Tone in the middle

Tone at the top is good and compliance is important, but what really changes workplace culture is peer pressure among colleagues.

Do things ever change? As I write this column at the beginning of summer, I see reasons to be hopeful. The Dalhousie dental students seem to have learned their lesson, and more important, leaders of that university, the Royal Military College and maybe even the RCMP have recognized that a harassment-tolerant culture has to change. Several large banks have paid fines in excess of US$5.5 billion for cheating on foreign exchange trades, sums large enough to make even those institutions sit up and take notice. FIFA officials have finally been brought to justice after years of rumours of kickbacks and bribes. I have a new crop of university students who seem eager to understand why institutions and people (and they themselves) can cheat and bully while still believing themselves to be ethical people.

But realistically, our capacity to cut corners while rationalizing that we’ve done nothing wrong seems limitless. Just today in the business section of The Globe and Mail, there are articles on companies accused of insider trading, abusing animals in dairies, price fixing, unsafe factories in Bangladesh and faulty car airbags. News about people doing bad things garners more eyeballs than news about people doing good things, but I worry that we are all becoming cynical about the ethics of business. If everyone is "doing it," then the goal is simply to avoid being too blatant and to maintain plausible deniability; and claiming it was only a few rogue traders or a small group of RCMP officers, for example.

Drunk lads harassing journalists on live TV notwithstanding, most of the bad behaviour takes place out of the public eye. But sometimes we see what is going on — we don’t like the behaviour, but we don’t say anything. We rationalize that it’s someone else’s job — the CEO, HR or internal audit.

Tone at the top is good and compliance is important. But what really changes culture is peer pressure — what I like to call "tone in the middle." People stop doing something (or start doing something better) when their behaviour would make them look ridiculous, stupid or sleazy to their colleagues.

There are two key things we can do to make this happen. First, we can talk to our colleagues about third-party situations to deliver the message that the culture in our workplace would not accept the behaviour. Outrage is less effective than scorn: "Can you believe how juvenile those guys were?" "Where did she get that sense of entitlement?" "Did they really think no one would notice?"

Even more important, we need to call out small transgressions directly to the perpetrator. Those of us who have built a career serving clients have acquired the skills to say, "No, that isn’t allowed" without causing offence. So why don’t we use those skills with our colleagues? We may worry that criticizing a member of the group will lead to ostracism or label us as "naive" or worse. But where were the onlookers when the guy was harassing the TV journalist after the Toronto Football Club game? If they had told him not to be stupid and pulled him away, he would still have a job today.

Mary Gentile, in her book Giving Voice to Values, compares ethics to a muscle that gets stronger when exercised. Speaking up effectively can be learned. If you’re not sure what to say, here are some suggestions:

"I’m not sure we’re being fair here."

"I’m sure you didn’t mean to be offensive, but what you just said makes me uncomfortable."

"Can you help me understand this — it seems to be contrary to our code of ethics."

"What makes this situation special? We don’t normally do this."

"Are you sure about that? It won’t look right if this gets audited."

As you go back to work after your summer vacation, think about how a few words from you can help change the culture.