I can vividly remember a time in my career before the advent of the "speak-up" culture movement. This was a time when organizational bad actors went unpunished and anyone who dared to confront a toxic work presence was denigrated and denied future opportunities. People's voices were suppressed and this led to senior leaders who maintained their deniability regarding these bad behaviors until they were forced back in line by regulators fining them for disobeying the rules.
There isn't an ethics and compliance presentation today that doesn't contain the huge financial implications of toxic work cultures. From GSK paying the Chinese government $489 million in 2013 to Wells Fargo in 2016 having to gut their leadership ranks, pay over $2 billion in fines, and suffer the loss of thousands of customers - there are myriad examples of what happens when good people don't highlight negative actions. Compliance officers use these examples to attempt to scare employees and managers straight. But oftentimes the issue doesn't lie at these levels of the organization. The problem rests at the top of the house - where orders to do the wrong thing are issued and then permeate the rest of the organization.
We are facing such a situation today in the United States during this 2020 Election Year. The President of the United States is withholding funding to the USPS in order to make it more difficult for mail in votes to be issued, collected, and counted in time for election day. In his own words, “They need that money in order to make the post office work, so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots” come November, Trump said. “If they don’t get those two items, that means you can’t have universal mail-in voting because they’re not equipped.”
Nevermind that this terrible action negatively impacts both Republican and Democrat voters alike. The USPS is an organization of over 633,000 employees - good people who have a crucial role in the day-to-day lives of all Americans and most especially during elections - more critically so in 2020 due to the pandemic and fears of voter suppression at the polls.
There are many external movements popping up to protest this attempt to hijack the election; but what of the employees, managers, and leaders within the USPS? How should they be dealing with orders that run contrary to their organizations values, mission, and purpose? An organization who’s stated mission is that "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds."
What lessons can we apply from the speak up culture movement now embedded in nearly every corporation and apply them to this situation?
The first issue is making sure that USPS employees feel safe and secure to protest this action from within the organization. Safety implies that if employees choose to join external protests such as those happening around the country or directed at the Post Master General, they should be permitted to do so without fear of backlash or losing their jobs.
The next issue to address is the respect for hierarchy that may result in employees scared to challenge their managers. If you've read my work on servant leadership, you already know where I stand on this issue - managers should be the first people reacting to a negative implication on their people's performance and leveraging their influence to ensure that these prohibitive orders are not carried out.
Lastly, USPS employees need to reject apathy and the feeling that nothing they do matters. We have seen the societal power of speaking up during this year's social justice movement, and how the recent #metoo movement inspired needed changes. This is not the time to sit on the sidelines. We need to ensure that employees are being activated to resist participating in any action that will fundamentally undermine our democracy.
Managers play a pivotal role in this process. They create the safety to voice concerns and the freedom to protest. They can collect employee issues and take them to the top of the house so that no one can say they were unaware of the implications of orders on employee morale and productivity. And they can actually inspire and activate their employees to resist any directions that go against the values, mission, and purpose of the organization.
Taking a stand against these dysfunctions is much bigger than any party affiliation. These issues challenge the underpinnings of our collective democracy. This is the moment for true leaders to rise and confront toxic leaders and their ego-driven policies. We each have a role in ensuring the right things are done. And our greater good will come by supporting the good people of the USPS who only want to complete their mission in the best way possible. Let's ensure that they know that they are not alone, and that we will not stand for the defrauding of our election system either before or behind the curtain.
Omar L. Harris is the managing partner at Intent Consulting, a firm dedicated to improving employee experience and organizational performance and author of Leader Board: The DNA of High-Performance Teams and The Servant Leader's Manifesto available for purchase in ebook or print on Amazon.com. Please follow him on instagram, twitter, and/or his website for more information and engagement.