Here we are at the end of an unusual year. I hope you’ve managed to weather the challenges and found at least a few moments to appreciate. There’s much to reflect upon, and the state of workplace culture is no exception. Here are some of the big headlines we all should know about and learn from below (in chronological order):
1. CULTURE COMES TO WALL STREET. Shortly after the pandemic began, the CEO of Blackrock Larry Fink released this comment: “A lot of people aren’t thinking about culture during this pandemic. The difference between bad and good companies, and good and great companies is culture. It has to be virtuous and connected, especially when everyone is WFH.” This is a big deal coming from a highly regarded investment firm in an industry where the main business is finance. Will this begin the culture change on Wall Street? Let’s hope.
Key takeaway: Remote work reflects culture. Efforts to create good work cultures should be initiated, renewed, and continually sustained--not after the pandemic, but now.
2. BLACK LIVES STILL AND WILL ALWAYS MATTER. The murder of George Floyd reverberated mightily to remind us there’s still so much to do to eliminate racism and inequality in our societies. Every injustice should pain us into further action for change and we can never let up. Organizations cannot ignore this. It affects employees, humankind—and guess what—the company itself. Inequality pervades our organizations and needs to be actively addressed. Dialogue is not enough. (Side note: It requires skilled facilitation to be productive. Some companies found that out the hard way). Eternal optimist that I am, I published this article in Greenbiz: “Societal division could lead to division at work, but it doesn’t have to.” Read it to find out how businesses are uniquely positioned to make a difference.
Key takeaway: Companies have a social responsibility to address inequality internally and externally—it is unavoidable.
3. PINTEREST MEETS ITS RECKONING. Ifeoma Ozoma and Aerica Shimizu Banks exposed their former employer on social media for a toxic work environment (racism, sexism, unfair pay, and retaliation) in June. 200 Pinterest employees demanded changes and staged a virtual walk out. Pinterest hired a law firm to investigate. At the time, I posted it was not enough. In August, the COO who was fired back in April filed a lawsuit. Another walkout ensued. That lawsuit was settled this month for $22,500,000, creating another firestorm when it was revealed that Ozoma and Banks, both women of color, only received less than a year’s severance. It’s unbelievable that the company managed to discriminate their settlement of discrimination claims. Also think about how much it cost the company in brand, reputation, and money. Answer: A LOT.
Key takeaway: Replace Pinterest here with your own company’s name. If it doesn’t sound nonsensical, then you’ve got trouble brewing. Get ahead of it and address it now before it becomes a costly headline.
4. WELLS FARGO MAKES EXCUSES. One would think that our understanding of diversity in the workplace has evolved over the decades. Then there are these Groundhog Day moments that remind us that some leaders still need Diversity 101. Charles Scharf, CEO of Wells Fargo, wrote this in a memo in June: “While it might sound like an excuse, the unfortunate reality is that there is a very limited pool of black talent to recruit from.” Then he “reiterated again that the bank had trouble reaching diversity goals because there was not enough qualified minority talent” on a zoom call with employees over the summer. One week after the story broke in September, Mr. Scharf apologized in another memo.
Key takeaway: Make sure the C-Suite is educated and involved with diversity to avoid them derailing DEI efforts (and more).
5. COINBASE IS WAY OFF BASE. A lot of things happened (including a walkout) that led up to CEO Brian Armstrong announcing at the end of September that “Coinbase would not engage in ‘social activism,’ he wrote, outside of the company’s core mission of ‘building an open financial system,’” apparently “hinging on the pressure Armstrong felt from employees to say Black Lives Matter.” Also revealed were active steps taken to censor discussions. Armstrong offered a severance package to those who don’t “feel comfortable with this new direction.” At least 5% of the company (60 people) took it. By the end of October, they were hiring a Director of Belonging, Inclusion and Diversity. In November, a piece was published about the experiences of Black employees at Coinbase. It was not positive. Data revealed this month showed that the company underpaid women and black employees. Coinbase filed for a widely anticipated IPO on Dec. 18. There is sooooo much to unpack here, it’s hard to sum it up. As a woman of color, I saw the stance as a demonstration of privilege. I don’t get to choose in this way (not that I would).
Key takeaway: As I said in my twitter post, company culture is not owned by the CEO alone. Unilateral decisions have consequences, some of which are severe. The best cultures are co-created for the intended context and are people-centered. This sounds tame, but is oh-so-powerful. Design of Work Experience, as written in Culture Your Culture: Innovating Experiences @ Work, was created as a guide on how to do this.
6. SPOILAGE AT TYSON FOODS. A November investigation at an Iowa plant owned by Tyson Foods revealed that plant managers placed bets on covid infections of its workers. (of note: the same law firm hired to investigate Uber’s toxic culture was brought in to do this, also led by US Attorney General Eric Holder) More than 1,000 of its 2,800 workers tested positive and at least 6 died. 7 supervisors were fired as a result. The former night manager said it was spontaneous fun that was intended to boost morale. This is mind-boggling. A workplace where managers de-humanize their workers and celebrates their misfortunes has a toxic culture. This is not just the misguided actions of a few people. The culture allowed for this.
Key takeaway: Culture determines the boundaries of what is acceptable, unacceptable, and condoned. Look into what falls into these categories in your organization. Do you like what you see? If the answer is yes, determine how you want to sustain it. If the answer is no, develop strategies and action plans for culture change.
7. GOOGLE GOOGLES IT. What was once an admired company envied for its culture has fallen from its pedestal by its own hand. The latest is particularly egregious with the firing of Dr. Timit Gebru, a highly respected AI ethicist whose paper was blocked from publication and who spoke out about her experience working there as a woman of color. A very public dialogue has unfolded between her, company leadership, and those of us in the peanut gallery. Again, there is a lot of unpack, but I tweeted a whole thread about some of my main points.
Key takeaway: This is not a one-time incident, but an ongoing, very concerning pattern. However, it is recoverable if and only if the company desires it. Look for your own company’s patterns and course correct, because these blow ups don’t happen overnight.
8. GRAVITY PAYMENTS PAYS OFF. Let’s end on a higher note. Gravity Payments made news back in 2015 when their CEO Dan Price took a pay cut and raised all of his workers’ salaries to a 70K minimum. It paid off. Then the pandemic hit and the company that serves small and medium businesses saw their revenue drop in kind. They had 3 months before they would be out of business. Instead of laying off people as most companies would do, Dan reached out to his 200 employees for their advice on how to avoid it. They offered to anonymously volunteer to take a pay cut, which amounted to 500K per month. He paid them all back this summer, restored their salaries, and is even giving out small raises.
Key takeaway: Only a good culture, one based on trust, would enable leadership and employees to come together like this. Crises amplify a company’s true culture. Here are 5 ways your company can prep for the next crises (spoiler: one is to culture your culture).
That I found it difficult to narrow down a year’s worth of culture-related news stories is indicative of how much is happening so quickly. There’s even more that doesn’t make it to print, but it doesn’t make the employee experiences any less important. Good and bad cultures are being lived every day. If your organization is doing nothing or not enough when it comes to your culture, now is the time.
There’s much to take from these stories. Learning is demonstrated by changed behavior when an encounter with new knowledge is incorporated and actions are different as a result. I hope that happens. If you or your organization want to figure out how to start, please feel free to reach out. Here’s to a better 2021.
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