Ten strategies to improve the human experience of the workplace

A survey commissioned last year by B Lab UK concluded that 72% of UK adults believe that businesses should have a legal responsibility to the planet and people, in addition to maximising profits.

Many organisations realise that stakeholders and investors are demanding strong Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) credentials from the organisations they work with, but many struggle to define the ‘Social’ aspect of ESG. The ability to identify, measure and manage the human experience of the workplace and the employer/employee relationship will be significant.

Recent revelations in the media from unhappy employees at Brewdog have negatively impacted the craft brewer’s corporate reputation. Despite being a certified B Corp business with a commitment to planting a million trees and supporting animal charities, public exposure of bullying behaviours and a toxic workplace culture has undermined consumer and investor confidence in the brand.

This then begs the following questions;

  • How important is the human experience of the workplace in relation to the ‘social’ aspect of ESG performance?

  • Why does bullying behaviour continue to be accepted in the workplace when employers strive to create positive cultures?

  • Is inappropriate behaviour seen as one of those tricky ‘human’ issues that is too hard to deal with and therefore gets de-prioritised?

  • And if so, just because dealing with human behaviours is difficult, should that mean we ignore it and hope it goes away? Sexual harassment, diversity and inclusion and mental health and wellbeing are also difficult issues but are all accepted as critical initiatives for responsible employers

The cost of workplace conflict

According to research published by ACAS, the cost to the economy of workplace conflict was £28.5bn in 2020. That number is based upon amongst other factors, people leaving their jobs, rehiring, the cost of grievance processes, litigation, sickness absence from stress and lost productivity. It is estimated that 40% of work-related stress is due to bullying behaviours which only serves to contribute to the poor mental health crisis the UK faces. The pandemic has placed Mental Health and Wellbeing as a top priority for many organisations; however, without examining the possible contributory behaviours that exist in the organisation, the challenge will continue treating the symptom not the cause.

Despite most organisations having anti bullying policies in place, CIPD stated in 2021 that 27% of the UK workforce have experienced workplace bullying and as many as 53% say they have experienced bullying or harassment in the last three years but not reported it.

Most worryingly, according to Professor Christine Porath from Georgetown University, 25% of people who have experienced conflict in the workplace admit to taking their frustrations out on customers. Therefore, the cost of these negative experiences could be seriously impacting your bottom line, and you may not even be aware of it.

What is going wrong?

Brewdog are not alone. Despite the best efforts of organisational intent and values, many find a disconnect with actual behaviours and conduct. HR create policies, people initiatives, surveys and training, all in support of ‘good’ corporate behaviours. However, these often fall short in practice because they become tick box HR exercises and are not seen as an organisation wide responsibility.

There is a wide spectrum of reasons that mean bullying or inappropriate behaviours can surface. At one end, some individuals are simply unaware of the impact of their behaviours; others might be taking their lead from ineffective role models; many state that they simply don’t know what might be interpreted as bullying or harassment. At the other end of the spectrum, organisations may blindly deny the existence of poor conduct either through lack of awareness or for more deceitful, political or financially motivated reasons.

What is the answer?

There is growing awareness from responsible organisations that commitment to making things better and demonstrating upstanding behaviours at an organisational and individual level is a powerful way to build credibility, trust, and value for businesses. It takes courage and compassion to address and understand the impact of behaviours in the workplace. There is no one single intervention that will magically transform the human experience but adopting these ten strategies will go a long way to help.

1) Set the tone from the top

An ‘open-door’ policy and positive intent are no longer enough. Board members and executive teams must role model the behaviours expected throughout the rest of the organisation. Change requires commitment from the top, for leaders to be held to account for their own behaviours and the humility to accept that poor practice cannot be justified as an outdated ‘management style’.

If you’re looking at your leadership team and wondering if they have what it takes to lead the current and future organisation, or fear that at senior level you represent an outdated approach and don’t know how to reinvent yourselves, then bringing in outside specialists can help. Being one step removed from internal politics, an independent view can not only shed light on your current reality but can also provide new perspectives and insights from a wider network.

2) Understand the current reality from the perspectives of employees, leavers, contractors, and customers.

You may love your job and your personal experience of the workplace may well fill you with a sense of belonging and fulfilment, but do you know if your colleagues would be able to say the same? Does everyone launch themselves out of bed in the morning with the same level of enthusiasm and motivation as you do?

Whilst the ‘human experience’ is not the same thing as employee or customer satisfaction, without a positive human experience of the workplace, it will be difficult to feel engaged. An objective and anonymised audit can help uncover the true reality that informs the actual culture of an organisation, not just what leadership thinks it is.

3) Take a systematic approach to applying the right intervention at the right time

It is tempting to dive into popular people initiatives in response to social and media opinion. For example, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion programmes are, quite rightly, a focus for businesses reconsidering their priorities in support of creating more people centric cultures. But if the underlying workplace environment is one where people feel uncomfortable or not appreciated for being themselves, or worse, are fearful of speaking up, then these initiatives will not work effectively.

By adopting a systematic approach to the design, delivery, uptake and impact of interventions, and, importantly, understanding the context of the environment they are being applied in, then these crucial interventions have a chance to deliver their desired outcomes and not be perceived as knee jerk reactions.

4) Measure Key Behavioural Indicators (KBIs) as well as Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)

Have you analysed your work-related stress instances and compared these with the levels of complaint, informal or otherwise, about bullying, or poor conduct? How about the rate of churn in the organisation with customer satisfaction?

It is well documented that there are causal links in these examples, but rarely does an organisation have the skills, ability, time or indeed sample size to know what works.

There are many KPIs or OKRs that have traditionally been acceptable measures of outputs. Examining KBIs or Health KPIs appropriate for the expectations of the workplace can be a good indicator of future performance.

5) Use early intervention coaching before the grievance process.

As anyone who has been through a grievance process will tell you, the policy serves as a legal structure to follow that minimizes the risk on the employer of a negative outcome at a potential employment tribunal. It is not designed to diffuse conflict. In most instances, current process and policies are applied too late when damage has been done and one or both parties end up leaving. To minimise the potential for conflict to escalate, consider bringing in early intervention coaching, with external, qualified professionals, at the very first instance of conduct issues arising. These resolution focused sessions can help both, or all, parties concerned understand the impact of behaviours and find appropriate remedies quickly.