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by Stephan Maldonado | August 28, 2020


We recently spoke with Rhiannon Staples, Chief Marketing Officer of Hibob (hi, bob!) - an HR management platform dedicated to helping companies maximize employee experience -  about the importance of cultural safety in the workplace. In our conversation, Rhiannon discusses the impact of a company's culture on its employees' productivity and overall well-being, as well as the key tenets of a workplace culture that prioritizes empathy, respect, and inclusivity. She also touches upon the challenges of maintaining workplace culture while many of us are still working remotely.

Vault: Can you please explain the notion of “cultural safety” to our readers? What does “safe” mean in terms of workplace culture?

Rhiannon Staples: Cultural safety is a lot more than just feeling security in your job or your workplace. It’s a feeling of value companies give their employees that permeates into every facet of an employee’s life at work. It most importantly means that employees feel like their employer genuinely cares about their well-being and takes action toward advancing their interests, growth, and development. It also goes beyond physical safety and creates an environment where people can feel confident to come to work as their full selves and never feel at risk or discriminated against because of who they are. In a culturally safe workplace, an employer will celebrate and embrace diversity and differences. 

Vault: How do businesses create a culture of safety? What are the key aspects of their employees’ mental and emotional well-being that need to be considered when cultivating a workplace culture?

RS: There are two main elements of cultural safety - the psychological and the physical. When it comes to the psychological side, doing great work isn’t just about having the necessary skills. You also need to feel comfortable in your work environment—whether that’s in conversation with your manager/teammates, feeling as if you’re protected when it comes to harassment or bullying. When an employee doesn’t feel safe at work, they simply can’t be expected to get their job done in the same manner as if they felt welcomed by a nurturing culture focused on mental health and well-being.

As for the physical component, this entails the understanding that a company will provide safe and hazard-free working conditions, create a comfortable environment, and work appropriate for employees. Keeping the workplace accessible, well ventilated, adequately lit, noise-controlled, and ergonomically designed will protect an employee’s health and signal a culture of care. 

Ultimately, a company investing in employee comfort. Addressing employee feedback—whether that’s in the office or remote—is extremely important to developing a culturally safe workplace. Companies need to take the time to tell and show. Cultural safety involves a company’s willingness to communicate values, policies, and expectations. These components make up the “tell”, whereas the “show” involves enforcing these values, policies, and expectations through education, open communication, and day-to-day actions.

Vault: What are the biggest challenges that working remotely poses to maintaining a corporate culture? How can managers ensure that they maintain their organization’s culture despite the limitations of remote work?

RS: In today’s climate, companies must realize culture is so much more than the workspace and social activities. It’s about organizational values, how you communicate and interact, and how you engage, develop, and retain employees. This work from home period is an opportunity for companies to take culture to a level deeper than ping-pong tables and Friday happy hours—both of which had really reached their expiration point anyhow. Now is a time to build a culture around tolerance, empathy, and employees’ well-being. This can be done effectively with remote workers. Businesses simply need to focus on communication, support, and education.

As we’ve all realized throughout this pandemic, working remotely can be extremely isolating—causing team members to feel disconnected from their coworkers or the company’s overall mission. Distractions can also be a major problem for those living with others, and especially for parents managing children or other family members.

To optimize remote culture, companies can do a few things, from establishing frequent Zoom/video calls with coworkers to ensure connectivity across teams, to providing a workspace allowance so everyone feels comfortable from home and able to work well, to emphasizing work/life balance.

The bottom line is that even before COVID, many companies successfully tackled implementing a thriving remote culture. The key is to think about it holistically. Ask yourself the following: What is going to make my employees happy and fulfilled? What is special about our company specifically? From there, make sure you’re enacting policies and procedures based on responses and real-time feedback.  

Vault: What kind of impact does cultural safety have on productivity? What are some of the key ways a company’s culture impacts its bottom line?

RS: A lack of cultural safety impacts an organization’s ability to hire, grow, and retain the best talent. Since a business' success is directly correlated to the quality and satisfaction of its people, a business not defined by cultural safety runs the risk of negatively impacting both top and bottom lines. Companies often wonder why their teams aren’t productive. What is the “it factor” missing from keeping employees engaged? It’s not uncommon for this issue to be traced back to a problem surrounding cultural health and safety. Cultural safety is a huge driver of productivity. When employees feel safe, secure, valued, and appreciated, they bring their best selves to work. Without this important cultural element, talented teams will always have one eye on the door looking for that next potential opportunity. 

Vault: What are some of the telltale indications of toxic workplace culture? How does a toxic workplace culture affect a company’s employees?

RS: Some key indications of a toxic workplace culture include an undervalued workforce, high churn or turnover rate, or a clear lack of consistency from a leadership team. You can tell there's a problem with a company's culture when work noticeably isn’t getting done productively or when team members don’t seem to be getting along.

Toxic cultures are detrimental not only to employee happiness but also to company success. When a company is overworked or defined by a sea of unhappy employees, work output will suffer and company achievement will diminish. Employees will never be able to fully settle in or bring their best to the table. 

Vault: How can managers and HR teams identify cultural pitfalls and make real change—especially when most people are not in the office together?

RS: Managers and members of HR need to stay on top of employee perspectives and feelings about the workplace from the get-go. For instance, at Hibob, our platform, bob, has a feature where employers can implement surveys to receive a pulse check on how employees are feeling about any particular issue.

Organizations should care about their employees’ opinions. In doing so, it’s vital employers check in often, address feedback and communicate actionable changes transparently so people don’t feel their feedback is falling on deaf ears. Getting this kind of information - especially by offering tools to do so anonymously - creates a culture of feedback which is integral to creating a satisfied, productive staff. 

Vault: What advice do you have for businesses about implementing a culture that prioritizes mental health and well-being?

RS: Now more than ever, companies need to prioritize mental health and well-being at work. We’re living through very challenging times, and being stuck at home without workplace camaraderie or without that feeling of personal connection that humans naturally thrive on is causing many employees to feel stressed and depressed. Businesses must allow for flexibility, do everything they can to mitigate extended hours, and simply understand that work/life balance is critical to employee happiness.

Encourage employees to take time for themselves - taking a vacation, a holiday, or unplugging is necessary, and nobody should feel like doing so will negatively impact their job or status at the company. Employers should also offer access to education and support resources to help employees understand what they can do to manage stress and wellbeing. Offering benefits such as counseling services or internal support groups will allow employees to interact and discuss problems, and also address the challenges they are facing.

Vault: This has been an incredibly turbulent year, with numerous issues weighing heavily on people beyond the workplace. Of those issues, renewed national focus on racial injustice is taking a heavy toll on people’s well-being.

Can you talk a little bit about how current cultural moments on a national scale impact or inform workplace culture? How should these issues be addressed in the workplace? How can companies ensure they are fostering a workplace culture that is not only free from discrimination but also sensitive to how this national discussion may be affecting their employees’ mental and emotional health?

RS: It’s true we’re living through an extremely turbulent time, and it’s time for companies to finally step up and address racial injustice - especially in the workplace. To be successful and create a culture defined by diversity, inclusion, and productivity, companies must be transparent and open with their staff, tackling the issue head-on. Not talking about the issue does not make you ‘neutral’ - but instead makes you a part of the problem.

Employers must hold themselves accountable. Consider sharing areas where you can improve with employees and be clear that you’re working on these issues. Take time to listen to minority voices and ask how they’re doing. Make sure HR teams are prioritizing diversity in hiring practices. Additionally, always make sure you’re creating a safe space for minority voices to speak up in the workplace. 

Vault: We’ve talked about what management and HR can do to foster a sense of cultural safety. But how is culture maintained at the employee level? What role do we each play in ensuring a safe culture for ourselves and our colleagues?

RS: Employees should always abide by the “see something, say something” motto. Whether it’s to HR or directly the person in question, be sure you’re a steward of your own culture and don’t be afraid to protect it. We should feel free to express ourselves openly and honestly - setting an essential precedent for an entire organization. 

Vault: For job seekers, what are some of the most important things to look for in a company’s culture? What are the key indications that one’s safety, well-being, and mental or emotional health will be protected in a prospective job? How can someone get a sense of a company’s culture during the job search or interview process?

RS: Job seekers should first and foremost pay attention to their instincts when evaluating a company’s culture. Your instinct is there for a reason, and you might not always need concrete evidence if you have a bad experience in an interview or while meeting potential colleagues or even leadership. Also, don’t be afraid to ask for details surrounding information that would be important to you at a place of work. An interview is just as much an interview for the job candidate as it is for the employer. Hiring managers might not always have the best or most perfect answer, but you can often tell by how they answer if they share the same values as you do.

Rhiannon Staples Bio

With more than 15 years of experience leading global marketing strategy, teams, and programs at fast-growing startups, Rhiannon Staples, chief marketing officer at Hibob, is responsible for spearheading the people management software company's go-to-market strategy. She draws from her professional experience to hold forth on how HR teams can balance employees' needs, aspirations, and expectations.