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From poisoned to positive: Healing a problematic workplace


What happens when employees at a financial institution admit to committing illegal activities directly related to a company culture? As anyone who follows industry news will tell you, it’s far from a theoretical question. And when such debacles happen in the public eye, you can imagine the repercussions. No pressure, right?

But banks crippled by toxic cultures and terrible actions still have an opportunity for redemption. Despite any fallout from legal violations and unrealistic sales goals, fashioning a healthier work environment is still possible.

When bank culture goes bankrupt

Money isn’t everything, even in banking. Banks that lose customer trust (and business) through their malfeasance also lose employees—who take their experience, relationships and internal knowledge with them. This kind of mass exodus cascades into a loss of corporate credibility and respect.

Banks with company culture issues would be wise to begin curing their poisoned workplaces with these key steps:

1. Work with, not against, the media.

You cannot rebuild a culture unless the person setting the vision and tone means well. That individual might be the owner, the CEO or the largest shareholder. The “who” doesn’t matter as much as doing the right thing and infusing each interaction with respect.

Consider Wells Fargo, for example: The company’s recent scandal might’ve left a bad taste in consumers’ mouths, but CEO Tim Sloan has said, “It’s much more important for us to make sure we’ve got the right team members in place, motivating that team, and creating that culture than it is for us to focus first on our investors.” Elon Musk is another prime example of someone who gains media attention the right way, increasing credibility and respect through a give-and-take media relationship. Why else does Tesla have a bigger market cap than Ford (even though it has repeatedly failed to post a profit since going public in 2010)?

2. Have frank conversations with loyalists.

When your culture is poisoned, expect a certain amount of turnover. Those who stick around should help develop the new culture. Be direct. Tell them, “This is where we’re going. Do you want to be part of it?”

This type of “appreciative inquiry” is a visionary management concept spearheaded by Dr. David Cooperrider and Jon Berghoff. It helps companies get back on track even if they’ve gone seriously astray. The trick is to focus on the four Ds:

  • Discover
  • Dream
  • Design
  • Deliver

Using positive psychology, Cooperrider has shown that it’s possible to get loyal teams to buy in again. (Uber represents one such embattled company that now possesses just such an opportunity.)

Whole Foods’ John Mackey and Babson College professor Raj Sisodia have spearheaded another way for companies to have frank conversations. Their conscious capitalism meetings enable CEOs and organizations to learn from one another about how to mesh business values and societal values.

Bank leaders would do well to take note of this strategy. Having similar conversations with other leaders in the field will likely help companies refocus on the purpose behind doing business—that is, offering solutions to consumers’ problems—and communicate that purpose to the public.

3. Send out anonymous surveys to employees and former employees.

Get to the heart of what’s happening—or happened—through short, anonymous surveys. Surveys help gauge the current corporate culture climate and reveal past issues. TINYPulse is a fast-growing leader in this arena. Going forward, you can encourage employees to fill out surveys confidentially through a third-party company; this allows businesses to unearth the things going on beneath the surface. Even companies with poisoned elements usually contain some good; you just need to uncover those positive elements.

There’s one caveat to this strategy: If you ask, you have to act on the responses. It can be tough to know where to start once the reviews are in but help is out there; for example, Cleveland-based Flourishing Leadership Institute works with companies that want to change how they collaborate by focusing on positivity. Working with Cooperrider and piggybacking on his appreciative inquiry philosophy, the institute encourages open dialogues in those businesses with high-stakes environments.

You may need extra reassurance, though, in some cases of battered morale. One such survey given by the Chicago Tribune in the mid-2000s contained a high number of responses from staffers who said they did not trust that the survey was truly anonymous, and that they would face retribution if they really spoke their minds about the brokenness and clique-based hierarchy of the newsroom culture.

4. Invest resources into building long-term employee relationships.

Bank employee turnover now runs particularly high, but some institutions are taking steps to encourage employees to stay. Barclays and Goldman Sachs, for example, work to keep employees happy by increasing their training programs and accelerating the promotion process for analysts.

Every company should list professional success as a goal for every employee. But personal development is important, too. Many companies give lip serve to policies and programs, but do they really live up to their promises? Employees who devote hours to a company deserve a push to succeed on personal and professional levels.

Fathom Marketing, one of our clients, expects its workers to hit personal goals outside the company to achieve bonuses. Radical? Yes. But it works. Companies that help people reach their dreams outside work often outperform those that compartmentalize how they view personnel.

5. Complement efforts through generosity.

Radical generosity with workers can include giving gifts but at the end of the day, if the quality of life and remuneration aren’t good, gifting won’t matter. Once all the other pieces are in place gifting becomes a tangible act of appreciation.

Look for gifts that employees would love but don’t take time to seek out for themselves. Our company pays for employees to get their houses cleaned; it’s appreciated, and the $2,000 investment per employee represents a drop in the bucket compared to the long-term benefits we have seen.

There’s an antidote for nearly every poison. Banks that find themselves mired in toxicity need to face up to filling the prescription and swallowing the bitter pill that marks the way back to robust health.

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John Ruhlin is the founder and CEO of the Ruhlin Group, a firm that specializes in high-level gifting plans to build relationships and acquire new clients. He can be found on Twitter at @ruhlin.