“Toxic rock stars,” or bullies who evade consequences because they deliver results, can ruin the workplace experience for most employees, but they’re particularly harmful to women of color. In the midst of the fight for talent, at a time when the link between diversity and better business outcomes is finally being understood and when external stakeholders are demanding accountability on diversity metrics, company leaders must look carefully at the wide-ranging impacts of tolerating and rewarding high-performing bullies at the expense of culture, particularly as they impact women of color.
Most of us have known a high performer who is a bully at work or a leader who delivers results but creates a toxic environment. These “toxic rock stars” can ruin the workplace experience for most employees, but they’re particularly harmful to women of color. These individuals and the cultures that enable them are key factors driving women of color to leave their workplaces.
Research has shown that toxic cultures cost U.S. companies almost $50 billion per year, and toxic culture was the single biggest predictor of attrition during the first six months of the Great Resignation. In the midst of the fight for talent, at a time when the link between diversity and better business outcomes is finally being understood and when external stakeholders are demanding accountability on diversity metrics, company leaders must look carefully at the wide-ranging impacts of tolerating and rewarding high-performing bullies at the expense of culture, particularly as they impact women of color.
Women of Color Are Saying “Enough Is Enough”
Malia,* whom Deepa interviewed for her recent book, had been a senior leader for 10 years and was one of the only senior women of color at her firm when the executive team asked her to take responsibility for one of the largest accounts in the company’s portfolio. She was paired with another account executive at the same level, Frank,* who was white and a decade older.
Things were rocky from the beginning. Within weeks, it became clear to Malia that Frank was a bully. He would yell and berate the staff, make disparaging comments about people of color, and treated Malia as if she was his subordinate, not his equal. Frank made it clear that Malia was “lucky to be working” with him and told her that since he sat on the compensation council, he had the power to determine her next career move and her pay. In fact, Frank often spoke about how he understood the games of office politics and played them better than everyone else around him.
When Malia reached out to other senior women at the company for advice, she learned that Frank had a history of infractions against women and that HR and leadership were well aware of his behavior. Malia couldn’t understand why everyone looked the other way, and their advice also shocked her. They told her to keep delivering results and ignore Frank as best she could.
After more than a year of putting up with his behavior and despite being told it would be “career suicide,” Malia finally felt she had to report Frank via the formal dispute process — not just for herself, but for the other women and diverse talent around her. It was a hard decision and it took its toll on her mental and physical well-being. After she came forward, the predictions came true. The company’s HR team didn’t put much effort into reprimanding Frank, but Malia felt the effects anyway. In her performance review, her typically high ratings suffered. She was told she “needed to learn to get along” with others. It was as if she had become the problem for her company, and people seemed to accept how Frank was and gave him a wide berth. For Malia, it was clear she couldn’t and wouldn’t succeed working at a company that tolerated bullies like Frank. It didn’t take long for her to find a new job at a company with a culture that didn’t tolerate, much less reward, toxic behavior.
Tragically, Malia’s experience is not unique. In the summer and fall of 2021, we conducted research with women of color in professional roles to learn what was working and what wasn’t. Through a nationwide survey of more than 1,500 women and a series of intimate salons and interviews, we discussed their lived experiences at work. Again and again, we were told stories of high performers who tarnished the culture and inflicted harm on women. The result? In the vast majority of the cases, the women of color left the company for better opportunities where they knew their talents and skills would be valued. As one woman told us, “My company ignored the bad behavior of the big producer. I got labeled ‘noisy’ even though he had a lengthy history of complaints on his HR record. What other choice did I have? I left — and good riddance!”
Another woman said, “Our leaders coddle the toxic rock stars and leave the rest of us to suffer the consequences.” And another, who had her own “Frank” story, told us, “So many times, the marginalized person who’s like, ‘Hey, this person is … racist or sexist’ gets dismissed as the one lone wolf and gets labeled as difficult.”
Toxic rock star stories aren’t unique to women of color, but their impact on them cannot be ignored. Bearing the weight of racism, microaggressions, ignorance, and, in some cases, outright hatred leaves women of color not just burned out, but as many reported to us, traumatized. Our research revealed that women of color are 18% less likely than white women to feel supported by their managers and 19% less likely to feel their skills and experience are valued and leveraged. Seventy percent feel they have to prove themselves over and over again just to be rewarded fairly. Given these challenges, it’s no wonder that toxic rock stars are often the last straw for this highly capable, highly desirable talent cohort.
As a senior partner at a global consulting agency said to us after she shared her “Frank” story: “Enough is enough. It’s time companies considered the consequences of their actions. Toxic rock stars are a cancer on company culture. Leaving them in a position of power reveals what the company truly values: profits over people.”
Why Companies Tolerate Toxic Rock Stars
We help company leaders foster high-performing cultures built on inclusion and belonging where diverse talent, and particularly women of color, want to stay. How to deal with toxic rock stars is a challenge nearly every one of our clients has faced.
At one client company, turnover in the sales division was as high as 48%. The reason? A head of sales who delivered the numbers but who was killing the very culture the new CEO was trying to establish. As the well-meaning CEO explained, “I know he’s a problem, but he delivers the results our shareholders want to see. How can I fire him when we have revenue goals we need to meet?”
In an environment where short-term gains are rewarded by Wall Street and investors, CEOs often find themselves challenged by competing demands. Sure, toxic rock stars can and do deliver today. However, the long-term impact of these culture bullies on attrition, employee engagement, productivity, and employer branding can’t be ignored.
Part of the challenge stems from the old-school “boys club” mentality, where toxic rock stars are protected at the expense of diverse talent and toxic cultures get reinforced at the expense of the company’s reputation and bottom line. But in today’s world, leaders are being challenged to change the way they lead, and when they don’t — or can’t — adapt, they risk their own careers and the success of their companies.
What Leaders Should Do
A recent survey of more than 1,400 global CEOs and board members revealed that the war for talent is a top issue facing companies right now. It’s become glaringly clear that losing women of color because you aren’t willing to address your toxic rock stars is a recipe for failure in the new world of work. Here are five steps leaders can take to ensure high-performing bullies don’t drive away their best employees.
Establish a no-tolerance policy.
No doubt there are behaviors that require immediate dismissal. But too often, employers tolerate toxic rock stars’ poor behavior despite repeated reports to management and human resources. If a leader at your company is reported once, investigate. Coaching or extended training may be appropriate if the person simply didn’t understand how their actions were harming others. But second, third, and fourth reports with no action send the message to all employees that bad behavior can be trumped by other factors. Companies have to take decisive action and terminate people who create toxic environments.
Look honestly at your culture.
“The culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior the leader is willing to tolerate,” as organizational development experts Steve Gruenert and Todd Whitaker have observed. Leaders must ask themselves what they’re tolerating.
Take a good look at your company culture. Do an honest culture survey, conduct focus groups, and have one-on-one conversations with employees at various levels. If you’re humble, curious, and empathetic, you’ll be surprised at what you’ll learn.
Find out what happens when an employee is reported to HR as “toxic.” Does HR do a thorough assessment? Or do they dismiss the experiences of the injured party? Do they ignore repeated complaints? And, importantly, do they do this because they believe they’re protecting the company? If yes, it’s time to start over.
At the very least, get engaged yourself by truly listening to your employees. Conduct a thorough employee experience assessment, engage with your employee resource groups (ERGs), and meet one-on-one with your diverse talent to understand what they need to do their best work. Throughout the process, be humble. It’s up to you to set the tone for the kind of culture you want to foster, and it’s on you when the culture goes awry.
Establish a better feedback process.
Research conducted by nFormation and Fairygodboss in 2021 found that 60% of women of color feel their companies are not properly prepared to handle racist incidents in the workplace. In our PowHER Redefined research, 97% of respondents said companies must establish better processes to investigate racism and discrimination at work. Debra Soltis, a well-regarded employment attorney in Washington, counsels her clients to always remember that “human resources is not your friend, but is there to protect the company.” Reporting inappropriate behavior, whether it’s racism, sexism, or even sexual harassment, leaves many women to face the daunting task of having to present claims based on allegations that are undocumented, retaliation that is subtle, and witnesses who are reluctant to speak.
Providing anonymous reporting opportunities using tools such as AllVoices or FaceUp can help employees feel confident they won’t be penalized for speaking up. Additionally, offering external HR support and coaching guidance through organizations like HRuprise and Better Up can be an emotional lifeboat for those who are already suffering from a toxic work environment.
Infuse your values into every aspect of your business.
Inclusion and belonging have become core values for numerous companies in the past few years. While this is commendable, if these values aren’t reflected in employees’ lived experiences, the good intentions become performative and create distrust.
Do a values review to ensure that the core values you tout are embedded into all aspects of the employee lifecycle, from recruiting and hiring to performance management to team interactions to goal setting and more. Conduct an employee survey to understand if the values resonate. Ask the hard questions to understand if leaders and managers are walking the walk. Don’t just say what you mean — follow it up with action.
If you see something, say something.
How can leaders — in particular, male leaders — be part of the solution? It starts with courage. Leaders must understand that the bystander effect is strong. People will watch a toxic situation unfold, thinking someone else clearly knows it’s wrong or is better equipped to jump in. The result is that a lot of people silently agree that there’s a problem but don’t actually intervene.
In their book Good Guys: How Men Can Be Better Allies for Women in the Workplace, Professors David Smith and Brad Johnson argue that men play a critical role in disrupting their male colleagues’ toxic behavior. They write:
The Time Is Now
It’s an interesting time to be losing women of color. There’s more data than ever that suggests diversity, including in leadership teams, translates into growth and profits. And as the American workforce gets more diverse and we begin to address the changing landscape of the future of work as a result of Covid, there’s also growing acceptance that we need new ways of leading. We need leaders who understand core diversity challenges, lead with empathy, and have unique lived experiences.
Women of color can provide this voice and new direction. Don’t wait for more trauma to be inflicted on them and more harm to come to your bottom line. It’s time to get rid of your toxic rock stars if you want to keep the talent you still have and attract new women of color and other diverse candidates to help you and your company grow and thrive in today’s competitive climate.
* Names used in the article have been changed.
Copyright 2022 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.