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Raising Heroes: What 20 Years in HR Taught Me about Preventing Toxic Work Cultures

Updated: May 25, 2023

"In looking for people to hire, look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy. And if they don't have the first, the other two will kill you." Warren Buffett

Author’s Note: I was honored to be asked to write a post about #metoo for a local publication. I declined because it wouldn’t have felt authentic for me to write about it in their voice. I wanted to use my own. So, here it is.

Update: We've been honored to have a portion of this post published in Thrive Global!

As a professional HR manager, I’ve been a part of a lot of investigations over the years. I’ve seen the dirtiest porn, the meanest altercations, and dishonesty that could win Oscars.

Still, I believe that most people — including powerful people in corporate America — are good.

Take Paul for instance. I reported to him as an HR Generalist for a few years before our plant shut down. Paul was the highest-ranking official at our location and we were the most unlikely of friends: I’m a stout 5’1 in heels, and his 6’3 frame loomed over me. He was loud and direct, always voicing his opinions even down to the most trivial of details, like who had the best Chili in Cincinnati (Chili Time, of course).

Paul had spent most of his life in rural Kentucky. He disagreed with Obama on everything and loved talking politics.

He had this way of talking tough but in a caring way. For instance, when reinforcing safety rules at the plant, he’d things like:

I am not going to tell your spouse that you died at work today. Get your safety harness on.

He was generous with the company pocketbook, always helping employees and organizations in need.

The first time I applied for my job there, I didn’t get it. He hired a woman of color. He believed that if there were two equally qualified candidates, you should hire the minority. And he specifically targeted strong women for leadership roles.

I guess I was spoiled. Because my heart bleeds for HR people who don’t have the backing of an ethical leader. You see in HR, we are tasked with things such as preventing sexual harassment yet not have the authority to hold our leaders accountable.

Here’s an example of how Paul handled sexual harassment back then — almost a decade before the recent media frenzy.

We had hired a vendor to come in and do an enormous project. Big budget item. I am going to be intentionally sketchy on the details. But basically, the CEO of this company sent an email to one of our employees asking for a secret meeting that his spouse couldn’t know about.

It wasn’t blatant or raunchy, but it did make the employee feel uncomfortable.

She took the letter to me. And I told her that I was going to take the letter to Paul.

He said:

Get him out of my plant.

And we did.

No investigation. No hemming and hawing. No victim-shaming.

In fact, we didn’t even follow up with the vendor. We paid what we owed him. I told him we saw the letter and he wouldn’t be back.

Paul refused to dignify him with a response.

It really can be that simple. But is it?

When I think about #metoo and what companies should do to prevent a toxic environment, I realize that, in reality, they mostly just try to suppress the system of a toxic environment, rather than eliminate it. They tell you to update your policies and procedures, or revise your handbook or train all employees on the warning signs of sexual harassment.

All of these things are great at covering your ass, but I don’t think they make systematic differences. I believe that we need to start sharpening our moral compasses.

As a mom of three boys, I’ve realized that I can do more on the Home-front to win this battle than in the corporate office.

Here is what it is going to take…

We raise our kids to value integrity over achievement.

We have conversations about diversity, inclusivity and kindness.

We avoid sexist language and stereotyping.

We foster healthy girl-boy friendships at an early age.

We teach them that “no means no,” even when innocently wrestling, tickling or hugging friends.

We express emotions in a healthy way, so they learn that adults have feelings too.

We read, read and read some more to our children, hoping with all of our might that they fall in love with knowledge because it is the best weapon against ignorance.

We command respect. Just because I am “Mom,” it doesn’t mean my job is to “serve” them, and they must learn to treat other women the same way.

We tell them each day to look around the room and help someone who is worse off than them.

I am talking about taking actions that build character.

The character to make the right decision. The character to take action. The character to defend someone even when it doesn’t directly benefit you. Character to know that diversity adds value.

This isn’t a “woman’s” issue, or even an HR issue; it’s a humanity issue.

Paul was the hero in this fight. And I hope my boys will be the same type of leader someday (with the exception that they will clearly know Skyline has the best Chili, and Obama was an amazing president).

In the role of HR, corporate ethics is high on the “must-have” list. It’s one of my company’s core values: You must be a leader who loves people. I’m not afraid to walk away from business if the environment or leader is toxic.

I’ve learned that it’s not worth the mental anguish. Plus, it helps my credibility with the employees -- who are also my clients. I sleep well at night knowing I’ve put good people in great organizations.

You see, this whole situation boils down to integrity. And either a person has it or doesn’t.

This might go against the grain of some of my HR peers but I don’t think you can train an adult to be a good person or make the right decision or to care about others or to suddenly have the courage to report harassment.

It is easier (and much more cost-effective) to fill our organizations and world with people who are just that way intrinsically. Harassment is the symptom of an organization that has got sloppy with ethical decision making.

If we want to rid our lives of toxicity, we must start by valuing integrity in our home and businesses. Let's do the tough work to raise & hire heroes.

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