Fighting the culture wars at work

Stephen Paskoff President, Employment Learning Innovations
Font Size:

Once again the American people find themselves bombarded by media coverage of the latest Washington scandals: General Services Administration (GSA) staff behaving immaturely and spending $800,000 of taxpayer money on a “conference”; a group of Secret Service agents caught up in a prostitution scandal. Look a little further into the past and from the Minerals Management Service scandal to Tailhook, it’s distressingly easy to find similar disgrace.

In both of the most recent incidents, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the problems did not just stem from a few “bad seeds.” And while these scandals can certainly be attributed to failures of leadership, that simplistic conclusion explains neither the disease nor the cure.

The problem is two pronged: these organizations failed to put their values into practice, and their relevant workplace training was (obviously) ineffective.

There is no doubt that these organizations have written and implied values that would have prohibited the behaviors that are coming to light. The motto of the Secret Service is “worthy of trust and confidence.” But are these values mottos to live by, or just Orwellian posters on the wall?

Organizations — public or private — see workplace behavior almost exclusively in terms of legal risk. As a result, workplace training is boiled down to sporadic, disconnected mandatory training sessions. This often enables an affirmative defense against a lawsuit and lets human resource departments check the box associated with each known workplace landmine: diversity, discrimination and sexual harassment. Unfortunately, as we have learned, it all too often does not impact staff (or executive) behavior.

In addition to being ineffective, it’s costly. Separate training sessions on related topics cost money to deliver and take people away from their day-to-day work. And when workplace training failures become scandals, they result in investigations and hearings which, in addition to costing money in and of themselves, distract from the actual work of government.

There is a simple cost-effective solution.

First, workplace training must cease to be erratic, splintered and disconnected. As President Obama noted in an executive order issued late last summer, the government should “seek to consolidate compliance efforts established through related or overlapping statutory mandates.” While harassment and discrimination — for example — are not the same issue, poor judgment is the root problem, and good judgment linked to values like respect and inclusion, the common solution. Federal workplace training programs should be comprehensive and tied to daily behavior. This consolidation will put these programs on the path to effectiveness, and will save much-needed taxpayer dollars.

Second, and no less important, workplace training needs to be simple, it needs to matter to the people in the room and it has to stick with them for the long term. This means an end to monotonous legal lectures and relying on wall posters. It means moving an agency’s values statement from the back of the employee handbook to the front of the contract.

Finally, leaders must commit themselves to putting their values into practice. They must live the values of their organization and, frankly, their country. Perhaps more so than in any other organization, government officials must consider whether each decision they make is consistent with those values. They need to expect the same from their subordinates — and we should expect nothing less from our leaders.

Stephen Paskoff, Esq., the founder and president of Employment Learning Innovations®, Inc., formerly served as a trial attorney with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and as a partner in a management law firm.