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HR's Involvement with Toxic Cultures


Joanna Dodd Massey Ph.D., MBA


Career and Workplace

With over 25 years of experience in the media industry at companies, such as Conde Nast, Lionsgate, CBS, Viacom, Discovery and Hasbro, Joanna Dodd Massey, Ph.D., MBA is a C-level communications executive and Board Director. She has managed brand reputation, corporate turnaround, crisis communications and culture transformation. Currently, Dr. Massey is a communications consultant, as well as Founder & CEO of The Marketing Communications Think Tank. She is a corporate speaker and trainer, as well as author of the books, "Communicating During a Crisis," and "Culture Shock: Surviving Five Generations in One Workplace" (TVG Publishing, 2020).

Having worked at CBS, Viacom, Lionsgate, and Condé Nast, among others, I have a lot of experience with toxic workplace culture. I would say that there are no blanket answers to the questions about how HR is involved with creating or fixing a toxic workplace culture.


In some cases, HR departments can be incredibly effective at helping with a toxic workplace culture that involves bullying. It depends on the situation.

Look at Uber. The Founder/CEO was clearly a bully. His behavior became public, which then became untenable for the Board of Directors and the company, so he was fired. In this case, HR was eventually empowered to act once the Board of Directors was involved; however, Uber's HR department and other C-suite executives obviously let the Founder/CEOs bullying behavior go on for quite some time.


Social media has given employees a voice for activism against their bosses that workers have never had before. I recently wrote a blog post about it. Millennials and Gen Z also demand workplace well-being. It is very important to these two younger generations; therefore, their tolerance for workplace bullying is lower than that of previous generations, including Gen X and Baby Boomers.


I wouldn’t say that HR is responsible for the bullying across the board. In some cases, they may be and in other cases they may not be. I don’t believe that an outside HR company can be effective in this case. Many companies bring in management consulting firms, such as EY, Deloitte, BCG, and etc. These firms can be very helpful. However, if bullying is coming from the top, it is difficult for the CHRO—who reports into the CEO and was hired by the CEO—to stand up to that person. In many cases, the CEO has hired someone that he (or she, but let’s be honest, most CEOs are male) knows and trusts. It gets difficult in a business partnership, because these are partnerships, to go to your boss and say you’re a bully.


Bullying is industry agnostic. From media and technology to finance and healthcare, it happens in every industry across-the-board in the private and public sectors, since it also happens in the government.

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