Why It’s So Hard to Speak Up Against a Toxic Culture
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Why It’s So Hard to Speak Up Against a Toxic Culture

Frustrated by the behavior of some men in their workplace, a group of women working at Nike anonymously surveyed other women colleagues a few months ago about their perceptions of sexual harassment and gender discrimination at the company. The results painted a clear picture of a workplace where women often felt marginalized, disrespected, and discriminated against. The survey reached the hands of the company’s CEO. What followed, as covered in the media, has been a serious wave of changes: Top executives at the firm resigned or are on their way out, and bias training and other remedies are being introduced.

The gesture by the Nike workers may seem dramatic, but it was the result of women being ignored by HR as they voiced their concerns. Their experience is not unique. Those working in HR departments have the responsibility to assure that people are treated fairly at work. But they may not give an employee’s complaint the attention it deserves when it is targeted to powerful executives, as a way to protect both the executives and also the company from negative media attention or even from a lawsuit. But as research tells us, an unfortunate consequence of not taking action is that more harassment is likely to take place later on as the perpetrators know they can get away with their behavior.

Stories like this one about Nike’s toxic workplace culture remind us that speaking up about injustice and being heard in an organization can create positive change. Research helps us understand why it is that people speak up in some situations and not in others.

One reason people don’t speak up is the significant risk of doing so. Challenging the status quo threatens people’s status and relationships with supervisors and coworkers, research shows. Speaking up can also result in negative performance evaluation, undesirable [More]

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