Updated: Feb 21
“I don’t recall any single leader who has said to me, how are you doing? What can I do for you to feel safe in this environment? They’ve said to me, what do you need for success? No one has ever said how can I help you feel safe. These are the words we need to be using.” -Ash Prasad
“I was so concerned with doing the right thing and making sure I stayed in the perfect little box people thought I should be in. I assimilated so much that I almost wound up acculturating. And when you acculturate, you lose a sense of who you are.” -Joy Fowler
In two back-to-back episodes of the Finding Fertile Ground podcast, two highly successful businesswomen of color described workplaces where they did not feel safe and did not feel they would be accepted as themselves. And it broke my heart. Why do workplaces have to be so toxic and cutthroat?
Where is kindness in the workplace?
(Clearly, Joy and Ash were affected by racism and not just lack of kindness...but in my view, the first place to start eradicating racism is kindness.)
I have the advantage of starting my company from scratch and building it based on my personal values. Henry James once said, “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.”
Kindness is central to my company, and I will not tolerate assholes. Period. I have a “no asshole rule,” the term coined by Stanford professor Robert I. Sutton in his book The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't. As Sutton notes, “Demeaning people do terrible damage to others and to their companies. And even though there are occasions when being an asshole helps people and companies ‘win,’ my view is that if you are a winner and an asshole, you are still an asshole and I don’t want to be around you!"
If you don't get rid of the assholes in your company, you run a huge risk of losing your best people.
It’s not that complicated to create an organization that values and centers kindness, but you have to be deliberate about it. Here are eight ways to do that:
1. Hire warm, engaging leaders whose references confirm their kindness
Leaders need to model the kind of behavior you want in your organization. I’ve worked for far too many unkind leaders in my career...people who landed their leadership roles for their technical skills but who seriously lacked compassion and effective leadership and communication skills. The best way to prevent this behavior is to not hire them to begin with, or certainly not promote them into leadership if they don’t display these attributes. Check their references and ask questions about kindness and respect. Do they build positive, collaborative relationships with people?
If you want to create a kind workplace, you absolutely must not have any leaders who are assholes. You must have leaders who are committed to helping their employees feel safe and creating a sense of belonging for all.
2. Crowdsource a “rules of engagement” for the organization and have employees sign it
Software company SuccessFactors, later acquired by SAP, had a list of 14 rules of engagement each employee needed to live by. The CEO, Lars Dalgaard, told employees to call him out if he didn’t follow them. The rules included kindness rules of engagement like these ones:
I will demonstrate respect for the individual; I will be nice and listen to others, and respect myself. I will act with integrity and professionalism.
I will help my colleagues and recognize the team when we win. I will never leave them behind when we lose.
I will be transparent. I will communicate clearly and be brutally honest, even when it’s difficult, because I trust my colleagues.
I will have fun at work and approach my work with enthusiasm.
I will be a good person to work with—I will not be an asshole.
I will not BCC (blind copy) anyone and never talk negatively and destructively behind someone’s back (character assassination); rather, I will confront them with the issue I am facing or wanted to comment to others about, to allow us a trusting and hyper-productive collaborative environment.
The rules were not just about kindness, demonstrating that the company was striving toward excellence just as much as the next one. Kindness does not mean quality will suffer; in fact, studies show that engaged and empowered employees are even more productive.
You’ll get the most buy-in if you crowdsource the rules of engagement and engage your employees in writing them. When I worked at CH2M, we signed a workplace policy and a safety agreement, and we were required to take annual tests to see if we understood what we were signing. I recommend this kind of approach of requiring rules of engagement for all employees, no matter their position.
3. Do not tolerate bad behavior, ever, and take complaints seriously
There is no excuse for being an asshole, and there is no excuse for companies to tolerate this kind of behavior. Unfortunately, in many large organizations, leaders are allowed to treat their subordinates unkindly and disrespectfully, failing to acknowledge their accomplishments and give praise, not providing career paths or helping people succeed, taking out their stresses on other people, failing to communicate difficult news, triangulating and gossiping, and only looking out for themselves.
I’ve witnessed and personally experienced extremely unkind, unprofessional behavior in the workplace, and honestly, it has almost always come from people in leadership positions and not my peers. If you truly want to create a kind workplace, you need to have a no-tolerance approach to bad behavior.
The rules of engagement (#2) are a great place to start, and if personally calling someone out on their behavior doesn’t work, the employee should feel safe talking to someone in power about the bad behavior...and they should not be gaslighted, ever, or have any retribution for speaking up. The employee or leader who has violated the rules should be disciplined and given a warning...with penalties for failure to stop the behavior, up to termination. The focus should be on the workplace system overall, promoting a healthy atmosphere.
4. Base employee reviews, salary increases, and promotions on kindness and clear, respectful communication
Too often I’ve seen the company “rain makers” get away with toxic behavior with little penalty. If you truly want to effect positive change and promote kind behavior, you must offer incentives. In the old days at CH2M, we were evaluated on what they called “work approaches.” It was loosey-goosey and subjective, though.
In addition to kindness, employees should be assessed on their ability to communicate honestly, respectfully, and directly. Leaders need to be communicating clear expectations, appreciation, and constructive feedback (in a kind way) if things go wrong.
In my dream large company, kindness and respect for others would be just as important as job performance in getting salary increases and advancements. This assessment is particularly important for leaders, who set the tone of the company.
5. Institute 360 reviews so you can find out how your efforts are working
To create a workplace where employees feel safe and feedback is encouraged, you need to regularly conduct 360-degree reviews, where everyone (not just leaders) are evaluated by people who report to them as well as their supervisors. So many bad leaders manage up far better than they manage down. You’ll never know how they treat their employees unless you ask them anonymously.
Ideally, organizations should use external consultants (like Julie Jensen, mentioned in #6) to conduct 360 reviews to ensure confidentiality and encourage transparency. If problems emerge, the leaders need coaching and a development plan to retain their leadership roles.
6. Engage your employees in your company’s successes AND failures
As an entrepreneur, I've discovered that lots of people like me hire virtual assistants from developing countries (e.g., the Phillippines) to save money. That just doesn't sit well with me to pay someone $5-8 per hour. I'd rather do it myself or pay a living wage.
A kind organization ensures its employees earn a living wage that covers food, shelter, and transportation...and if you can, also health care benefits. And instead of just rewarding executives at the top with significant salaries and bonuses, kind companies share the bounty with their employees. Julie Jensen, founder and principal of Moxie HR Strategies, points out that C-suite and senior leaders often earn bonuses that are 30 to 50% of their already high salaries, while those who are actually doing the work might make $40K a year and only receive a $1,500 bonus. Julie said,
This just perpetuates and widens the economic divide, which ultimately disproportionately affects the lifetime earnings of women and Black, indigeneous, and people of color, since they are more likely to be hired into entry-level or administrative roles AND not receive the same promotion rates as white males.
Preparing to write this article, I thought of the times in my career when it’s been harder to take kind actions...especially when the company faced hard times and I was told to do layoffs. Once I was required by my boss to lay off 30 percent of my regionwide team of 70+ people. I did my best to do it in the least harsh way, but it still haunts me. So I asked Julie how companies can make hard decisions while still being kind.
“I always tell companies that if you need to cut costs, cutting staff should be the very last step you take. Organizations have so many places where they can trim costs. They can look at improving processes, evaluate procurements, freeze travel and training, eliminate annual bonuses, or cut people’s hours across the board. In the best companies, the leaders who are the highest earners should make the first sacrifices in taking pay cuts or forgoing bonuses.
If you do layoffs as a last resort, do it strategically by carefully assessing who you can most live without. It’s a huge responsibility to hire people, and we should not take our commitments lightly.”
In my dream company, leaders talk transparently with all employees if they suffer low-revenue periods and cannot continue spending. They strategize with all their best minds to determine where cuts need to be made. Enlisting your employees’ input in important decisions builds huge trust. And it’s the kindest thing you can do.
7. Take special care to make sure employees who are not cis straight white males feel safe and included
Here’s where the rubber meets the road, back to the experiences of Ash and Joy. If your employees who are people of color, LBGTQIA+, women, or have disabilities do not feel safe, welcomed, and comfortable being themselves in the workplace, you will never succeed in creating a truly inclusive workplace. This has got to be the first priority.
Employees in underrepresented groups should have affinity or network groups where they feel safe being truly themselves. Leaders need to go out of their way talking openly with the employees about their experiences in the workplace. They should ask if the employees feel safe and how they can support them. The best leaders are the ones who look for opportunities to engage and center employees on the margins. They champion their staff and help them find high-profile work. They make sure their employees have clear career paths and promotional opportunities.
And one more thing: know that just because a Black woman is animated does not mean she is angry.
Joy Fowler had to cover and acculturate for years to fit into the finance world. Joy and at least two other Black women I've interviewed on my podcast have mentioned they wish white people would understand when they are actually angry and when they are just expressing an opinion. And if they are actually angry, let it be so. They have a right to be angry. We need to stop policing their emotions.
8. Promote fun, kindness, and appreciation
Some companies do the fun thing well, having social events after hours, kombucha and beer on tap, mini-golf tournaments, ping pong tables, and company picnics and holiday events. But if they have leaders who are not kind, transparent, and supportive, the fun falls flat. If leaders do not cultivate a culture of appreciation, people do not feel valued.
To create a kind workplace, leaders need to set the example. Whenever an employee goes above and beyond, the leaders should extend their thanks by writing a glowing email to the employee’s supervisor (and copy the employee!). Coffee cards and gift certificates are also appreciated. As any pet owner or parent knows, dogs/children/everyone does better when they feel appreciated. Nothing says appreciation more than “Would you like to present this to the board?” or “I see real leadership potential in you. Let’s chart out your career path and talk about how I can help you get ahead.”
Every employee event and interaction offers an opportunity for personal connection and kindness, as well as fun. Don't let those opportunities pass you by!
Contact me for more information about building or revamping your website or advancing your marketing communications and leadership. With over 30 years of experience in the environmental consulting industry, I am passionate about sustainability and corporate citizenship, equity & inclusion, businesses that use their power for good, and doing everything I can to create a kinder, more sustainable, and just world.
Fertile Ground Communications LLC is a certified women-owned business enterprise, disadvantaged business enterprise, and emerging small business.