Saying it Louder – It’s the Culture!

Have you ever had one of those dreams where you are speaking, and no one can hear you? Sometimes, when you’re working in the recruiting field, that is how real life feels. At Zephyr, we have been talking about the importance of workplace culture and the danger of toxic work environments for years – me personally for over three decades. I write about it extensively in my blog. I speak about it with my clients. And now, I feel validated.

Recently, MIT Sloan Management Review published research entitled Toxic Culture Is Driving the Great Resignation. Researchers reviewed the online profiles of 34 million employees who left their jobs between April and September of 2021 for any reason. Their research indicated that toxic corporate culture was by far the biggest reason for turnover.

There is a ton of interesting findings in this research, but I wanted to share my key takeaways:

If you’re surprised, you haven’t been paying attention. Much of the discussion around the Great Resignation, a term used to describe recent labor shortages and the increasing number of people leaving their jobs in search of greater opportunities, or any labor shortage for that matter, has focused on low wages and poor compensation as the culprit. Money equals happiness, right? This a prevalent, but false, narrative in the discourse around the American workforce, and anyone who believes it clearly has never watched Succession or The Real Housewives of [insert city of your choice.] This challenge has been brewing under the surface long before any global pandemic or labor shortage, and there is no simple solution, not even just throwing a whole bunch of money at it. It’s my experience that people are longing for more. They want to love their job, work in a positive environment that fosters growth, and feel like their work has greater meaning. They long to feel supported, acknowledged, and valued. And this research supports that. In addition to the fact that toxic culture was the number one predictor, researchers also found that compensation was the 16th leading predictor of attrition – not even in the top ten!

People want to feel like… people. Crazy, right? Employees are NOT commodities! A commodity is a good or raw material that is bought, sold, or traded for something else of value, and its value can fluctuate based on supply and demand. Employees are people, with human lives attached – human lives with knowledge, training, education, and experience. They have spirits, confidence, and livelihoods that have serious consequences on other real-live people if they go away. Yes, they add value when they join your team, but they also take away value when they leave. Researchers in this study found that the leading contributors to toxic work cultures include, “failure to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion; workers feeling disrespected; and unethical behavior.” To me, this shows that people are looking for psychological safety. They want to feel protected and free to show their vulnerabilities as human beings, because, you know, that’s what they are.

Happiness at work affects everything. When you are miserable at work, it is next to impossible not to let that misery bleed over to other aspects of your life, taking it out on your friends, significant others, kids, leisure activities, or the barista taking your latte order. I had the opportunity to hear an interview with two of the researchers leading this study on an episode of Brene Brown’s podcast. One researcher correctly reflected on the profound influence workplace unhappiness has on aspects of your life that you can’t compartmentalize. Their study outlined short-term actions employers could take to boost retention, one of which was offering opportunities for social engagement. Humans are social creatures, and their recommendations honor that and reinforce its significance. I have long believed, and had the belief backed up by results, that happy employees are successful workers.

So, I will say this one more time for the people in the back. Workplace culture matters! I repeat that knowing this conversation is not over. The topic of the Great Resignation as well as this study, each have more nuggets that are important for discussion, and we will dig into them in future blogs. In the meantime, to learn more about improving employee culture and engagement at your business, feel free to reach out here.