Organisations were recently reminded of the importance that taking a proactive approach to improving workplace culture, employee voice and ethical standards.

On Thursday 1 November, 20 000 Google employees spread across 40 global offices conducted a ‘walk-out’ following a report that Google had delivered multi-million dollars exit packages to male executives accused of sexual harassment. The theme centred around sexual harassment misconduct, increased transparency, inequality and safe reporting pathways. The walk-out, billed as the largest of its kind in a century, comes in the wake of heightened debates about the high findings of bullying and harassment in the technology sector compared to other industries. Extraordinary innovation and entrepreneurship are just one side of the story in a workplace culture that is characterised by a frenetic pace, aggressive deadlines and an industry intolerant of corporate bureaucracy or anything that may slow it down.

The walkout demonstrates, along with the #metoo movement, the combined power of employees and the growing commercial/reputational risks facing organisations – both locally and globally.

Workplace culture is complex, however generally revolves around the following key pillars:

  • The workplace environment, social/ethical norms and leadership
  • The robustness of policies, procedures and management
  • Level of trust, engagement, voice and psychology safety

These workplace culture pillars can be applied to any organisation and are not exclusive to the technology sector.

As demonstrated by the Google walk-out, it is crucial for leaders to take control of their workplace culture by not only “setting the correct tone at the top” but then also walking-the-talk over time. Continual improvement is key. Leaders can start by regularly reviewing their policy/procedural framework, benchmarking management performance/consistency against expectations and measuring trends in reports of wrongdoing. Further to this, speaking with employees and properly assessing feedback helps pressure test the organisation’s approach from the bottom up.

Other considerations include:

Appointment of an independent Diversity Officer or Chairperson.

Many governance experts view the use of an independent Chairperson as a best practice, particularly where there is a desire to enhance the level of Board oversight and send a message that Board is taking the need for governance reform seriously.

Internal controls.

Cross disciplinary or special purpose committees focused on misconduct, ethics and diversity can add value to common functions (like Internal Audit and HR). The Committee can sit outside the standard organisation structure, report directly to the Board and assess the organisation’s approach across a broad range of areas (from sexual harassment to fraud) to best practice/legislation.

Improvements to Human Resources and the Complaint Process

Provide a Robust and Effective Complaint Process. To address harassment, discrimination, and retaliation in the workplace, it is imperative that there be an effective complaint process in place for employees to escalate issues.

Complaints should also be properly tracked and addressed as efficiently and quickly as possible. The organisation can develop and communicate multiple avenues for lodging a complaint, including an employee’s immediate manager or next-level manager, or an external whistleblowing provider. This encourages employees who may fear retaliation to come forward.

Feedback from each stage of the employee lifestyle

The employee lifecycle is a useful way to visualise and plan for each stage of an employee’s interactions with an organisation. This ongoing relationship has five stages: Recruitment, Onboarding, Development, Retention, and Exit. By creating ways for employees to leave feedback at each stage, it is possible to attract and retain a fantastic team and assess what’s working and what needs improvement.

Designated ethics and harassment sessions.

Employees all share the responsibility to act ethically and to speak up if they see co-workers behaving badly. Harassment and discrimination in the workplace can affect employee productivity, create a hostile work environment and increase workplace bulling. Over time it can divert resources from the organisation’s core business, making preventative discrimination training and harassment training for employees essential.

Employee ethics training is a great way to raise awareness and provide a framework for ethical decision making. Employees will learn to recognise behaviours that may do harm, determine whether they are personally responsible to take action, and compare possible outcomes to select the solution that best repairs the ethical breakdown while protecting the integrity of the organisation.