Being in good ‘company’

A “positive workplace culture” ranks at the top of business jargon that truly is easier said than achieved. Workplaces don’t function in a vacuum – they are made up of members of society, who bring with them the behaviours and cultures of their diverse backgrounds. That makes workplace cultures complex and susceptible to change if the ideal isn’t constantly reinforced.

Fostering a positive culture – where fundamentally, everyone likes to come to work – is a shared responsibility; it is not just in the hands of owners or managers or HR departments, but also in the hands of employees themselves. The building blocks of such a culture would be trust and respect. Yet, most workplaces continue to be challenged by workplace conflict and employee disputes; people continue to face sinister issues such as unfair processes, various biases, ethics violations, harassment, discrimination, bullying, and abuse. And yet, so few speak up.

The challenge then is not just to create a positive work culture, but also to create a culture of speaking up. Silence is the de facto mode of almost any employee; it is a choice influenced by one’s position and prospects and also by the shackles of cultural upbringing. Challenging the status quo isn’t easy, especially if the power within an institution resides with those who perpetuate toxic behaviours. In the final equation, employees make a judgment based on the risks they face if they do speak up.

And speaking up for injustice can be a lonely task. Those brave and courageous enough to take on workplace harassment and abuse can often find themselves alone and isolated; no one else wants to pay the price of intervention and chooses instead to be bystanders. In the rare event, speaking up can open the floodgates and snowball, as we’ve seen with the #MeToo movement, but Sri Lanka has yet to experience a cause become similarly magnified.

Building workplaces devoid of harassment is a lot more intricate and nuanced than publishing a Zero Tolerance Policy against it. In fact, such strongly worded policies may be the very thing turning people away from speaking up about less harsh but no less discomforting experiences they face. Where policies do exist, they must be made clear, simple, and easy to action; ambiguous policies veiled in legal speak may sound important but are far from effective.

Equally important is being suitably cynical about your company’s proud history of zero incidents of harassment and abuse. This is particularly true of companies where yes-men pander to bosses, who remain out of touch with ground realities and the climate within. Another key element in creating a space to speak up is the very real problem of the lack of confidentiality for whistleblowers, especially the gossip networks that expose and betray and make a villain out of those that come forward.

Marginalised and disrespected people don’t make for happy and productive employees, and that reflects on a company’s performance, so it matters that such issues are addressed early and meaningfully. Conflict management within workplaces is a tricky business; establishing professional boundaries is especially important in managing the many forms of bullying, discrimination, and harassment that thrive. It’s time Sri Lanka’s private and public institutions take stock of ground realities and craft institutional responses that allow more people to speak up safely and with confidentiality. Pervasive silence would otherwise only breed more toxicity.