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Toxic workplaces have the power to do a lot of harm. Employees feel the effects mentally and physically, and productivity suffers as a result. Naturally, turnover is high in toxic work environments, and employers struggle to retain top talent. But discrimination, harassment and bullying are preventable. It’s up to employers to foster healthier workplaces that truly value diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), but employees can also find their voice to speak up and hold leaders accountable.
TriplePundit spoke with Chiquita Hall-Jackson, an attorney and expert in employment law, about what can be done to promote employee wellness and inclusion, and what employees can do if they witness discrimination or mistreatment at work.
Diversity without inclusion leads to missed opportunities
“A lot of companies have been focusing on diversifying their staff and their workforce,” Hall-Jackson said. “However, they're not being inclusive, and that's where a lot of opportunities have been missed.” It’s not enough to just hire a diverse staff. By ignoring inclusion, many employers miss out on the benefits that come with a diverse workforce. After all, employees have to feel included to be comfortable sharing their ideas and talents.
Employees need to feel like they have a voice in the workplace and can offer input, she said. “They also want to contribute and show that their talents are recognized by the company.”
Inclusion through bonding experiences
Hall-Jackson sees bonding experiences during the workday as a simple step employers can take to foster employee wellness and connection. These group activities could include mixers, cooking lessons, exercise classes, and paint and sip classes. “Different activities that you used to do with your girlfriends or a bunch of friends, corporate is now evolving as bonding activities,” she said.
These experiences cultivate inclusion, employee happiness and a sense of belonging, she said. “A lot of people just don't feel like they belong in the workplace, and ultimately it affects their mental health.” Offering bonding experiences can help workers who don’t feel valued or engaged to feel included.
Resources for reporting workplace issues
A strong social support system in the workplace is the backbone of inclusion and employee well-being, Hall-Jackson said. That means fostering an environment of respect and fair treatment, supporting an open-door policy for communication between workers and supervisors, and creating a human resources policy against discrimination and harassment.
When it comes to reporting discrimination, harassment and bullying, employees feel safest if there is a third-party phone number they can call instead of reporting to internal human resources personnel, she said. The option to remain anonymous can also protect them from retaliation.
Likewise, she encourages employers to use a third party to handle issues that arise while safeguarding employee privacy — for example, requests for leave related to medical issues and disabilities. She gave the example of a client whose supervisor left the mental health records she submitted for a leave request on a desk where anyone walking by could see the employee’s personal, protected health information. Utilizing a third party to process these records would have protected the employee from the embarrassment of sharing such personal information with her supervisor and exposing it to others in the office.
A budding movement rallies workers to speak up about wrongdoing
Hall-Jackson wants employees to be able to use their voices to stick up for what’s right and intervene when they witness harmful behavior like microaggressions and discrimination at work.
“They might even see their supervisors yelling and picking on a particular individual or group of individuals,” she said. “If you don't feel comfortable speaking up in that moment, maybe immediately after — I'll say no more than 24 hours after that particular meeting, or interaction — pull that person to the side and say, ‘Hey, I witnessed what happened. I don't think that's fair. I think you owe XYZ an apology. And that's not how we do things around here.’" Letting people know you're against this type of behavior and don't think it's good for the company draws a clear boundary and establishes that you won't look the other way, she said.
Hall-Jackson founded Blow the Whistle Law to facilitate more speaking up. The "social justice and accountability movement" aims to institute workers’ rights clinics in at least 10 law schools across the U.S. to train law students to disrupt wrongdoing and prioritize diversity in the workplace, she said.
“It was sparked after being triggered by the Black Lives Matter movement back in 2020,” Hall-Jackson said. “When I, personally, had the belief that if the officers who were with Derek Chauvin had intervened that day when he had his knee on George Floyd's neck, that his life could have been saved.”
The limits of employment law
The Blow the Whistle Law movement holds monthly webinars around workplace issues. One of the most popular is about identifying discrimination and how to navigate a hostile work environment. It’s important that employees can distinguish discrimination and harassment from workplace bullying, because perpetrators are emboldened when employees rush to file lawsuits or Equal Employment Opportunity Commission claims for bullying and, inevitably, lose those claims, she said.
“Unfortunately, there are no workplace bullying laws in place,” she said. And unless the mistreatment is related to a protected class, “what they're describing is not discrimination. It is simply workplace bullying or some kind of petty offense that's not covered under the law.”
This is why it’s all the more important for employers to value their employees’ well-being by proactively creating inclusive work environments and safe ways for employees to report mistreatment. Simultaneously, bonding activities can help co-workers feel more inclined to speak up for one another. Ultimately, it is up to employers to ensure their workplaces are not toxic, but employees can help protect each other by educating themselves on employment law and speaking up when they see mistreatment.
Riya Anne Polcastro is an author, photographer and adventurer based out of the Pacific Northwest. She enjoys writing just about anything, from gritty fiction to business and environmental issues. She is especially interested in how sustainability can be harnessed to encourage economic and environmental equity between the Global South and North. One day she hopes to travel the world with nothing but a backpack and her trusty laptop.