June 17, 2024


Business & Finance

To build a healthy workplace, you need a toxic culture alarm

9 min read

By Ludmila N. Praslova 9 minute Read

Could the Great Resignation have been prevented?

Toxic organizations are the key cause of employee exodus, according to an MIT report. Moreover, my research indicates that employee disillusionment with how organizations function existed long before the pandemic.

What if your workplace had an early warning system, an alarm that could signal that the environment is becoming hazardous, like carbon monoxide detectors in our homes warn us of toxic gas?

We can build a safer and stronger future of work. Recently, I’ve been developing one organizational design principle that could help leaders prevent toxic build-up, along with the next wave of resignations, while helping engage talent, achieve diversity and inclusion goals, and sustain remarkable productivity.

The canary in the coal mine

To understand the idea of a “toxic culture alarm,” first you must understand the history of toxic gas detectors. The original, living, breathing carbon monoxide detector was the proverbial—and the very real—canary in the coal mine. In the UK, canary birds went underground with the miners from 1911 until 1986. Canaries’ intense breathing makes them sensitive to airborne poisons, so if the air became toxic, birds fell ill or died before miners were significantly affected. This gave the miners time to evacuate safely (and, with early enough detection, even to revive the canary).

Canary birds have retired from mines. But members of the autistic community sometimes use canaries as a metaphor to explain their experiences and sensitivities. Contrary to the “unfeeling autistic” stereotypes, prominent theory and experimental research indicate that autistic people experience the world more intensely than the average person. This explains the extraordinary attention, memory, ability to detect patterns, empathy, and work performance of some autistic individuals, and the success of those who defy stereotypes and discrimination. But this intensity also explains why the toxicity of the environment is felt by us earlier and harms us more than others.  

For instance: People always tell me I am too sensitive. They want me to stop caring, feeling, paying attention to the complex impacts of decisions. But I can’t help it. It’s my natural state to see multiple connections, fast. One decision impacts organizations in so many ways— performance, revenue, employee engagement, client satisfaction. Seeing hidden connections helped me time product release and hire outstanding performers others rejected. But I see patterns of danger even better than opportunities. And when my canary warnings are ignored, I feel poisoned—physically.

Once, it took me half a day to know that a key new hire would negatively impact the psychological and fiscal health of the organization. But I was told I was too sensitive, that we should wait and see. Waiting resulted in ceding markets to competition, and high performers leaving to work for competitors. I would have left too, but I almost lost my ability to walk—precisely for as long as that person was in power. 

At the time, I did not know there were others like me, with similar stories—hypersensitive pattern-thinkers. Women of my generation were unlikely to be recognized as autistic in childhood, and media misinformation delayed adult self-realization. Many of us discovered our neurodivergent identity and the rich culture associated with it much later in life.

Unfortunately, in many organizations, the “solution” to this sensitivity was not the cleaner air for all. It was systematically excluding us from employment.

Autistic people have unemployment rates of 85% in the US, 78% in the UK, and 60% in Australia. In the UK, 50% of managers admit they would not hire autistic candidates. That’s despite the fact that “canaries” can be up to 140% more productive than typical employees, generate higher-quality creative and innovative thinking, and discover causes and effects others miss.

Excluding “canaries” not only robbed organizations of unique talent, but also disabled the organizational toxicity alarm. The exclusion itself should have been seen as a sign of toxicity, but many chose to believe that all was well with the workplace. The dominant thinking in Enron-style cultures suggested that it was the canaries’ “fault” they could not breathe. They were “too sensitive for their own good.” They needed to “toughen up.”

With the most sensitive excluded and the toxicity alarm disabled, psychological conditions in many workplaces continued to deteriorate, with ever-increasing workloads and repeated ethical breaches. Then the pandemic served as the last straw. Stress is cumulative, and with the disruption of the pandemic, most employees fully felt the effects of toxic practices and hurried for the exits as fast as they could.

Reviving the canary, supporting all

When I realized that I was autistic, in late 2019, something else occurred to me. All the different types of systemic disadvantages I experienced at various points of my career—sexism and xenophobia, classism and family status discrimination—could have been addressed with organizational practices that are fair and inclusive of neurodiversity (and, more broadly, invisible and visible disability). Since then, I have analyzed hundreds of academic studies along with dozens of case studies, interviews, and social media threads. The pattern stands. If the air is good enough for the canaries, all will thrive.

Typical ills of unhealthy work environments, such as bullying, lack of transparency, and noisy open offices are more detrimental to autistic people than to the average person—to the point where they may become ill or completely excluded from work. More broadly, however, many aspects of toxic organizations are particularly problematic to autistic “canaries” and “finches” from other marginalized groups. Cutthroat environments, for example, are stressful for most people, but particularly disadvantage class migrants and those struggling with mental health. People with ADHD react strongly to injustice. The demand that in order to work one must learn to endure abuse and “leave your feelings at home” excludes those psychologically more vulnerable to stress, whether due to a disability, neurodivergence, the history of abuse, generational trauma, or the stress of multiple marginalizations.

On the other hand, accommodations essential for autistic people are most people’s desired benefits. For years, autistic and other neurodivergent people asked for flexible schedules and work-from-home to accommodate sensory sensitivities and co-occurring dyspraxia, which interferes with commuting. People with visible disabilities requested work from home as well. Most were denied, effectively barring many in the disability community from working. Then the pandemic made these “unreasonable accommodations” available to most office workers. It’s now clear that remote work has made Black employees and mothers of young children much more satisfied, and many came to see it as a key job-seeker requirement. Flexible work does not just make employees happier, it also tends to increase productivity—a win-win.

As another example, many autistic people were forced to quit their jobs because rigid and insufficient leave policies, inability to take breaks, and pressure to mask contributed to autistic burnout. But supportive leave policies are important for people with a range of visible and invisible disabilities and many others—in particular, parents.

Building back for the future of work—up to the Canary Code

The pandemic tested “standard” organizational practices, just like earthquakes and hurricanes test building codes. And the result is not pretty. But now we can seize the opportunity to redesign the workplace, and ensure that all can thrive. We can build non-toxic workplaces up to what I’ve termed “the Canary Code”— a principle that supporting the inclusion of the most marginalized talent supports all. In contrast, excluding “canaries” removes the “early warning” system, creates suboptimal work conditions, and endangers the wellbeing of all.

The canary code that I propose here is a specific form of design for the margin. It goes beyond the classic universal design with its focus on serving as many in the center as possible without the need for accommodations, which often leaves the most marginalized out. Design for the margin considers “special cases” first and, importantly, actively involves marginalized individuals in the design process, resulting in more inclusive solutions. These solutions are also more robust and resilient under unusual and disruptive circumstances. Like hurricanes. Or pandemics.  

An example of resilience stemming from designing for the marginalized is the success of Ultranauts, a software company with a 75% autistic workforce. Envisioned from the start to work for autistic employees, remote-first, flexible, and wellbeing-focused company did not have to scramble to adjust to the pandemic; it was able to thrive and grow, with hardly any disruption. Systems designed for the margin and with the active involvement of autistic employees proved remarkably resilient—and profitable.

Ultranauts and other companies focused specifically on neurominority hiring also improve the fairness and validity of employee selection. To ensure that communication differences of neurodivergent people do not obscure their talents, autism-inclusive companies, in particular, use a competency-based selection process focused on skills and learning, rather than personality or poorly defined “culture fit.” This approach is not only more fair to autistic applicants; it’s also likely to help discover talents in all groups impacted by negative stereotypes, and solve the talent problem, which in many organizations is a diversity problem.  

Another example of creating an inclusive system is Mother Superior, a venture and social purpose foundry dedicated to helping founders traditionally excluded from venture capital and specifically focused on employing and developing women. Both Mother Superior and Ultranauts practice inclusion by design focused on those who face obstacles in the traditional workplace, in ways that work for different types of employees. Both align organizational practices with human needs and wellbeing, including flexible arrangements for all employees, focus on outputs, and clear and transparent communication that also supports equity. Ultranauts posts minutes of all meetings. Mother Superior communicates titles and pay bands, fighting pay disparities with openness.

Truly inclusive organizations are designed from the margin.

Organizations designed from the margin can effectively welcome talent from many backgrounds, improve retention, and boost productivity. Designing for and with the marginalized simultaneously solves multiple problems—and it is not expensive to implement. In many cases, the solutions are free and require, more than anything, a good will, and inclusive thinking. 

Here are six key principles of the Canary Code for building non-toxic workplaces: 

Participation: Don’t try to design solutions for visibly and invisibly disabled people, neurodivergent people, those from marginalized cultures, who grew up in poverty, or others who experience life differently without their participation. Inviting people to design how they work also boosts productivity by up to 32%.

Focus on outcomes: People don’t rebel against honest work. People rebel against unreasonable requirements of seat time and face time when outcomes might be best accomplished flexibly and remotely. When work is focused on outcomes, higher performance and morale follow.

Flexibility: Procrustean limiting of work by time, place, and workstyle limits availability and diversity of talent you can attract and retain. Expanding flexibility even more, to include job matching to peoples’ unique strengths, job crafting, job-sharing, providing viable part-time options, and providing benefits that work for a wide range of life circumstances help marginalized talent thrive.

Focus on organizational justice: Marginalized groups are particularly sensitive to injustice, but humans, in general, are wired to desire justice and fairness. Organizational justice boosts positive behavior and organizational productivity across cultural contexts. Ensuring justice in hiring, pay, benefits, promotion, and the entire talent cycle builds strong cultures that retain talent. (The upcoming special issue of the Consulting Psychology Journal on disability inclusion that I guest edit provides much more detail.)

Transparency and clear communication: support the development of trust, or the rebuilding of trust damaged by prior exclusion or injustice. While essential for autistic people, who are often excluded by corporate doublespeak and byzantine politics, transparency also supports the bottom line by facilitating trust, reducing stress, and notably improving performance. Moreover, the alarm only works if you listen to people who sound it.

Valid tools for decision-making: Subjective and outdated selection practices and basing promotions on perceived “fit” with leadership stereotypes exclude neurodivergent talent, harm all marginalized groups, and narrow organizations’ talent pools. Maximizing organizational outcomes requires using work-related, valid, outcomes-focused approaches. Evidence-based practices are inclusive practices. 

Ludmila N. Praslova, PhD, SHRM-SCP, uses her extensive experience with global, cultural, ability, and neurodiversity to help create inclusive and equitable workplaces. She is a professor and director of Graduate Programs in Industrial-Organizational Psychology at Vanguard University of Southern California.