Recently, the popular luggage company, Away, made headlines after an investigation resulted in employees coming forward to reveal its toxic social environment. The growth-at-all-costs mentality resulted in burnout, humiliation and a miserable place to work.
While some speculate that a leadership change was in the works for months, just days after the report was made public, CEO and Co-founder Steph Korey stepped down after Slack messages humiliating employees were leaked. While it’s shocking to see one of our favorite Instagram Brands get hit with a “Toxic Culture” label, our own organizations aren’t immune to cultivating a toxic culture. Some of us may have experienced a toxic culture first hand or dealt with unethical bosses.
How can we as leaders prevent a toxic culture?
In an environment where competition can breed a win-by-any-means-necessary mentality, employees can become fearful of sticking their neck out to propose a new idea, provide feedback and even question a supevisor’s or colleague’s actions.
At Away, long hours were expected and employees were discouraged to take paid-time off. But a small group of Away employees created a private Slack channel that allowed them to air their grievances. A tool that is meant for transparency seemed to be the only outlet where employees felt they could express their thoughts. And it eventually led to the crisis that publically labeled their culture as toxic.
In contrast, ethical leaders create an environment where ideas are welcomed and feedback is received without the employee feeling that there will be repercussions.
Leaders praise accountability in the workplace as a way to make sure that leaders are responsible for their actions. Jocko Willink, former Navy Seal and management consultant, takes this a step further by implementing Extreme Ownership. Extreme ownership is when a leader doesn’t wait for external forces to hold them accountable, but instead proactively owns the problem and the responsibility that comes with it.
An Ethical Leader starts with humility when facing a problem and approaches it with a sense of curiosity by asking clarifying questions such as, “What role did I play in this?” or “At what point could this have been prevented?” By being open to constructive feedback from colleagues, an ethical leader can now move forward with developing a solution in a collaborative way.
In his book “Principles,” author and hedge fund manager Ray Dalio discusses the value of Radical Transparency as a way to build meaningful relationships within teams.
When an organization is in crisis mode, some leaders default to withholding information from their employees in an effort to avoid panic. However, as we all may have experienced in the workplace, information gets out and stories start to formulate that may or may not be accurate. This is challenging for a leadership team to manage as employees start to formulate opinions based on the limited information that they receive. In order to prevent this from occurring, radical transparency requires radical truthfulness. It allows everyone on the team to understand why specific decisions are being made and why certain actions have taken place. This also helps stop a false narrative from spreading and can prevent a situation from getting out of control.
Ethical leaders want to get to the root of an issue and whether or not they agree with an outcome or opinion, they make an honest attempt at understanding their “why.” Mindful listening is a great exercise to help leaders build empathy and creates space for others to share their thoughts and feel that their voices matter. When provided with the opportunity, leaders should hold back from trying to justify or defend their actions, but rather listen intently to how their actions affected the employees. Trust is necessary for psychological safety and is built during authentic communication.
The events that transpired at Away are unfortunate. While they may recover from a bruised brand and even continue to financially succeed, organizations like Away can have a powerful influence over how people can expect to be treated in the workplace.
A toxic culture won’t last after employee turnover, public reputation and lack of leadership begin to take its toll on the organization. Eventually, its story will come to an end. However, this is all preventable. Understanding your role in developing the organization’s culture and implementing these practices can lead to achieving the organization’s winning aspiration without having your employees packing their bags and finding their nearest exit.
Jaime L. Arroyo is a managing partner at Work Wisdom LLC in Lancaster.