First, do no harm with company practices and policies

Rebecca Weitzel

If you believed, like I did, physicians swear to “first, do no harm” when they graduate from medical school, you’d be wrong. Although doctors don’t make that pledge, the idea — not hurting people — is one business leaders should consider.

While most leaders would never hurt their employees on purpose, it’s important to recognize harm occurs unintentionally. Although many organizations invest in employee well-being programs to promote mental and physical health, they neglect the existence of common practices and unwritten rules that undermine those efforts. Such cultural influences often supersede stated values and policy manuals as the prime directors of behavior. Over time, they can erode trust, decrease motivation and contribute to declines in mental and physical health.

The first step to addressing these potential hazards is to identify them. But, as the saying goes, it’s hard to see the forest for the trees. How can you spot harmful unwritten rules and practices? One way is to start with such common culprits as those listed below to determine if these or other harmful unwritten rules exist in your organization.

“It was just a joke” is considered a valid excuse for disrespectful comments. Does your company claim it values respect, but in practice allows rude or demeaning comments to slide — or worse, overlooks leaders who laugh at or contribute to such comments? Is sarcasm prevalent in your organization to the extent words are technically respectful, but the underlying tone is not?  If an employee expresses uneasiness with a joke or comment, are they quickly dismissed or mocked? If these things occur in your organization, the mental wellbeing of your employees and credibility of your stated values are at risk.

Those who work late, skip breaks or check messages during vacation get ahead. Do leaders say they promote balance between work and life, but then insinuate those who leave work on time or take healthy breaks slack off? Are those who work through lunch or answer their phones or email at all hours and on vacation rewarded with high regard, profuse expressions of gratitude or even promotions? If so, your employees will eventually experience emotional, mental and physical burnout.

Pizza parties and donut Fridays are preferred forms of team recognition. Do supervisors commonly use food to show their appreciation? Do birthday celebrations and one-on-one meetings with the boss always involve a restaurant meal? Do meetings regularly include snacks or breaks for people to access unhealthy vending machine fare? Does the break room culture encourage a constant flow of homemade baked goods or processed snacks? Before wellness initiatives can help employees make healthier choices, these cultural practices must be addressed. “Do as I say, not as I do” doesn’t lead to healthier habits.

Leaders share health and wellness information with an eye roll. Do your managers and supervisors announce upcoming wellness programs in staff meetings with a tone of disdain or mockery? Do they make it difficult for their staffs to participate in wellness activities by not giving them time to do so? Are there any consequences when mid-level managers and supervisors behave this way? Does leadership recognize the importance of training managers on the strategic value of employee health and well-being? The reality is, without manager and supervisor buy-in, employee health and wellness efforts quickly hit a dead end.

If you discover such unwritten rules as these or others subvert your organizational values and, in effect, harm your employees, it’s possible to overwrite them. To do this, it might be tempting to make sweeping policy changes or dictate new practices to get quick results. While this could be a good strategy for such highly toxic behaviors as disrespect or tobacco use, most cultural shifts occur more smoothly when undertaken in a collaborative manner.

To bring others along with you in creating healthy changes, hold employee town hall meetings and conduct surveys to openly discuss issues, obtain feedback and determine what actions employees support. Frame new practices in fun and positive ways to reduce the feeling of perks being stripped away. Ensure changes apply to every person in the organization regardless of position to create the sense you’re all in it together.

Over time, you’ll see that by pledging to “first, do no harm,” you’re actually doing the most good.