Legal Poisons at Work

By Stephen Paskoff

May. 27, 2014

A while back, I met a brilliant CEO whose grimaces, body language, cutting glances and sarcastic public insults could shut off a debate in a second or two.

One senior executive told me that this leader’s comments, eye rolls, and headshakes convinced him that he did not want to hear concerns regarding major initiatives, only agreement. Encountering familiar behaviors in a $2 billion deal in which he was involved, he kept his reservations to himself. Though the CEO’s conduct in this instance allowed the possibility for unnecessary risk, it didn’t cross a clear legal line.  

Behaviors, like noxious gases, can be poisonous at work. There are racial epithets, sexual demands or overt job threats that compel a pressing urgency to act when we find out about them. Corrective steps are easy to identify and implement when significant legal risk stares us in the face.

Different forms of behavior — silent killers, to stretch the medical metaphor — can be just as toxic at work. The subtle way intent is communicated through behaviors like tone of voice, eye contact, facial expressions and body language, can diminish the productivity of others, affect quality, safety and thwart other business objectives. And, as in this CEO’s case, they can force silence when it’s vital for individuals to speak up and raise the equivalent of code blue alarms.

Here are several questions that organizations have to answer before they can address these forms of behavioral risk.

1.     Can specific behaviors be identified that leaders will agree cause organizational harm?Without such agreement, it's impossible to change widespread organizational behavior. Surveys and anecdotal interviews can be used to identify major issues.

2.     Are senior leaders willing to change their own behavior?If leaders won't themselves attempt to change their conduct, enduring change won’t stick.

3.     Is the organization willing to encourage its community to speak up about a range of behaviors that can be addressed and changed throughout or in distinct pockets of its system?Some behaviors may be offensive to one group but not offensive to another due to regional, cultural or other reasons. Even so, they can be toxic There’s only one workable way to address them. Individuals who are observing or receiving “subtle” behavioral cues should be encouraged to speak up and their concerns should be welcomed. Those who receive them should be prepared to listen and consider the impact of their conduct.

4.     Will the organization encourage and teach leaders and others how to apologize for subtle harms and for those affected by such behavior to accept their apologies and move forward? As some subtle communication may be truly unintended, unconsciously delivered, or misinterpreted by the recipients, it’s vital for people to discuss these issues, adapt their conduct or their responses to it, apologize when proper, and move on.

Overall, changing behavioral standards — particularly involving non-blatant and at times highly-nuanced and contextual forms of behavior — can’t be changed by starting with a classroom or desktop learning experience. Leaders must directly and personally lead the charge and the change. Their positive actions will spread as virally as the example of the $2 billion grimace and head roll that put a talented CEO’s company at unnecessary risk.

Stephen Paskoff is a former EEOC trial attorney and the president and CEO of Atlanta-based ELI, Inc.,which provides ethicsand compliance trainingthat helps many of the world's leading organizations build and maintain inclusive, legal, productive and ethical workplaces.

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