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Why Weaponizing Culture Could be Eroding Your Company's Values

Many of us seem to have lost our ability to simply talk things out or register our displeasure with someone directly. Cancel culture has entered the workplace, and we should all be alarmed.

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Why is it we’ll extend grace to friends and family when they make an insensitive remark, get snappy or just have a bad day, but we no longer extend the same grace to work colleagues for the same minor offenses? At a time when workforce stress is at an all-time high, with employees citing an inability to create boundaries or disconnect from their jobs, you’d think we'd all be feeling more empathy towards one another. 

Instead, there has been an insidious increase in virtue signaling in the workplace, displayed in zero tolerance policies for any interaction not deemed “nice.” This is cancel culture on a whole new level, feeding an epidemic with the potential to erode, rather than unify our teams.

Related: 10 Questions to Ask If Your Reputation Is Attacked

Why is there no allowance for being a jerk?

Let me be the first to admit that I sometimes come on strong. I can be blunt, direct and critical. (Admitting it is the first step to recovery, right?) 

We can probably all agree that being a jerk is not something we should celebrate in the workplace. But regardless of the ubiquitous company value statements on respecting each other, valuing relationships, doing the right thing or being a good person, when we disallow anything less than social perfection, have we gone too far? 

As a human resources executive, I see a potentially destructive cultural quality emerging. Instead of company values defining what we desire and strive for, they are sometimes wielded as blunt instruments to take down those who don’t exactly fit the “norm,” who have the audacity to speak directly, or who occasionally get frustrated and vent or have a moment of jerk-i-ness. In its worst form, this type of cancel culture can be used to destroy careers, simply by accusing an employee of not living the company values. 

Company culture is not about homogeneity. Cultures that are successful, vibrant and attractive make room for different personalities and behaviors. Isn’t that the very definition of diversity and inclusion we all talk about? 

Now, to be clear, I am not talking about extreme outliers that have no place at work (or anywhere), like unethical, dangerous or inappropriate behaviors. These are antithetical to a healthy organization and should receive zero tolerance. But some of the very channels or approaches intended to deal with truly unacceptable actions are now used to shame or target colleagues who are just different and, yes, occasionally annoying or vocal.

Rather than dealing with interpersonal conflicts as adults should, these basic human issues have been increasingly escalating up to senior management or even whistleblower hotlines as a default setting, sometimes with very bad intent behind the escalation.

Related: How to Change Your Poor Personal Reputation at Work

Getting in touch with your intestinal fortitude

None of us is immune to discovering that what we intended to communicate didn’t quite land how we had hoped. That discovery is so much more painful when it’s too late. And it’s excruciating when we have to find out through a third party — like the boss. What might happen if we just acted as the grown-ups we are and had a conversation with the person who made the misstep? 

I believe it’s incumbent on all of us in these circumstances to consider: Is it possible that I misinterpreted what was said or took it personally when it was not conveyed that way? What if I give communication a shot in this situation? Is it possible something else was going on? Or, God forbid – could I give this person the gift of some feedback? If you take that path, you might even find the result to be a meeting of the minds that makes you both better team members.

The reality is, it’s just easier not to. And when there is actual intent to harm, then there is no desire to work things out. Corporate gossip, where we saddle up next to the like-minded colleague and agree in our grievances, is just too easy. It feels great — why do anything different? And why talk to a person directly when you can make a complaint to their manager or another executive, or share your perception with other people and enroll them in your campaign?

Petty conflicts and everyday grievances are part of the infrastructure of any company, distasteful though they might be; backbiting and bad-faith efforts to resolve conflicts by retaliating administratively can be more toxic and infectious than we realize.

Related: A Few Disgruntled Employees Can Destroy Your Company Culture

Does the punishment fit the crime?

Submarining someone else’s career because your feelings were hurt is a pretty extreme reaction. Instead of flying their mistakes up a flagpole, come alongside them and help them be better. Funny how those corporate values work in both directions. Are you being a good person or doing good things when you give no grace to another? How noble are those actions, really?

If we want to live in a world that holds others accountable, let’s keep ourselves accountable first. 

Don’t lose your humanity — conversation is the cure.

Christine Mellon

Written By

Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor

Christine Mellon is the chief people officer at Omnicell, where she aligns company ethos, culture and strategy to enable high performance and an exceptional employee experience.