Sometimes it takes a series of events so unfathomable for reality to truly hit home.
Just ask France Telecom. Since the beginning of 2008, 24 employees at the company have committed suicide and an additional 13 have attempted suicide. Many of these victims left suicide notes implying the company’s working environment was a key factor in their decisions — one even explicitly cited “overwork, stress, absence of training and the total disorganization in the company.” Some of the attempts occurred on France Telecom premises.
In September, the telecom giant announced the launch of a training program that will teach its 22,000 managers to recognize signs of depression. However, this reactive measure is akin to handing out first-aid kits. It addresses the symptom rather than the root problem: The organization’s culture is quite literally toxic, slowly suffocating its employees.
Culture is a critical and often misunderstood element of business. A “good culture” is one where the values of the organization mirror the values of its employees and leaders, guiding appropriate behavior while strengthening commitment. A “negative culture” is one in which competing values, such as honesty and dishonesty, exist and lead to anxiety, undesired behaviors and an uncomfortable working environment.
As France Telecom’s situation would indicate, a negative culture can have a disastrous impact on the workforce and the organization at large. Luckily, culture is learned, and for this reason, learning leaders can have a profound impact on an organization’s culture.
Here are four signs that a corporate culture may be in distress:
- High turnover: To reduce turnover, businesses often take the strategy of improving the interviewing and on-boarding process, assuming that employees leave because they weren’t the right fit to begin with. However, there’s a good chance that recently departed employees had the appropriate talents and skills for their position, but disliked the environment. Properly phrased exit interview questions can go a long way toward identifying specifics within the environment that pushed an employee away.
- Low motivation: With the continued economic uncertainty, many employees may feel trapped in their current positions. There are common-sense methods to assess motivation. Learning executives should speak with a cross section of organizational figureheads as well as with employees directly to get an idea of engagement throughout the company. These conversations can also help determine the most effective motivators — i.e., fear, paycheck, love of job.
- Minimal communication: In organizations where information is power, it is a closely guarded resource and released reluctantly. This dynamic can lead to redundancies, wasted time and effort, and stifled innovation. Furthermore, the flow of information is often one way, which can leave lower-level workers with the sense that they are a commodity rather than a valued asset.
- Failure to address problems: We’ve seen it in countless organizations: the underperforming employee who continually gets glowing letters of recommendation in order to facilitate transfers to different departments; the leader who desires to put an employee on a performance plan but can’t due to a lack of prior documentation; the manager who rules with an iron fist and has successfully terrified all who report to him or her. When individuals fail to confront known issues, it sets a precedent with negative long-term consequences.
Along with identifying and eradicating these concerns, CLOs are in a unique position to proactively spearhead positive cultural maintenance efforts. There are two simple strategies to maintain a healthy culture:
- Reinforce cultural values. Learning programs have the potential to reinforce cultural values and norms, thereby increasing employee commitment and engagement. By integrating organizational values into training programs — for example, presenting case studies that emphasize key values and behaviors — CLOs may advance cultural expectations while addressing learning objectives.
- Be the mirror for business leaders. At times, leaders may not be aware that the values they are communicating through decisions and actions are contradictory to the promoted values of the organization. This can wreak havoc. A CLO can ensure that values communicated through both decisions and actions align with the values that are openly promoted throughout the organization. When they don’t align, a CLO can be the mirror for that decision maker, pointing out the alternate values that may be communicated. This takes a certain level of skill, but the benefits in what the organization can avoid are enormous.
Didier Lombard, France Telecom’s current CEO, has said of the company’s working environment: “The pressure is necessary because we have to compete on the world market.” A CLO might have informed him that his goals can also be achieved through a properly trained and motivated workforce. Even in a highly competitive industry, achieving business objectives and creating a supportive, positive work environment do not need to be considered exclusive end goals. In fact, one might argue they’re inextricably linked.