A-HA co-CEO, Katriina Tahka dissects how to deal with D*ckheads At Work with Chris Bath the host of the Evenings Show on ABC Radio 702. You can listen to the segment here (from 1.06 mins in) or click more to read the full interview.
If you’re interested in learning more, Katriina will be speaking at the D*ckheads At Work discussion panel this Thursday 19 October at 6.30pm, presented by The Clear Spot Club and Jackie Dent at The Belvoir St Theatre.
Presenter: Chris Bath
Broadcast: 12 Oct at 7pm
Chris Bath: Whether it’s men or women behaving badly with bullying, discrimination, harassment and assault. Workplace culture is firmly under the microscope these days. Many of us know of or have worked with toxic people and have seen the bad behaviour continue without intervention. So what can you do if you find yourself dealing with a toxic coworker or boss. How do these people survive in a workplace when so many people see their bad behaviour?
Katriina Tahka: In one word culture, the culture sustains them and it usually enables them and it certainly doesn’t challenge them. If they were operating like that in an environment that was completely opposite to their behaviour they would either self select out or the dominant environment would push them out because it’s just inappropriate.
If they are thriving and surviving, it means there are systems and processes and other behaviours in the culture that are supporting them and not challenging them
CB: This is something that many companies have been aware of for many, many years though. Is it going to take cases like the Harvey Weinstein case and some of the more high profile corporate scandals that we’ve seen here in australia to actually finally say you know what, fix it!
KT: You’d hope so but over the last twenty years, I’ve seen this over and over again. To the extent that I don’t blink anymore when I read about it. You would have thought we would have fixed it twenty years ago but having said that there’s definitely been an escalation of the cases where they are emerging and we’re saying publicly this is not good enough and there is an escalation of that outcry that its not good enough.
Where I’ve seen a real tipping point is that boards are starting to say corporate culture is now a governance issue. It’s a real risk issue and I think that’s the tipping point that will make change happen because if you think about it these are power games and who is more powerful than a CEO or a corporate? Their board is so when the board says fix your culture, stuff happens.
CB: So it’s not just lip service, we should trust that when a board says that, that its going to happen? You know they won’t do a few sort of PR gestures publicly and paper over the cracks? Because theres a difference between the board meeting once a month say and an administrator actually enacting what they’ve said.
KT: Yes absolutely, you would hope that it does translate. I mean public humiliation definitely works a treat so by the time that these things hit the media you know that theres usually going to be some sort of consequences, unfortunately too often the consequences are bad for the female and not so bad for the male.
You look at some of the well known perpetrators of the past and they have gone on to get bigger and better promotions and new jobs and the women? Where are they now?
Try showing a couple of those previous women who have made the really public cases happen where have they gone? They have not gone on to success so I think we are seeing challenge happen and companies and brands do take a hit and that has impact and if the board takes it seriously that has impact.
If as you said it is lip service, you’ll see it happen time and time again. We’ve had a couple of repeat offenders recently in the media where that same company has been named time and time again for the stories emerging but surely theres a point where even they have to do something about it.
CB: The other side of this too is that we’re not just talking sexual harassment here either the poor workplace behaviour can manifest in lots of different ways can’t it.
KT: Absolutely, young, old, the youth are particularly vulnerable, there’s alot of cases where you see apprentices and the newer starters being subject to all sorts of initiation rites or just really foul language. It’s toxic behaviour that manifests itself in all sorts of different ways, it might be the snide comments. It might be keeping people off great projects. It could be full on sexual harassment or racial discrimination which is on the rise in alot of workplaces given everything that is going on in a global context so were seeing a rise of the comments and the race hatred slurs, the current marriage vote is putting the spotlight on LGBTI issues so what we’re really seeing is its about issues of inclusion and exclusion. Any time people are being excluded either as an individual or a person from a group of people, it’s that exclusionary behaviour that really has a negative impact on a person because it makes them feel unwelcome, disrespected, not wanted around here which is the exact opposite of what workplaces should be attempting to do to include and welcome people and create a safe place to work.
CB: I guess one the frustrations for many people who are just going to work to do their jobs then going home is watching people who behave badly get bonuses and rewards even though management might be aware of their behaviour. Wheres that leave you if you are watching that. What sort of message does that send to somebody going well theres no recourse here.
KT: High performers, low values. They are everywhere and they are very very hard to go up against. I’ve seen that time and time again, we can’t do anything about that person because they exceed their budget by 200%, we can’t do anything about that person because they are too successful or they are highly connected. For companies, thats a really short term way of thinking because whatever that person is doing successfully in the short term, in the longer term they will have a very detrimental impact on the lives of others and then eventually the brand and reputation of the companies so people do have to take this seriously but they are there and it makes it harder for someone to go up against them because why would you risk your job, your income, your mortgage repayments to go up against this highly successful senior person when the odds are stacked against you
CB: Say for instance you were watching some sort of idiot behaving badly at work, who get away with all manner of poor conduct at work and nobody is doing anything about it, what should you do?
KT: You need to almost form a coalition of the willing. If you go out on a limb on your own, you’re going to find yourself really in a difficult place because if you think about these people, very often they are protected by things like “he’s very successful we can’t do anything about it” or “thats just the way he is” so theres these layers of protective mythology around these people. You’ve seen it, you know its wrong, it rubs you the wrong way, you want to go in and do something abut it for either your own good or the good of somebody else. Statistically it is most likely that you will get not listened to. Someone will say theres something wrong with you because you don’t think that thats funny or you don’t think that thats appropriate.
CB: Yeah so you’re a wowser with no sense of humour, often if you’re a woman, “oh you’re just bitter”
Or then you just disappear and are terminated. There are so many of these recent cases where the person who has made the complaint like the young cadet in Adelaide, she made a complaint against a big media company, shazam she disappears. You know they get terminated so why would you go and make a complaint when you watch this and thats why you need to start off by thinking about what you are challenging. Is it just an individual or is it an individuals behaviour that is part of a bigger culture and usually you are actually taking on a culture which means you are taking on a dominant way of behaving in an organisation so what you are actually wanting to do is threaten alot of people because alot of people are going to go “oh i do that too” so they are going to rally to protect themselves and protect their culture so you definitely need to rally around your support if you are going to do this beyond just yourself and one person. I’d say you need to figure out who has the power to make change and who is willing to make change and get a few people around you so that you kind of got a protective coating.
CB: So it sounds like you need even if you form a coalition of the willing, a manager who is willing to listen to you a superior, someone with more power than the coalition of the willing has that will actually listen, acknowledge and go “ok I’m going to take this further and do something about it” but what if you don’t have that?
KT: Yes, and what if the manager is the problem? And sadly and I say this as a person who is a HR professional, all too often people go to HR and the problem doesn’t get solved, it gets swept under the carpet and that drives me batty about my own profession that thats what is known so definitely HR needs to be on your side and the good ones will be.
CB: It doesn’t seem like that in some of these recent cases. It seems like HR are part of the culture.
KT: Exactly, well we started a blog a few months ago called The Sh*T HR Says just naming and shaming the worst of HR and people write in and tell us these stories and they are part of the culture but I think that goes back to the power relationship. If their power relationship is to do their job protected by their manager, they wont up against their manager but there are good ones out there and i firmly believe in that and there are more and more increasing but i would get a peer or a colleague on side plus your HR manager, don’t go to meetings alone. Always have two people there so that theres a witness it sounds really terrible that you have to do that but at least if you are not on your own, someone can’t say “they’re bonkers” which is often what happens and put things in writing because once an email gets sent its hard to unsee it. So words that are spoken can get misconstrued, the old email cc-ed to a couple of well chosen people will get attention because its now on a public record in the company and people will have to listen.
CB: We’ve had a listener text in, Steve who works for a large corporate found that HR seems to protect some people who display behaviours contrary to accepted standards.He says he has called a person out on their behaviour which was rude, yelling, screaming and discriminating others only to be counselled myself. Just like a scene out of Utopia! I’m resilient, I can cope but this person is responsible for at least one other being on extended leave. So Steve tried but it failed by the sounds of it?
KT: Unfortunately I’m going to say you went to HR and HR was the shield for the manager rather than there to represent the people and the health and well being of the whole workforce and too often the role has been created to be the shield and the extension of the manager and to just execute processes and maintain status quo. Whereas we’re talking about challenging the status quo. You have to find someone resilient enough, it sounds like Steve was but his ally wasn’t and they caved in to the powers above them.
CB: And at the end of the day for somebody like Steve over time you lose that resilience, his only option really is to leave the organisation by the sounds of things.
KT: Well they do, I mean first you grow almost an immunity to it if you’re not being psychologically damaged its abit like an antibiotics situation you know that we’re facing as a country. You grow an immunity to the behaviour, you go “its just joking” , “its not that bad”, “they’re just like that”, so theres all these things that desensitize you to it and normalise it and normalise what is actually a toxic culture.
When it does get the point where you can’t bear it anymore, theres alot of people who are stuck in this very difficult place where they go “I can’t bear it anymore, it’s starting to have an impact on me as a human and my mental health and wellbeing but financially I can’t afford to leave so where do you go with that?” Normally a crisis happens where you just can’t take it anymore and you leave at all costs or hopefully you just happen to find a new job before you hit that point and you leave. Then these companies are left wondering why they are losing their talent because they haven’t fixed the problem.
CB: Khaled has called in, with a problem that he going through at work.
Khaled: I was in a healthy environment [at work] and enjoying my work and everything was going well but at the end of each year, at the Christmas party, they booked a really nice restaurant and usually I don’t drink alcohol. At the beginning they made jokes about it [not drinking alcohol] but I have found that after 5 years of working with them, it’s become like I’m different to them or I don’t belong and I start feeling like maybe I should find another job, work with someone different. I wanted to participate [in this discussion] because I like what you were saying earlier.
CB: It seems like a shame to have to do that Khaled if you’ve been working for somewhere for 5 years for one party in the year. Katriina is there anything that Khaled could do? maybe to improve that situation for himself?
KT: Its a really hard one. Christmas parties for a start are the biggest hot bed of all of these issues ever. Australian toxic culture and add alcolhol and its accentuated. It’s very difficult for people who aren’t drinking or are then made to feel ostracised because they are different.
We know that when you have more than 20 or 30% of a group of people represented in am organisation you are no longer a minority so unfortunately one of the best things that could happen is that more people like you could join the same workforce and you’d have more of an affinity. It happens with gender, with different cultures, once you have 20 or 30% of the group the same as you, you’re no longer different so its very hard when you are on your own.
So I would first of all try and find more people who are abit like you and link arms and there are chances there are very quiet people who also feel very excluded but are not talking up about it.
CB: You would think Khaled that there would be other people in your workplace who don’t drink awell – do you know whether you are the only one?
Khaled: Probably but I like to go and participate because I find it an opportunity to approach senior managers and you know we have this open conversation because I’m looking to upgrade my position in the company but unfortunately most of the people that attend actually drink so I am the only one who grabs a soft drink and walks around
KT: What you’ve said is so the lived experience of so many people and you’re quite right that if you don’t participate in those sorts of networking activities you are off the career path and quite rightly you’ve realised that if I’m not there, I’m not noticed, I’m nothing those chats with the boys, they’re not going to think I’m a good guy, and then when theres a key project in place they’re not going to invite me along.
I’d almost start pretending to drink something, ask a friendly bartender to put something in a glass thats actually lemonade but pretend you’re having vodkas.
Start shooting ‘straight’ vodkas and be really cool, the don’t need to know what you’re having. And then when there’s enough people that you can be brave and live your honest and true self then you can start being able to do more of that. I say this from a position of being a woman, and many times women aren’t invited to the drinks or when they are invited to the drinks they don’t feel comfortable because they have to leave early but that is the place you have to be in Australia, when you are networking and being part of the team.
Khaled: Yes you’re right but it’s an ethical thing for me so I don’t know if I can pretend but anyway thank you for your help
CB: That’s alright Khaled, thank you for your call. And look at least Khaled is in a position of power if he’s the only sober person in the room! We’re talking about linking arms, waitpeople like Khaled there, trying to find other non drinkers for a bit of support or if you see an issue at a company linking arms with others to form some sort of alliance. We’ve had a text in saying well thats why we have unions. Thats the power relationships at work, thats why people form unions but do you risk making it worse if you speak up and you can’t get people to link arms with you.
KT: Absolutely theres an initial moment where you feel like the ice breaker where you’re going in and you’re challenging, you’re going in forward, its a big risk that you’re taking but if you don’t do that whats your options? You know you either leave or you suck it up and feel terrible and you can’t be authentic and true to yourself. They’re very difficult situations, I’m not saying that any of the options are great but they’re kind of it and you retreat or then you start faking it and thats usually what happens people pretend to like the way things are done around here and before you know it you’ve become part of it either because you’re acquiescing to the dominant culture just to survive.
There was that Macquarie bank case that came out with a class action and some of the stuff that emerged from that is a culture of strip clubs and excessive drinking and there are people who came out and said “well i ended up at those strip clubs and i didn’t want to be there but if i wasn’t there i was a wowser” and then i got excluded so there are alot of people who are faking it until they make it and they are not challenging it as they are fearing they risk their personal security whether its in terms of financial security or emotional security or survival so fear is a big factor in this, quite rightly.
CB: Specifically if you look at the Weinstein scenario, the common thread seems to be that the women he was preying on were starting their careers and he had the power. If you are a much younger person and I’m not necessarily talking men, women and sexual harassment because it does happen both ways. Women can abuse their positions of power, men can abuse their positions of power, how do you deal with somebody who is higher up than you and you know works not a level playing field and you’re going to be in strife if you go to HR because you know that they’re in on it too?
KT: Again you have to start talking to someone and you have to create a rolling thunder about this, you don’t kind of go out and really loudly on a limb, I’d start gradually trying to figure out who else is like you because just like we’re now seen, there were many women like that if only they had figured out a way to find each other and talk to each other. So look around, observe who might be a bit like you, who else is younger, who else has left that department because they couldn’t bear working there any longer and I’m pretty sure once you start having a few conversations well picked, you will eventually find people in that coalition of the willing and thats what we’re seeing with the Harvey Weinstein cases. All these people are coming out now ten years later and you just think how were there decades of silence but there were all those people out there if only they somehow spoke to each other and went “why did this happen?,how did this happen?”. It’s a hard thing to start but you have to start somewhere.
CB: Is part of the problem that for managers, trying to detoxify a workplace is a big job. It’s a big job for any organisation to do that?
KT: Yes, it starts with behaviour, you know people say you’ve got to change the culture but how do you change a culture, you have to change behaviour and who sets the tone of behaviour in organisations, its the leaders.
Leaders set the tone so to change this you have to change leadership behaviours so who is going to go up and face a very senior, well paid, respected leadership team and say yo have to change your behaviours and role model different behaviours or at least no longer accept unacceptable behaviours so it has to start from the top. I mean the age old saying is that fish rots from the head…
CB: But what happens if the head of the fish is really reluctant to detoxify the organisation and doesn’t think theres an issue?
KT: Thats what happens time and time again. Unfortunately that as an individual, you’re left back with those tough choices, do I leave, do I suck it up, do I become part of the culture or do I become the whinger and the whiner? And if you become the whinger and the winer, I’m pretty sure that over the years your performance review ratings are going to steadily decline if not over a cliff, you’ll find you’re not getting pay reviews, you’re getting stuck in the back corner of an office with crap projects and you are going to be made to feel unwelcome so the system will reject you because you are trying to reject the system.
Thats what we see in all of these cases and thats why these young actresses didn’t speak up. It was if I speak up, I’m not going to be in the next movie and my career growth is dependent on me being in the next movie so the price for speaking up can be so high. Not everyone has that drive or ability to take it on and to challenge it.
CB: Yes you don’t have to be a famous actress or a nearly famous actress to have that fear thats for sure.
KT: But you’ve got to say why did they speak up now? Gwyneth Paltrow has been in a position of power for a long time, hello why are we just hearing about it now? Where was she five years ago talking about it when she had a platform. They’ll go and talk about Unicef and saving children but did anyone speak up about this issue that was still damaging other women? No…
CB: What I want to know is about the people who were around at the time, who knew about it who said nothing, the men who were aware of what was going on and said nothing. Anyone who stood around and said nothing, does it get to a point where its become so accepted. There was one bloke who was making jokes about Harvey Weinstein at the Academy Awards, I mean where was everybody?
KT: They always have 3 excuses, he’s just joking, thats just the way he is, or he’s too successful and we can’t do anything about it because business relies on him. Always those three things protect them.
CB: And protects anyone, it’s not necessarily a man or a woman
KT: No, these people who keep on habitually getting away with it unchallenged, it’s just them. Thats just them which the opposite implication is that theres a problem with you because you don’t find it funny.
CB: Or you sit there and go hang on wifi ts a level playing field, why can’t I do that? Why can’t I behave like that?
KT: Do we really believe theres a level playing field in Australian business.
CB: Is it getting better, can you give us some hope?
KT: Yes it is getting better, I’ve been doing this for a long time and it is definitely getting better because we’re even talking about it. We’re having this conversation and we’re naming it. It wouldn’t necessarily have been had like this previously.So there’s more discussion, it’s been debated in social platforms. Younger people are much more engaged, much more outraged and saying thats not right and I think there is a rolling thunder occurring and its alot easier to find a coalition of the willing and its much more likely to be outside your workplace. And that’s what were creating, that rolling thunder around saying this is not okay.