The manager, Louise, got up, walked out, and slammed the boardroom door behind her before we could say anything.
I couldn't believe what I'd just witnessed and I turned to the only other person in the room – our managing director, Hector. He stared back at me, his jaw almost touching the table, (for once) totally speechless. He was in as much shock as I was.
Our company was in desperate need of filling a key position in one of our affiliate businesses. We had been looking for the right person for weeks and no candidate had made the grade.
I was in charge of HR and had received a random resumé a few days earlier. The applicant didn't know about the position that we had been recruiting for. She had just relocated from another city, and was contacting various companies in hopes of finding a suitable position.
On paper, she seemed like exactly the person we were looking for and I forwarded the resumé to Louise. She also thought it looked good, and contacted the candidate, Cindy, to come in for an interview conducted by Louise, Hector and me.
From the moment Cindy walked in, she seemed to be cut out for the position. Her skills and experience were excellent, she was well-spoken, poised and passionate about the industry.
During the interview, Cindy mentioned that she was still looking for a reliable daycare center for her two-year-old son.
After this, I sensed a change in the conversation. Louise's tone seemed to shift and it felt like she was suddenly in a hurry to conclude the interview. Fortunately, we were almost through anyway, and about five minutes later she showed Cindy out.
Hector and I both thought we had just found the perfect candidate. When Louise returned, we asked her what she thought of Cindy.
Louise grudgingly agreed that Cindy's skills and personality were perfectly suited to the position. Then she said, "But she has a child which means that her child is going to get sick, and she will want to have time off and that's going to be ONE BIG mess!" Hector and I disagreed. Louise became furious and eventually stormed out. We appointed Cindy anyway.
"An employee needs to feel like a human and not a number."Brian Gallagher, Business person, U.S.
Although Louise managed our affiliate business well, her staff turnover was high. She saw team members as "objects" that had to do the work and bring in money. The rest didn't matter.
I felt strongly about holding her to account for how she treated team members because many of them confided in me. However, seeing that Louise's department was profitable, Hector wasn't keen on taking serious steps against her.
I've often wondered how many scarred and traumatized people she left in her wake – all in the name of making money.
The past few days I've reflected deeply upon what I think a humanized workplace should be like. I thought of a great many characteristics of the culture and people of such a workplace.
After much thought, I came to the conclusion that this is the foundation: a humanized workplace is one where people intentionally connect with one another – sideways, up and down, across departments, structures, countries, and continents.
It creates an invisible foundation that provides strength and safety – much like how the human skeleton provides the structure around which a human is built. All of it has to be connected to work well. If you break even one small bone, the system is compromised. But also, when we're connected, if you can't reach one person for some reason, there is always someone else you can reach out to.
Wherever true, intentional connection takes place, belonging follows on its heels. Belonging means there are others who have your back, no matter how different you are. In a recent podcast, Brené Brown said that true belonging doesn't require you to change who you are – it requires you to be who you are.
While creating a place of belonging, you're pro-actively educating people and creating awareness about diversity because no one should ever feel awkward about their accent, race, socio-economic background or status, gender, sexual orientation, personality or physical appearance.
Humanized workplaces don't only foster connection and belonging, but also take people's circumstances into account at any given time. They understand that I am not you and you are not me.
It's safe to be vulnerable, to ask for help, to grieve about loss, to be excited about change, and to pursue opportunities for growth. They support without judgment, and leaders and colleagues will actively step in and help.
In my opinion, managers and leaders in a humanized workplace are like "refreshment stations." That's where you check in to make sure you're going in the right direction, where you're inspired, energized, given time to reflect, and where you can ask for help.
I propose that a humanized workplace is one where there is enough grace and understanding going around for everyone to have their fill – and have some leftover.
In an ironic twist, Louise fell pregnant about a year after Cindy's appointment. After becoming a mother, she needed time off to take her child to the doctor. She wanted us to understand and be lenient if she had a tough night with little or no sleep. She expected that things like making calls during work time to find an emergency babysitter would be overlooked. In short, she needed the grace and understanding in all the situations that she begrudged Cindy.
High-profile companies, profitable departments, organizations with a toxic culture, and powerful people often get away with dehumanizing practices.
During our #MTtalk Twitter chat this week we discussed why it’s important to humanize workplaces and how we can make it happen. Here are all the questions we asked, and some of the best responses:
Q1. What does a dehumanized workplace look like? Could we identify them just by looking at them?
@ColfaxInsurance I've worked in one of those. It can be hard to identify just by looking at it. It's a feeling you get when you walk in and can feel the dread from the workers just emanating off them as they're coming in to work.
@MikeBarzacchini A workplace without compassion, empathy, understanding. One that does not encourage 360-degree feedback and participation. And does not value the contributions of all associates.
Q2. How do workplaces become dehumanized?
@Yolande_MT Workplaces are run by humans. I think they can only become dehumanized if the people in power see others as less deserving of belonging, of having rights, and of having privileges.
@SoniaH_MT Workplaces become dehumanized when: appropriate empathy is ignored or erased, rules are rigidly enforced, productivity is more important than well-being.
Q3. What are some of the beliefs that stop us from being human at work?
@DrSupriya_MT Our conditioning that authority means side-lining emotions, role-models who discipline us with aggression, and finally the fear of losing power. The courage to become vulnerable is the first step.
@carriemaslen Unreasonable pressure, workload, and deadlines seem to bring out the worst in people.
Q4. Why might a leader or company choose not to work on humanizing the workplace?
@SoniaH_MT A leader or company may choose NOT to work on humanizing the workplace because it could make them appear weak.
@SarahH_MT Companies don't CHOOSE not to work on humanizing the workplace. It's put on the 'too hard' pile or they're under too much pressure to meet targets, so it doesn't take priority. As long as results get delivered the dehumanized culture is tolerated. It's a trap!
Q5. What impact does a dehumanized workplace have on team members?
@DrKashmirM PTSD. Depression. Or like me just quitting the job for my own health and peace of mind.
@MikeB_MT High burnout and turnover. Low morale and likely low productivity, especially in the long run.
Q6. What are the characteristics of a humanized workplace?
@ColfaxInsurance Mutual respect – for time, family, responsibilities, opinions, choices, etc. Open and transparent communication. Opportunities made readily available. Boosted morale. Strong relationships among team and management. Employees act as brand advocates on their own.
@SarahH_MT A humanized workforce runs the business with heart. People are treated as valued individuals with lives outside work, tough decisions are made with compassion, communication is genuine, and behaviors are consistent with the rhetoric: "People are our greatest asset."
Q7. Why do we want to create humanized workplaces anyway? What's the bottom line?
@J_Stephens_CPA Individuals want to be part of a community, it's in our nature. If we are in a place we connect with, we are more engaged and happy. If we are more engaged, the company is more profitable.
@Midgie_MT The time has come that leaders need to be aware of and ensure they take care of their employees on a human level. This can contribute to having happy employees who are more productive, deliver better customer service and attract more customers.
Q8. What does a humanized workplace do as a matter of habit or routine?
@Dwyka_Consult A humanized workplace has "safety nets" in place. People don't feel deserted, lonely, and like they're a team of one even when they work remotely.
@carriemaslen A humanized workplace nurtures a culture of trust, transparency and communications.
Q9. What role can/should leaders play in setting the tone for a humanized workplace?
@shathamaskiry I always say lead by example: behavior and action. When employees see the right behaviors embodied in us, they’re naturally inclined to do the same. It’s sociology.
@TheTomGReid They should be leaders and not figureheads or just people who fill a leadership role. In fact, if they cannot muster enough compassion to lead a humanized workplace, they do not deserve the title of leader or have any right to clutter the position with their presence.
Q10. Starting today, what can you do to help create a humanized workplace culture?
@MarkC_Avgi Act human. Care about others, how you treat them and consider how the way you treat them will be good both for them and for you. Care about what you are doing! Truly…give a damn!
@Yolande_MT People don't want to feel they "fit in" – they want to feel that they belong. Connect with them in a way that makes them feel they belong.
To read all the tweets, have a look at the Wakelet collection of this chat.
To humanize workplaces, all of us need to be active allies against any form of prejudice, discrimination and oppression. Next time on #MTtalk we're going to discuss the importance of active allies.
In our Twitter poll this week, we'd like to know which characteristic you think is most important if you want to be active ally.
Note that you will need to be a Mind Tools Club or Corporate member to see all of the resources in full.
Managing Introverted Team Members
Helping Your People Find Purpose in Their Work
Achieving Personal Empowerment
Managing Highly Sensitive People
Smelly egg sandwiches, fish in the micro. Just what is the right etiquette for food at work? Join us for our #MTtalk chat to find out.
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This was a relatable example. Definitely, a scenario to remember! (I've witnessed this type of dehumanizing environment with another organization I no longer support.) I'm glad that there were "real" professionals on board who were not passive about Louise's behavior and allowed 'justice to prevail.' After learning that the tables had turned for Louise, I would've loved to politely ask her if she remembered Cindy's interview and had anything to say.
I think the question ‘ What are some of the beliefs that stop us from being human at work?’ is really important. So often leaders are nervous about asking questions about people’s personal lives. We believe that it’s overstepping boundaries. Yet colleagues personal lives influence their motivation, their beliefs and values. By recognising that they’re more than their job role you demonstrate that you care, that you value them as an individual. By connecting emotionally you build trust.
Thanks for your comments Debbie. Yes, I agree with you - sometimes it's a tricky line for leaders to tread. On the one hand, they don't want to be too familiar and encroach on people's personal lives, and on the other hand, exactly as you've said, relationships develop as we get to know and trust one another. For me the key is to adapt our approach and not assume one approach suits everyone.
Mind Tools Team