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How transforming federal workforce culture can enhance safety and productivity

COMMENTARY | It takes more than annual check-the-box training and motivational posters to bring about change.

Federal agencies -- such as the Defense Department and Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation -- have been under fire recently following allegations of failing to adequately address workplace harassment. Just last month, the Government Accountability Office released a report revealing how current sexual harassment prevention training within federal agencies has fallen short of expectations, prompting a larger initiative to combat this pervasive issue. 

And following the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s 2023 report identifying sexual harassment as the most reported form of discrimination in the federal sector since 2011, GAO has proposed 14 strategic recommendations aimed at various agencies to assess and enhance the efficacy of their training protocols.

To address the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment, the United States Army also announced the hiring of more than 2,000 psychologists to tackle this issue head-on, highlighting how critical it is for leaders to look back and assess deeper problems within their workplaces that are causing repeated issues that impact staff wellbeing and overall performance.

In the report, Andra Tharp, senior prevention adviser for the Pentagon’s Office of Force Resiliency, stated, “We also found that a key driver of sexual assault, as well as other harmful behaviors, was the culture within a unit ... When the command climate is unhealthy, these behaviors are more likely to take place.”

Tharp’s comments highlight an underlying element beyond the legal risk of these behaviors: the state of many workplace cultures is dismal. In addition to a much-needed revamping of anti-harassment training, federal workforces need to evaluate the root of their uncivil workplace environments.

The law alone establishes foundational standards for compliant conduct within the workplace regarding unlawful behaviors, including discrimination, harassment and other forms of misconduct against employees. However, fostering a positive workplace culture extends well beyond EEO compliance. Respectful workplaces prioritize the standards, actions, and protocols to maintain an inclusive and civil atmosphere for all staff members.

Civil cultures flourish through respectful interactions, trust and an environment where every individual is encouraged to participate and contribute to an organization’s success. Although teaching employees about the legal regulations of business conduct might steer away some unwanted behaviors, creating an authentically respectful and productive workplace demands intentional initiatives, a strong commitment and communication from leadership and ongoing efforts to reinforce the behavioral standards.

An organization’s mission, vision and values should be the yardstick by which its culture is gauged. Principles such as respect, accountability, fairness, teamwork, and inclusion are commonly listed as corporate values, yet in many cases, organizations have not made a focused and committed effort to establish core behavioral standards around them. By aligning behaviors with these values, the organization’s culture improves accordingly not only in terms of compliance but in terms of teamwork, collaboration, and trust. Increasing evidence demonstrates that improvements in culture support improvements in productivity, innovation and job satisfaction while also reducing a range of risks. 

Whether public or private, an organization’s culture is driven by daily behaviors, and to that end, federal agencies aren’t alone in having behavioral issues that impact staff. The Society for Human Resource Management recently released survey results on civility in the workplace. Of 1,000 respondents, nearly two-thirds stated they’d experienced or witnessed incivility in their workplace within the past month. 

Whether illegal as stated by law, or unacceptable per the organization’s values, uncivil behaviors like rudeness, disrespectfulness, bullying, and others are all contrary to a productive working environment. By ensuring an atmosphere of fairness, respect, accountability and inclusion, staff can focus on performing their best work individually and in teams. Increasingly, organizations are focusing on improving their culture as a strategic business imperative.

As the GAO has revealed, these federal agencies have crucial work to do. Successfully establishing core behavioral standards isn’t easy, but there are well-established best practices to consider. Organizations should realize it takes more than annual check-the-box training and motivational posters. It requires that leaders take an active role, starting with clearly understanding the desired behaviors, as well as modeling and referencing them in daily activities. Staff should also be trained on the behaviors, as well as the protocols for addressing issues when behaviors fall short of these standards.

Through clear communication and the enforcement of these standards, organizations can create an environment where conflict is minimized, and employees feel comfortable working. Cohesive collaboration boosts morale and enhances productivity, and ultimately contributes to better organizational results.

My time as a former attorney with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and a later partner at an employment law firm focused on executive management has shown how simply exposing people to training is not enough. Real change is only possible when leadership makes a concerted effort to align behaviors with values and enforces those standards accordingly. While it takes more effort and commitment, if it successfully improves the organization’s culture, it can deliver a lot more benefits than simply reducing risk.

Stephen Paskoff is a former EEOC attorney and CEO of workplace training company Employment Learning Innovations.