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Want your employees to thrive? Ditch these workplace norms.

It’s time to take a closer look at the unhealthy trends that persist in our culture, says women’s leadership expert Selena Rezvani.
Image: Stressed woman sits with her head in her hands at an office desk
We need to put an end to "glorified workaholism," says women's leadership expert Selena Rezvani. Paul Bradbury / Getty Images/Caiaimage

Unless you studied organizational psychology in school, chances are you never learned about workplace norms. Formally, at least.

So, what am I talking about here?

Workplace norms are a set of agreements about how team members interact and contribute. They’re also exemplified by how an organization works together overall – whether that’s collaboratively, independently, competitively or another way. These behaviors are usually unwritten. And they can be tricky. Particularly if you’re newer, you might need the help of more tenured coworkers to decipher what they mean.

Some examples of unspoken norms might be: we work through lunch around here vs. we take a full lunch break, we talk about and learn from mistakes vs. we don’t tolerate mistakes, we gloss over achievements vs. we celebrate achievements.

Why do these everyday rules matter?

While progressive employers are taking steps to attract talent with promises of growth and development, hybrid opportunities, wellbeing benefits, mental health and even financial wellness, they may have forgotten to tackle something more obvious. Those stubborn, problematic workplace norms that hinder a psychologically safe and productive atmosphere.

Selena Rezvani is a women's leadership speaker and author of the award-winning book, "Pushback: How Smart Women Ask - And Stand Up - For What They Want."
Selena Rezvani is a women's leadership speaker and author of the award-winning book, "Pushback: How Smart Women Ask - And Stand Up - For What They Want."Courtesy of Selena Rezvani.

If any of us are to come out of the pandemic better, with more learning and understanding about engaging and retaining talent, we need to look at the unhealthy trends that persist in our culture. (Even the Surgeon General has taken a stand on workplace culture!)

So this year let’s work to drop these three dusty, antiquated trends:

1. Glorified workaholism

Although toxic overwork might seem like a relatively new headline, supporting data has been around for decades, which means organizations are long overdue for a change.

Way back in 1985, the Whitehall II Study set out to examine how work, social class, psychosocial factors and lifestyle affect the development of chronic diseases. Researchers followed 2,214 people working in 20 London-based organizations between 1997 and 1999, and again between 2002 and 2004. At the end of each testing period, researchers measured the volunteers’ cognitive functions.

Participants who worked over 55 hours per week scored lower on initial and follow-up vocabulary tests, showed a larger decline in fluid intelligence, and exhibited other factors that might influence cognitive decline when compared to those who worked 40 or fewer hours per week.

Similar studies have surfaced in more recent years. Just have a look at the 2015 articles, "Why Employees’ Long Hours Can Hurt Your Company’s Bottom Line" or "The Research Is Clear: Long Hours Backfire for People and for Companies."

In 2019, the World Health Organization officially included burn-out in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases.

Whether your organization encourages “presence culture,” where face-to-face time in the office is demanded - or people are expected to pull off impossible work feats that inconvenience them and cause them to sacrifice their personal time - enough is enough.

It’s time for employers to come out and say that employees’ relationships, families, health and wellbeing comes first. We wouldn’t expect a piece of machinery to operate until it was over capacity or cracking from friction after ignored warning signs. We need to stop asking employees to do the same.

2. The expectation that employee resource groups will do all the DEI work

In most organizations, employee resource groups (ERGs) function on a volunteer basis yet are expected to lead the way in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts. ERGs provide valuable networking and professional development opportunities, foster a sense of community for underrepresented groups in the workplace, and educate employees on ways to build a more inclusive culture.

However, when employers don’t lead the way (or participate in conversations at all) and instead rely on people who aren’t paid for their efforts, it can signal that those leaders are shrugging off the responsibility.

A Great Place to Work case study asked 80 ERG leaders and executive sponsors about their views on ERGs. The study found that 100 percent of ERG executive sponsors say company leadership encourages participation across ERGs, yet only 52 percent of ERG leaders agree. Furthermore, half of ERG leaders reported not having enough resources (time, money, dedicated support, recognition) to meet their objectives.

Employers, leaders and executive sponsors of ERGs must take a more active role in supporting DEI efforts. That means an investment of time, budgets, advocacy, and in many cases, individual leaders directly supporting DEI initiatives. Their participation will trickle down through the organization, inspiring everyone to do the same.

3. Salary secrecy

Whether or not you’re in a state that mandates sharing salary information, salary transparency is a right owed to most people. The 1935 National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) states that private-sector employees are allowed to discuss compensation “for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.”

Although there are some exceptions to the rule, it is illegal for most employers to implement pay secrecy policies. Still, many employees are discouraged from discussing their wages, which hurts groups already known to be paid less, such as women and people of color.

At least you can try to rectify being underpaid by speaking up though, right? Not necessarily. A Payscale study found that people of color were significantly less likely than white men to have received a raise when they asked for one. See how secrecy makes things worse?

Certainly, pay secrecy can perpetuate wage discrimination. A survey by the Institute of Women’s Policy Research found that 51 percent of women and 47 percent of men say that talking about wages and salaries is discouraged or banned – and could lead to punishment. The National Women’s Law Center adds, “Employees often have no idea they are experiencing pay discrimination; even when they suspect it, they face significant obstacles in gathering the information that would prove it, which undermines their ability to challenge such discrimination.”

This makes it difficult to close wage gaps and achieve equity in the workplace. It also undermines the sense that the broader employer-employee relationship – and contract - is trustworthy, open or fair.

A fresh year, a fresh take

We have an opportunity ahead of us.

Yes, there’s work to do. But what if rather than adding more shiny, new benefits to the work equation, we subtracted – thoughtfully, purposefully – instead? The time is here to drop those old, unhealthy habits that dog so many workplaces.

Just think, in cultivating the workplace environment we’ve always wanted, in discarding what’s out-of-date, we can make room for all kinds of offshoots. As Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi has said, “When the norm is decency, other virtues can thrive: integrity, honesty, compassion, kindness, and trust.”