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Investigating toxic workplaces: what can UK employers learn from the allegations about BrewDog’s workplace culture?

Written by
Lewis Silkin, widely recognised as the UK’s leading specialist employment law practice.
Authors
Karen Baxter
Partner - United Kingdom
Lewis Silkin
Tom Heys
Legal Analyst - United Kingdom
Lewis Silkin
United Kingdom
06.07.21
3
In the wake of reports that craft brewers BrewDog have apologised for a problematic workplace culture in the wake of bullying claims, this article provides tips for UK employers on investigating allegations of workplace toxicity.
Act fast

When an allegation is made (whether publicly or not), the actions within the first 12 hours are critical. This is impossible to achieve unless you have a group of people in the business who are empowered to act, understand the risks, and know what is expected of them.

 

Often, serious allegations can cause ‘decision paralysis’ because a crisis scenario has never been worked through in advance. It leaves people scrabbling to gather their thoughts and create an action plan. Knowing who makes decisions and which external advisers to call upon is key.  It is also important to keep those who are accused of wrongdoing away from the process.

Impartiality is essential

Because ‘toxicity’ allegations are serious and usually wide-ranging, the investigation report needs to be seen as authoritative and truly impartial.  If the report is to be accepted, complainants need to have confidence in the impartiality of the investigator and know that the report will be much more than just froth. The investigator needs to have the trust of the complainants and be able to investigate without fear or favour.

 

Choosing the right investigator is important; the person needs to have appropriate experience and sufficient time to dedicate to the task.  It is generally best not to try to tackle this in house.

Investigate thoroughly

When complaints of a ‘toxic’ work environment are raised, one of the first things for an investigator to do is to try to get more information. Toxicity might involve anything including bullying, discrimination, intimidation, under appreciation, lack of trust, cover ups, or all of the above. The investigator will need to speak to those raising the complaints and potentially a wider sample of employees to find out more from them, often asking open questions about the workplace that they have experienced.

 

Although it can be widespread, ‘toxicity’ often exists in pockets, being caused by people holding power and wielding it inappropriately. There may be some preliminary interviews needed before an investigator is really able to understand the scale of the job involved.

 

The employer will need to decide who will be able to control the scope of the investigation: is it up to them or does the investigator have free rein?

Set the pace

When allegations of this nature are made, employers will understandably have a desire to want to fix things quickly. But there no quick fix in a situation like this. If an employer rushes a report out too soon, they risk being seen as not taking the allegations seriously. Conversely, the same can be said if an investigation moves too slowly and nothing seems to be being done; there is a risk of not prioritising the problem enough.

 

There is a need to balance speed and thoroughness, and it is important to find the sweet spot.

 

Toxicity is more than just the bad actions of some wrongdoers. It’s pervasive. A toxic culture continues to exist when there is the infrastructure to support it, so an investigation into toxicity will need to dig deep. As well as looking at particular incidents, it will need to look at the shared actions and values that are helping to support a toxic culture, and make recommendations for how they can be dealt with.

Learn the lessons and make changes

Once an investigation is complete, the report will likely make for very difficult reading. If the investigation has been done properly, it may have exposed incidents and behaviours that will have gone previously unknown. Equally, the findings may be critical about people who were once trusted individuals.

 

The findings will need to be addressed and so the investigation may lead to spin off disciplinary proceedings, potentially involving very senior figures in the business. The company needs to be willing to take the findings on board and act on them.

 

However, dealing with the bad behaviours of individuals is, in many ways, the easier problem to tackle. The much more difficult problem is bringing about a culture change. Shifting a workplace culture from one of fear and bullying to one of support and trust takes time, effort and leadership. Trust is easily lost, but difficult to rebuild.

Conclusion

When an employer’s culture is perceived or exposed as ‘toxic’, it presents an enormous challenge. But it’s a challenge that can be solved. With a proper investigation and action plan, the business can emerge better, stronger and reinvigorated, and can ensure that ale’s well that ends well.