Today online ran a story about toxic workplaces; and it boils down to culture – not just a workplace culture but society as a whole. I’m going to share some quotes from this today online article as I share about how the toxic cultures of our workplace interacts with the kind of narrative that we have grown up with as a society. I’ve written about this before; and I think we all can make our society better by considering better stories for ourselves. And to choose to take action rather than continue the narrative of helplessness.
Story of Job Description
When she finally plucked up the courage to report her problem to the bank’s HR department, she got brushed off with the remark: “He is just like that la, Jo, what can we do?”
Our society has a narrative around predictability and the job description (JD). There is expectations on everyone and they are just supposed to fulfil those expectations; students to study, do well in exams, parents to help them compete in school, adults to work and produce for their company. And so our work and life becomes boiled down to the JD.
‘What can we do?’ is a statement of resignation, of lack of imagination, of being procedural rather than upholding the spirit of a role. We are telling, there are more important things my job calls for than to think about this.
Story of the Stoic
“(The HR manager’s) attitude towards this is like, ‘Don’t make HR life difficult. If you can, just try to tolerate it’. It is like telling you …if you are not happy, find another job,” Sarah said.
Stoicism can be very subtly celebrated in Asian culture. Or maybe not so subtle. It is a virtue to be able to remain resilient in face of adversity. We all will experience pain in life, and how we respond to it will determine if we suffer. By speaking up, by taking action, we choose suffering or acting. And that courage should be lauded, and receive a response that is aligned with the spirit of action.
It is almost selfish, to tell others to put up with misery so that others can have the life they want. The HR department can lack that empathy and miss out on the vision of the better people they can be, and the better work they can do.
Story of Power
Some of these workplaces have highly developed human resource (HR) structures to handle such complaints, yet the rank-and-file do not have enough trust in these as the best avenues to seek help.
We live with the narrative that the HR, processes and structures are laid down to support those in power, not to help those in need. We’ve been fed that story when policies are laid down without too much consultation. That story gets reinforced when taking an alternative stance from those in power tend to result in punishment.
When HR fail to take an active stance to support individuals, to act against abuses in a manner that lets sunlight on to the wound, then it is hard for employees to trust them. It is hard for people to change their narrative about power and where HR stands. After all, our capitalistic society would cause us to ask, who’s the one paying those staff in HR?
Story of doing things in vain
When she left the organisation, her exit interview took just five minutes as she sensed that the HR manager was not truly interested in acting upon what she would have to say.
Smart people are concerned about efforts in vain. They want whatever they do to contribute towards their intention, to achieve something. And the moment they detected it doesn’t matter, they don’t try. They think they are only being reasonable. I wrote previously about my exit interview and how the new HR officer seem to think I was bringing ideas up in vain. I probably left her thinking I was the idealistic sort. She might even justify to herself ‘that’s why this person left’ – the poor soul who couldn’t accept things as they are.
Maybe exit interviews can be about holding HR officers accountable – that even as they listen to what they may think are complains, they need to somehow act on it. If I were the CEO, I’d pay attention to what the influential leavers are saying to the organisation.
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