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This Open Letter From Apple Employees to CEO Tim Cook Is a Lesson in How to Humanize the Workforce

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Hearing what your employees have to say is the first step to fixing a broken culture. If Apple is to remain at the top, it should really start to listen.

After numerous failed attempts to address the toxic work culture at Apple, a collection of frustrated and fed-up employees published an open letter to CEO Tim Cook and the senior leadership team demanding change.

“Apple prides itself on its commitment to diversity, equity, and an environment where every person is able to do their best work; however, in practice, this is far from the case,” notes the letter.

In particular, the letter addresses issues ranging from sexual harassment and racial discrimination to the unlawful collection of personal data. This letter comes in the wake of Apple blocking a Slack channel created by employees to gather salary information to negotiate pay equity.

The cost of a toxic workplace culture

When employees feel exploited and disparaged, it can affect their mental and physical well-being inside and outside of work. These employees are more likely to experience an increase in burnout, insomnia, high blood pressure, and even hair loss. More so, workplace abuse can put employees at a significantly higher risk for depression and post-traumatic stress.

It can be tempting to gloss over these outcomes by viewing abusive workplace behavior as a small collection of “isolated incidents.” However, studies show that when an employee is subjected to abuse, it creates a ripple effect, encouraging them to pass that behavior on to those around them. In other words, one bad apple can ruin the whole bunch.

These consequences also mean bad news for the company’s bottom line. According to the CDC, depression costs employers between $17 billion to $44 billion each year, due to lost workdays. More so, studies show that 1 in 5 Americans have left a job due to a bad company culture. The cost of this turnover is an estimated $223 billion.

Where there’s a problem, there’s an opportunity to do better

Apple is often regarded as the bastion of top talent in the tech and design industry. Every company, even the Apples of the world, can’t hide from problems of bad leadership and exploitative work environments. Eventually, it’ll come up to bite you.

The story of Apple employee’s uprising should be treated as a cautionary tale for leaders in organizations big and small, and everything in between.

Try the following approaches to cultivate a culture where employees feel safe and accepted, so that they (and your company) can succeed on every level.

Naked opinions and the emperor’s new clothes

Have you ever been in a situation where someone made a comment you knew was offensive, but everyone else chuckled, so you laughed along, too? Chances are, the other people in the room had the same negative reaction you did, but because no one spoke up, it was assumed that everyone else found the comment acceptable. This is known as pluralistic ignorance.

Research shows that employees tend to assume that their colleagues endorse harmful and unkind norms significantly more than their colleagues actually do. This mistaken belief is what allows toxic workplace values to thrive, despite being wildly unpopular.

Your organization can reduce mind reading by creating fun opportunities for employees to bond. Note: Avoid “funishments” by asking employees what they would enjoy doing. Go deeper. If employees can form strong connections with each other, it will encourage them to share their true opinions and let them know they’re not alone. As history shows, this is often the first step to changing a broken culture.

(Psychological) safety first–always!Company cultures riddled with bullying and harassment discourage employees from speaking up and taking risks. In the battle to maximize innovation, these companies are stuck competing with one hand tied behind their back.

To avoid this disadvantage, create a culture where employees feel comfortable thinking outside the box and making mistakes without fear that others will mock them. This kind of environment is considered psychologically safe, and has been shown to be the number one determinant of a successful team.

Your organization can promote psychological safety by placing the responsibility on leaders to set an example. This can be done by encouraging your leaders to take the S.A.N.E approach:

  • Show appreciation: When employees speak up and share new ideas, publicly recognize and appreciate their effort.
  • Ask for feedback: Enthusiastically invite your team to challenge your perspective and provide feedback, while reminding them that it’s essential for your personal and team growth.
  • Nip negativity in the bud: Check that naysayers are coming from a place of concern and continually remind your team that negativity with no purpose won’t be tolerated.
  • Engage in self-awareness: Reflecting on how you like to communicate and approach problems (and encouraging your team to do the same) will help your team thrive, despite your differences.

Can’t change the person? Then change the system they’re in

While empathy and education can be effective tools, it may not be enough to change your company’s culture. That’s because the stereotypical “office bully” can often exhibit a collection of traits (e.g., preoccupation with power and lack of remorse) that fall under the personality disorder of psychopathy.

Since these individuals are largely unable to show empathy, pushing them to adopt a kinder and more inclusive approach doesn’t work. Instead, you can regulate their behavior through incentives.

Psychopaths tend to have a hyper-active dopamine system, making their brains hard-wired to seek rewards. You can use this to your advantage by implementing a program where employees are given the power to publicly recognize and compensate their peers. If psychopathic individuals notice their compassionate and well-liked colleagues being praised, it will motivate them to display similar behavior (even if they’re faking it) in effort to get that dopamine hit.

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