Jill Geisler: Why prioritizing workplace integrity matters

August 27, 2019 6:13 pm
  • The concept of workplace integrity refers to eliminating not only harassment and discrimination, but any form of incivility.
  • Instilling a culture of workplace integrity entails weaving the concept into the organization’s most important systems, programs and processes, from job descriptions to evaluations.
  • Workplace integrity is linked to employee engagement and can enhance many key performance indicators, from productivity to profits.

Workplace integrity refers to healthy, positive cultures — and more.

From the #MeToo scandals that erupted in late 2017, we learned that, while employers may have thought they were vigilant about workplace misconduct, there was significant work to be done. It wasn’t enough to weed out the most egregious offenders (such as the high-profile cases we saw in the media). Organizations of all kinds had to look at the systems and cultures that kept people from speaking up when they experienced or witnessed something wrong.

Leaders began to look at how misconduct could be happening on their watch. That led to a greater focus on the bigger picture. I describe the goal as workplace integrity: Environments free of harassment, discrimination and incivility and filled with opportunity, especially for those who traditionally have been denied it.

From research done by a special task force of the U.S. EEOC, we’ve learned that harassment, discrimination and incivility are interlinked. If people are allowed to verbally abuse others, it creates a more fertile ground for other misconduct. It can cause good employees to leave because it’s easier to take another job than to push back, especially if the colleague who bullies others is powerful by virtue of title or tenure.

Why many workplaces still fall short of achieving workplace integrity

Managers understand the importance of compliance. Workplaces have mandatory training to tell people what’s legal and illegal on the job. We focus on safety or patient privacy or sexual harassment to ensure we follow the law. But plenty of negative workplace behavior doesn’t rise to the level of illegal; it’s just wrong. Rudeness, insensitive jokes, angry outbursts, condescension, constant criticism, cliques and bullying all contribute to workplaces that range from uncomfortable to toxic.

People sometimes try to excuse such behaviors by saying, “We work in a high-pressure environment here, so it comes with the territory and people should just get used to it.” But that rationale perpetuates misconduct and blames the victims. And it’s bad for business.

Christine Porath, business professor at Georgetown University, has done research on the impact of such behaviors. In her book “Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace,” she reports that among workers who were the targets of incivility, significant numbers reported:

  • Their work performance declined.
  • They lost work time to efforts to avoid the offender.
  • They intentionally decreased the time they spent at work.
  • They took out their frustrations on customers, in some cases.

How leaders should set a tone that promotes workplace integrity

It’s no secret that the tone starts at the top. The leader’s words and actions send a stronger message than any written rules and guidelines. Sometimes, leaders think their values run so deep and their intentions are so good that they don’t even need to discuss them. They assume their commitment should be obvious. But we know employees are always watching their leaders and take their cues from them.

When leaders truly believe in workplace integrity, they embed it into their conversations and communications. They don’t miss a chance to talk about principles and purpose. They know that when they talk openly about their values, the staff pays close attention to see whether their decisions and behaviors match their words. Employees want to see congruence, not conflict.

If leaders talk about valuing a positive culture, then turn a blind eye when a bad actor happens to be a “star player” or key manager, their words are worthless.

Leaders should weave workplace integrity into the organization’s most important systems, programs and processes: job descriptions, hiring, onboarding, everyday feedback, performance management, evaluations, promotions, awards, exit interviews. It should become part of the master narrative that describes the organization’s culture as one of respect and trust.

How training can go beyond the employee handbook

Let’s be honest. The employee handbook is a great thing to have, but it sits in most people’s files and isn’t exactly everyday reading. A handbook is often seen as a set of rules, not a recipe book for a culture. That’s because culture is about assumptions so deep that we don’t even talk about them anymore. We just act on them.

To upgrade flawed workplace cultures or sustain positive cultures, organizations need to use a combination of approaches.

Measure. How are morale and engagement? Have you done any kind of formal or informal survey? Do your managers ever get 360-degree feedback? How are you doing on diversity? On retention? What does the data tell you?

Listen. It costs leaders nothing to go on a listening tour. Tell your team what you’re up to, that you’re eager to hear what’s working, what they’d like greater clarity on or what keeps them up at night. Ask them what I call the “Million-Dollar Question”: Is there anything you need more of, or less of, from me? That’s a great way to get feedback you can act on.

Train. As a person who trains leaders and teams, I can tell you that training works best when people ask for it and when it’s delivered in an engaging manner. Adult learners want information that helps them solve problems, build opportunities and work more successfully. They want it to be practical and interactive, designed for the reality of their workplace (not a canned presentation).

Some training will always be mandatory: new software or hardware, continuing professional education for certifications, compliance. But find space for training that employees request. Maybe it’s on emotional intelligence or working across generations or how to be an ally to people who traditionally have been underrepresented in your field. Your listening tour can help you identify some of those interests.

How leaders benefit from establishing an atmosphere of workplace integrity

This is one of those truly good-news stories. Doing the right thing is also good for business. Workplace integrity — meaning an environment free of harassment, discrimination and incivility and filled with opportunity — creates employee engagement. Your veteran employees feel valued. Your newer employees want to stay longer. People who traditionally have been under-represented in your office or your industry feel they have allies who are committed to their success. And, as years of Gallup research documents, there’s a payoff in everything from productivity to profitability.

Workplace integrity is a win for everyone.


Introducing Jill Geisler

Jill Geisler makes her HFMA debut as a contributing subject-matter expert on leadership with this look at the concept of workplace integrity. Geisler is the Bill Plante Chair in Leadership and Media Integrity at Loyola University Chicago and teaches and coaches in organizations worldwide, from media to medicine to manufacturing.

She is the author of the book “Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know,” produces the podcast “Q&A: Leadership and Integrity in the Digital Age” and writes a management column for the Columbia Journalism Review. Previously, she headed the leadership and management programs of the Poynter Institute and was one of the country’s first female TV news directors.

In 2018, Geisler was named the Freedom Forum Institute Fellow in Women’s Leadership. She leads the institute’s Power Shift Project, the Newseum’s groundbreaking program to eliminate harassment and discrimination in workplaces.

She cites these two principles as key to her teaching:

  1. The most important thing leaders do is help others succeed.
  2. Life’s too short to work with jerks.


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