chat with Gary Chou set me off on a series of conversations with folks in the NYC community.  A conversation with Jessica Lin inspired me to write a list of red flags for an organization, which I did.  If an AI of me existed, it would be scanning for presence of these conditions (lol.)

Colleagues, mentors, and friends commented on the list.  Ana Milicevic suggested that I sort the initial list of conditions into categories.  Here’s the list as it stands today:

Relationship management and communications:  Problems aren’t surfacing to the level at which they may be solved — your people’s concerns may have been dismissed.

  • You are not routinely reporting company-wide results to employees.
  • Salary discussions often start only after someone says they’re leaving.
  • You’re hiring great people – but they don’t stay long enough to accomplish much.
  • You/HR receive sudden requests to fire employees, citing “long-term performance issues” that are being surfaced to management for the first time.
  • Exit interviews are uncovering negative information you’ve never heard before.
  • “Culture fit” is cited as a cause for employee exits or requests to let someone go.
  • After someone leaves, you learn new, negative information about their (prior) behavior.
  • You’ve had people fail to return from parental or medical leave.
  • Employees are leaving without having other jobs lined up.
  • A key employee has left, and you weren’t told before their exit.
  • At a critical time, key employees have quit unexpectedly, and/or in rapid succession.

Structure:  Your people may not yet have the skill to be organizationally effective; they may need more support.

  • Many of your people managers have less than 5 years of management experience.
  • Your onboarding process does not include expectation-setting for new hires or promotions.
  • People don’t take all of their vacation.  Or any vacation.
  • You do not have an org chart.
  • Your People Ops/HR lead is not an executive with deep history/training in HR as stand-alone discipline.
  • There’s no official channel for your people to use to surface their issues and concerns.
  • Your organization does not have a relationship with an employment attorney.
  • People do not have goals and/or do not receive regular, relevant feedback via 1:1 meetings with their managers.
  • You think that people know company goals, yet people are not meeting your expectations.
  • You are not making sure that everyone receives regular performance reviews.

Community/environment:  Your organization’s “felt environment” is exerting social controls that may not be optimal.

  • You have teams/departments that are all male, all white (or both.)
  • You hold frequent, mandatory social events.
  • You compare your organization to a family.
  • There’s concern expressed about exclusive/elite in-groups, or that certain people have undue influence or are “untouchable” due to their personal relationships.
  • Face time is enforced, even if you’ve never asked for it.
  • Long-time team members consistently report that new employees can’t cut it.
  • Kitchens, bathrooms, stairwells are dirtier than usual; office supplies and snacks disappear from common areas more rapidly than seems reasonable.
  • People frequently become intoxicated at company-sponsored events.

Leadership fluency:  Your organization has not adequately heard and responded to employee feedback — when this happens, you may have compounding issues.

  • Communication issues are cited as a cause for missing deadlines.
  • People are complaining about the behavior of someone you think is performing well.
  • Your senior team members aren’t modeling the behavior you expect of more junior folks.
  • There’s cross-team finger-pointing about project status or outcome.
  • People are working with coaches and not showing improvement.
  • People’s coaches are not getting input from other stakeholders.
  • There are people in the organization who refuse to speak to one another.
  • Executive team members engage in protracted, unresolved public fighting.
  • People rarely disagree with the CEO (or other key people.)
  • CEO or other senior leader publicly suggests that people should “be more positive.”
  • An employee routinely acts like a jerk; you don’t want to fire them because you need them.
  • You’ve heard, or have, concern about the impact of friendships and/or sexual relationships between employees.
  • You’re aware of one or more “toxic” relationships in your organization.
  • People in the company openly disparage other groups or teams.
  • You know of classist, racist, sexist, homophobic or transphobic utterances/behavior in your workplace.
  • People have been asked to lie, manipulate data, or otherwise act to minimize the appearance of problems.*

Leakage:  Your organization has failed, institutionally, to effectively hear your employees; they’ve taken their concerns elsewhere for resolution.

  • You receive complaints about employees from customers or vendors.
  • People you know outside of the company, board members, or even the press, are coming back to you with details of employee grievances:  some of this “managing out” may be employees attempting to solve the problem.*
  • Leavers write “goodbye everyone” emails or blog posts that stir everyone up for days.
  • Former employees are bad-mouthing your company to current employees and the market.
  • You’re hearing about complaint-filled alumni chat groups.
  • You’re getting attorney letters related to having let people go.
  • You’re seeing numerous negative reviews on Glassdoor or other online forums.

To be clear, some of these conditions are not problems, in and of themselves:  they may be present in perfectly functional organizations.

In all of this, I have avoided using the word “culture.”   Culture is a (complex) result, not a condition.

Your culture arises from the behavior you permit, reward, and disregard.   It’s a real way that you’re actually “changing the world” every day for the people who come in to work for you.

Pay attention.  If many of these conditions are present in your organization, ask a mentor or advisor for some guidance.

You’ve got some work to do.

Many thanks to Gary Chou, Jessica Lin, Ana Milicevic, Brian Bishop, Brian Kosicki, Kirsten Lambertsen, Mike Ma, Jeremy Robinson, Jeff Carter, and everyone else who reviewed this document in various forms. This article was also posted here.

And here are my follow-ups to this post:

* I have updated this article multiple times, notably to include “managing out” in September 2018.   I’ve expanded on my thoughts about managing out at my newsletter:   August 2019 and September 2018 (paywalled).

Photo:  Red Flags by Rutger van Waveren, via Flickr under CC2.0 license.

10 thoughts on “What You Disregard, You Accept: Red Flags for CEOs

  1. Very key points. I especially think that there need to be feedback loops which are NON-judgemental for reporting. Invariably, someone will be offended by something that is purely a miscommunication, and not true harassment. I also think that it’s critical to establish a culture of tolerance and acceptance when it comes to people with different backgrounds; combined with a no tolerance policy when it comes to harassment or other ways of insulting/powerplay/trying to get an edge at the very beginning of the startup. Look how hard it will be for Uber to change their corporate culture. Stuff gets unconsciously ingrained, and it’s very disruptive and painful to try and get it out.

    Leading with Emotional Intelligence and knowing what really might be going on behind the scenes can mean the difference between great culture and bad culture.

    The soft skills seem like bullshit, but they are important.

    1. Yes! I’m not laying any money down on Uber’s ability to turn it around.

      On the emotional intelligence front, I’d say, “yes, and…” EQ is one part of the leadership equation. But you can be 100% self aware and still not all that skilled in leading an enterprise.

      EQ is the price of admission: then you have to spend the 10,000 hours understanding how organizations work, and apply your EQ and everything else you bring to bear on making the organization work.

      Thanks for stopping by to comment!

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