Rapid Culture Change Is Possible: The March Madness-April Fool’s Day Edition

By Stephen Paskoff

Mar. 25, 2014

Does your organization need to change its culture quickly in terms of workplace conduct and ethics issues? If your goal is to do the minimum but to give your organization defenses in case there’s ever a costly mistake, then here’s a road map to get you started.

First, before any system-wide plan goes into effect, there must be top leadership sponsorship and support. When C-suite executives delegate all decisions about content and communication on these topics, you’re off to a fine start.

“Get it done and keep me posted from time to time” are the words you want to hear. Have the CEO publish a flowery, dense message about values and compliance using the same terms and phrases as every other company in your industry. For maximum impact, the statement should be impersonal and canned.   

Next, schedule mandatory training for everyone. Completion should have a hard deadline. Impose a financial penalty if it’s not met. From the start, you want participants to see learning as a source of punishment.  By the way, exempt top personnel — they have other more important things to do than demonstrate their interest in learning about these issues.

Implement online training using a cookie-cutter set of templates so every segment looks like content from every other course already in place. Include mostly blatant scenarios and require the learners to answer questions so obvious that even the newest trainee can get the right answer without even knowing the topic. That’s the kind of learning interaction that will best suit your purposes.  Plus, participants will remember a boring experience and associate it with your initiative.

Encourage individuals to take the course in their offices while multitasking or on their tablets while at home. Overall, the blander the experience, the more distractions, annoyances and interruptions, the better. The easiest, yet most vital step, is to make sure that the information in the training is accurate. That will help assure that your organization can blame others rather than its own daily practices if it gets into trouble. “Participants got the information, but chose to ignore it” is the theme here.

Finally, let people know that if they have concerns, they can go to their immediate supervisor or use other complex procedures. Make sure your leaders lack knowledge or skills regarding why and how to welcome and respond to concerns. Processes should be vague and cumbersome. And, there should be just a few well-known instances when those who raised legitimate concerns experienced career harm as opposed to accolades.

Implement all of the above and you will quickly replace trust with cynicism.  People will quickly learn that your standards are relatively trivial and that the best defense to doing things as they’ve always been done is to simply not get caught.

And doing all these things would be workplace “March Madness” and a prank for April Fools’ Day for sure. Yet many organizations do them repeatedly.

The names and misdeeds associated with the organization will live on for years to come, and this legacy will prominently define the organization’s lack of commitment to a professional, civil culture.

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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