Jeff was one of our artists.
From day one he seemed like a great cultural fit, both with his team and the entire company. Years passed without incident. That changed after an offsite gathering, when a colleague claimed that Jeff harbored a prejudice against one of his black co-workers.
I was shocked.
I thought I was good at picking up on passive-aggressive interactions. Unfortunately, this time it’d slipped right passed me.
Immediately after hearing about Jeff’s behavior, I called him into my office. He justified his actions as harmless fun. He was just being funny; they were jokes.
No, Jeff was trying to get away with subtle racism. His black co-worker didn’t think it was funny, and neither did anyone else. We had to let Jeff go.
Learning new, disturbing facts about someone you know is always troublesome, but you must defend your core values. These are the moments that define how employees interpret what sort of behavior is acceptable at your company—and what your culture truly consists of.
Establishing trust with uncomfortable conversations
It’s easy to get disconnected from reality as the leader of a growing company. That’s why there are two key concepts that are vital in helping to catch improper behavior as soon as possible.
The first is clarity about behavior. When your employees walk through the door, do they know what’s expected of them—both in their job performance and their behavior? Set the expectations up front by making the rules of the game—your company’s core values—very clear. Let them know what’s expected, and clearly state what will not be tolerated.
Another key factor for a successful culture is trust. Your employees might know the core values they’re expected to uphold, but do they trust that you’ll adhere to the values yourself when things get tough? Put another way, do your employees trust they can come to you with difficult information and know that it won’t be swept under the rug?
One of the best ways to build trust within your company is to foster an environment that isn’t afraid of uncomfortable conversations. You can’t avoid conflict. Every company must have tough conversations to push projects forward or deal with upheaval, but how do you handle conflict? That speaks volumes about your culture.
Do you hire and fire in alignment with your company’s core values—or are they just posters hanging on the wall? Showing your staff that negative behavior won’t be allowed goes a long way toward bolstering their confidence in you as their leader. It also demonstrates that your core values mean something more than empty jargon.
The moment something goes wrong isn’t the time to start thinking about your company’s culture. Building and maintaining a successful culture doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a process of establishing your core values up front and following them always—especially when things get tough.
Piyush Patel is an entrepreneur and author of the forthcoming book “Lead Your Tribe, Love Your Work.”