Why good values don’t always mean a good workplace culture
Consultancy 6th April 2023
Report highlights toxic culture in English Fire and Rescue Services
Fire and rescue services in England are the latest to be condemned for a deep-rooted culture where unacceptable behaviours, often hidden under the cover of banter, could be the norm. During its inspection, His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) found evidence of bullying, harassment and discrimination in each of the 44 fire services. The inspectorate had previously put the London and Gloucestershire operations into special measures after complaints of racism, misogyny and bullying.
In its ‘Values and culture in fire and rescue services’ report, HMICFRS pointed to a toxic culture which was reinforced by attitudes from the top, where staff were unwilling to speak out because of implications for their job, and called for the whole sector to “get a grip” on its handling of misconduct issues.
In particular, the watchdog has called for more background checks on all firefighters and staff, the creation of a national list of barred personnel, and greater ethnic diversity; new misconduct standards, and improved systems for allowing staff to raise concerns.
The limits of values in building a healthy workplace culture
Will this change the culture? Organisations facing this kind of criticism so often tend to do the same things: they deliver a strong message that bullying, harassment and any kind of discrimination won’t be tolerated anymore. That’s it, a line in the sand has been drawn. And from now on, they say, the values of mutual respect will be front and centre, repeated everywhere, on office walls, in internal comms, boiler plates, HR materials. The values will be backed up by training, on awareness of discrimination and its insidious effects.
Values, though, don’t make a culture. Very few staff wouldn’t agree to principles of tolerance and respect and understanding. But as many staff in the fire services know, that doesn’t mean a great deal, not in itself. It’s in the combinations of everyday behaviours, the routine interactions and conversations, the remarks and intimations, private chatter and jokes, that problems are created. A build-up of atmosphere of what’s allowed, what’s okay, what’s funny — the kind of behaviours that go under the radar and are difficult to call out or criticise because they have become normal, and speaking up means becoming the exception. At the same time, there continue to be structures of power that reinforce and protect the norms.
The need for clear and defined behaviours
Changes to a culture won’t happen by just reinforcing messages around values. Better systems for handling complaints are important, but in themselves they are superficial if people don’t feel able to speak up in the first place — made more anxious by the new degree of attention given to bullying and harassment issues.
None of this relates to the all-important nuts and bolts of workplace behaviours. HR need to recognise what defines a workplace culture in more real, living terms — and accept that with a diverse working population there are going to be many different cultures, not one. In other words, a better way of developing a good culture is by clearly stating behaviours the organisation wants people to exhibit, supported by training in the skills needed — specifically around how employees interact with each other, how they share and understand and appreciate each other. In other words, good behaviours are rooted in conversations.
Creating Clear Air Cultures with trust and confidence
This is what we call having ‘Conversational Integrity’ (CI), made up of five capacities: situational awareness, curiosity, reflective listening, empathy and self-awareness. These capacities or skills are all fundamental, the real levers for what make an organisation or business perform better. If you want innovative people, then they need to be curious, they need to feel able to take risks and trust their colleagues.
Getting the behaviours right is essential to creating Clear Air Cultures, where there is a genuine, everyday sense of trust and confidence in management and the processes involved in standing up for what’s right and reasonable. Not the flat, passive values, but living behaviours.