It may be Women’s History Month, but women are not feeling the appreciation — at least not in the workplace. According to mid-March findings released by MIT Sloan Management Review, women are 41% more likely than men to experience a toxic workplace culture. Analyzing millions of Glassdoor reviews, researchers Charlie and Donald Sull found that women were far more likely to describe the workplace as disrespectful, noninclusive and unfair.
HR Dive spoke to Charlie Sull about why women continue to have poor experiences in the workplace, how HR pros can help change deeply ingrained social behavior and whether a workplace can come back from maximum toxicity.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
HR DIVE: You’ve been studying this area for a while. Was there anything about this particular analysis that struck you as surprising or especially notable?
CHARLIE SULL: Really just the headline finding. Like many people, I suspected there was probably a toxic culture gap. I mean, this probably isn’t earth-shattering news to people, especially women. But I was really taken aback by the size of that gap. I mean, 41% in this case, is a really huge number. It’s significantly larger than even the pay gap, which is incredibly newsworthy in its own right. So the sheer size of that number was the thing that surprised me the most.
In looking at the top complaints of women compared to men, it seems like many have to do with inclusion — DEI and things like gender, disability and race. Many employers have publicized DEI commitments or invested heavily in DEI activities in recent years. What do you think accounts for the gap between the professed interest in DEI and what women seem to be experiencing?
That’s a big question. What I will say is that it’s very, very common for companies to espouse values they just don't live up to at all. We did a research study looking at hundreds of the largest companies in the world. And we identified what they espouse, what their core values were on their websites and other publicly facing forums. And then we looked at their actual cultural behavior across all those values. And what we found was, there was zero correlation whatsoever between what companies say they aspire to and their actual cultural performance. So there are special things going on with DEI and that's an especially interesting case, but in general, it’s very common that even though a company publicly aspires to a certain value for them not to hold up to it at all.
So it’s something that is drafted in a room between a couple of leaders and then passed down and not really integrated into the culture?
Exactly. It’s incredibly common. Yeah, there are some companies that do walk the talk, and it’s very interesting what distinguishes them from the rest, but I would say that the norm — at least in corporate America — is for official corporate value statements to be basically empty words.
Many of the elements that women are unhappy with seem to reflect basic human behavior that can be hard to change. Words like “favoritism” and “cliques” come to mind. How can workplaces change these ingrained social behaviors?
For these more social dynamics specifically, like favoritism, there are a lot of things you can do. A lot of it stems from measurements. So do you have a good sense of what employees, when they speak about favoritism, speak about in the same breath? Because this can mean different things to different cases.
In some cases I’ve experienced, favoritism manifests itself mostly in the promotion processes. So for instance, one tangible thing you can do is when a new job is posted, make sure it’s posted transparently for everyone it applies to, and not just given to a certain number of favored people.
Another way favoritism manifests itself is when a manager has certain favorites and that manager allows them to get away with anything. This leads to other employees who aren’t favorites having to pick up the favored employees’ slack. So this is more of a work-life balance story that has a different set of interventions.
But big picture? Even though toxic culture is a huge problem, we actually know a great deal about solving it.
The research seems to indicate that leadership determines a lot of employees’ experience. There are a lot of complaints about the C-suite, managers, supervisors. Do you think that there’s something about a toxic personality that allows people to advance more quickly? Or is there something about being in that position that causes people to behave in a way that appears toxic to others?
There is a fair amount of research on this. Our favorite study looked at the prevalence of sociopaths in the workforce and it did find that if you were an executive, you were slightly more likely to be a sociopath than if you were just a normal employee. So that was kind of interesting, but it also found that being a sociopath was very, very rare.
I interact largely with CHROs and senior leaders and the HR function and I don’t see that from where I’m sitting, for what that’s worth.
How can hiring managers look out for that type of thing? Can you catch that kind of behavior or see it in the interview process?
You definitely want to catch that behavior. You really want to understand who in your company is a toxic leader because they are going to have a disproportionate impact on things like engagement and retention.
There are a few different ways to do this. The way we like the most is looking at a lot of data. In a big company, they’ll have something called a 360 feedback survey — and it turns out the quotes you get from that are incredibly powerful. If you can understand the language in a systematic way, if you can identify the patterns of toxicity, just like we’ve been able to do for the Glassdoor reviews, you can very quickly determine which managers in your company are off the charts for toxic behavior.
What we tend to find in our engagement and which is actually consistent with some other research is that about 5% of managers at a typical company are going to account for about 50% of the total toxicity. So if you want a really quick way to remove toxicity from your company, identifying that top 5% and addressing that is going to be a really high-impact thing to do.
You also break down the different industries that see a larger gap in terms of women reporting toxic environments. Hourly-wage industries like restaurants, retail and transportation tend to have a higher gap. Often these are locations of bigger corporations where the HR function is off site. When HR is separated from the actual culture, what can they do to influence or monitor the culture?
It’s especially important in these cases to make sure that the manager is the right person for the job, that you understand what his or her traits are, that they’re being successfully modeled after the desirable social values and that they're being held accountable.
It all comes back to listening. If you’re at the headquarters, and you’re hundreds of miles away from all these restaurants, you don’t exactly know exactly what's going on. If you don't have a strong way of understanding the employee voice across all of these different franchises, and tracking that back to the managers’ behavior and traits, it’s going to be relatively difficult to intervene.
We released this big article a couple of months ago called “How to fix a toxic culture.” It has a number of levers to pull and intervention steps. But I would say the real theme that comes through with all of them, and that is especially relevant in something like a fast food restaurant or franchise model, is just being able to understand what your employees are saying in a reliable way so that you know what the problem is.
Your article says toxic work environments can affect a worker much more deeply than other unsatisfying aspects of work. I think almost everyone has experienced a workplace that has put them either emotionally on edge or made them frightened or uncomfortable, whether it had to do with an unstable boss or something else. Once somebody feels this way, is it possible to fix the situation for that person?
I believe it’s possible. When you just look over time at all these examples of measurably improving toxicity, you can see that the attrition rate decreases — and that’ll hold true even for employees who were previously affected by toxicity. So I am a believer that if you remove the problem, it’s like removing a weed. The garden will be able to grow again. Of course, there might be some cases where things were so bad that nothing is going to salvage it, but on the whole, I think it’s more positive stories than that.