EthicalVoices

What To Do If You Are In a Toxic Workplace – Thomas Bennett III

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Joining me on this week’s episode is Thomas Bennett III. He is a collaborator who has built a solid reputation for having the highest levels of integrity, and being an innovative and strategic thinker. In this interview, we discussed Thomas’ personal views, which may not reflect the company he works for or the organizations he’s affiliated with. He currently serves as director of marketing operations at Parkland Community Health Plan, a division of Parkland Hospital & Health System in Dallas, Texas area.

Specifically, Thomas discusses:

Why don’t you tell us about yourself and your career?

I’m originally from Little Rock, Arkansas. I graduated from Fisk University, which is a HBCU in Nashville, Tennessee. Majored in English. I also have my MBA from Belhaven University, and I am currently working towards and studying for my APR certification. I’ve been in the corporate space for a little bit over 18 years now. I began my career in PR, then sales, and have been doing marketing in the healthcare space for the past 12 years for different companies.

I am currently President-Elect of PRSA Dallas, which is a nonprofit member, volunteer-based organization. The chapter has been around for a little over 70 years now, and I’m the chapter’s first black man to be President-Elect this year and President in 2022. I always like to give a little bit about myself personally, but also professionally. I have been married to my wife for 13 years, proud Eagle Scout, very proud military veteran. And in my downtime, I love running and cycling.

Thinking about your career, what is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?

Ethics is a very important topic that should be discussed more in corporate and business in general. When I think of this topic, it automatically brings me to unethical practices that happened at Enron, Lehman Brothers, and WorldCom. You and I both know that ethical issues can range anywhere from unethical leadership, to toxic workplace culture, to discrimination and harassment, to unrealistic and conflicting goals, and even questionable use of company technology. I think that companies that are led by unethical leadership are more often than not plagued by toxic workplace culture.

Many years ago, I worked in a very high-pressure environment for a particular company. The vice president over the team was very demanding and disrespectful. It would seem to spread to other leaders on his team, who coincidentally exhibited some of the same behaviors as the VP in addition to borderline bullying. It was a very uncomfortable and tough environment to work in, especially when you consider the number of meetings that were going on throughout the week. Sometimes, the president of the company was sitting in on these meetings and would watch this go on, and sometimes exhibited those same behaviors. A toxic culture like this worsens by continuously hiring people who have this like-minded personality and these toxic types of mentalities.

How do you fight back against a toxic culture? When you see your company starting to go down that toxic road, what’s the advice you’d give to communication professionals?

In this situation, one of the things that I did not do at the time because I was very young in my career, was speak up. And I think that’s the biggest lesson that I learned in that particular situation that I carry with me now is regardless of your job (PR, communications, marketing, finance, HR) you should speak up. At that particular time, the reason that I didn’t was because I feared losing my job. I was concerned about the implications of going to my boss and HR. But it just truly stemmed from just fear of losing my job, and not knowing what would happen after that.

But I’ve always felt that one of the basic characteristics that lingers and is being smart in all of those things. I think that’s one of the things that is lacking these days is respect. Ethics being ethical, and being also respectful. I know that’s easier said than done, and it’s two fundamental things. But you don’t see that quite often in terms of what you see being displayed on national news media recently these days.

You make a lot of key points. One that really resonates with me is the need to speak up immediately. I’ve talked to others, like Mark Cautela over at Harvard Business School about it. If you don’t do it the first time, it gets tougher because you’ve tacitly endorsed it, or you feel like you’ve tacitly endorsed it by not speaking out initially.

Exactly.

You mentioned that you’re seeing unethical behavior spread. What else should we be doing as communicators? Is there training you’re recommending, or something else?

Exactly. I think in many companies HR is having various different trainings, regardless of if it’s sexual harassment training, ethical training, or diversity and inclusion training. That’s one kind of fundamental thing that companies can definitely do. I know oftentimes, employees complete the training, but they’re just going through it and it’s just a motion. Companies do these things for a very specific reason to avoid unethical things happening within the workplace. But I think training is one of those key things that companies should require their employees to take.

One of the things I say is unfortunately too often the ethics training happens once a year, and it’s like taking a vitamin once a year. It doesn’t really do you much good. You need to do it on a regular basis, and make it a part of team meetings, and discussions, and town halls, and just reinforce it every day and every week.

Exactly.

Beyond your personal experience, what are you seeing as some of the key ethics challenges facing public relations professionals today and tomorrow?

Specific to the public relations space, I wholeheartedly believe that the challenges this year and perhaps even long-term revolve around couple of things – Information/misinformation, selective truth-telling, transparency, confidentiality, and verifying information and facts. Our very own Public Relations Society of America, or PRSA defines PR as a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and the public.

When you get to the kind of bare bones of it, PR professionals have a really huge responsibility in presenting facts, being transparent, and verifying information when we’re presenting it to the general public in a press release, on social media, in articles, or any other type of communication. I think this information, misinformation, transparency, confidentiality, and verifying information and facts are some key PR ethics challenges for today and tomorrow.

You mentioned a number of topics there, and I want to drill down on confidentiality. How do you handle the conflicting duties when you have confidential information and you feel that not acting on it may be unethical? What’s your advice to somebody in that situation?

That’s a really tough thing. When it comes to maintaining the confidentiality of a person, it’s really, truly upon you to keep things confidential. You may phrase things to protect the person and then also the company. For example, if you have to withhold their name for confidentiality reasons … you may not say John Doe’s name, but you may reference it as, “A source close to the situation has informed me.”

You’re involved in the healthcare industry, and I’m working with one of the states on their COVID response. People always want more information and we can’t share it because of HIPAA rules. How do you handle those situations when people want information from the hospitals, but you’re not allowed to give it?

Typically, we always refer to why we can’t give or provide that information. And it’s strictly because of HIPAA rules and policies. For the most part professionals in the space completely understand that it’s to protect the privacy of a patient, or a family member, or a friend depending upon what the scenario is. I think most people in the media and the general public typically tend to understand that we’re trying to protect the patient and their family.

What are you seeing as some of the best practices for ethical transparency?

It’s interesting that you bring up transparency. We talk about issues with how we present facts, but there’s also the greater context to any given story. I think that sometimes we have to present both. It’s one thing to present actual facts of the story, but I think you have to also tell kind of the greater context of the story as well. That equates to me in terms of being transparent.

One of the things that my parents told me many years ago, and I’ve always kept it with me, is to just be honest. Sometimes it’s going to really suck saying, “Here’s the bottom line and the truth of the matter.” But it will definitely save you down the line, and it sometimes baffles me how people lack that a lot these days. It can save you so much in the corporate world if you are honest. There’s a way to resolve a lot of issues and challenges that may arise when you can just do one thing, and that’s be honest.

I think some people are not comfortable saying, “I don’t know,” because they don’t want to seem to not be the smart counselor or appear that they’re not on top of things. My preferred response in those situations is to say “I don’t know. Let me check into this, and get back to you quickly.”

Right. Right.

Are there other areas you’re concerned about regarding ethics?

I think that there’s two other areas that should be PR profs and communicators should address more.

First, how we’re advising leaders within our respective companies. And second, offering authentic context.

When advising company leadership, PR and communications professionals face an extremely important ethical issue. We can be placed sometimes in situations of having to talk to executive leaders in the company about how they are violating the core values of a company just to give an example.

My wife always says I’m the king giving analogies and examples, so here’s one kind of example of that scenario.

Let’s say the CEO of a company is thinking about reducing employees’ hours so they don’t qualify as full-time employees and they essentially will not receive benefits. As a PR person, you should point out this unethical decision to the leader and raise the issue of how the media, press, and general public will judge that leader’s decision.

When I discuss offering authentic context. What I mean by that is PR and communicators offer more than just the facts, but the context of the story. Simply put, we have to better explain to readers and the audience why an event has importance, and/or why leadership of the company took a particular stance on an issue.

I think that’s where people get into trouble sometimes, because they want to spin it. I like to say framing is good, spinning is bad. Background is important but if you try to put too positive a light on something that’s really a negative story, PR people can get into trouble.

I 100% agree.

I love the example you gave about the restructuring of time to make people part-time employees. I always use this as an example in my BU ethics class. I always point out depending on how you look at it ethically from a teleological, deontological, or a virtue-based approach, you may come to very different conclusions. And that’s where the ethical dilemmas really come in is people can be doing things to what they think are the right reasons, and may make sense for them ethically. But you got to point out how other people can see that as an unethical act.

You have to look at the holistic picture. How that’s perceived internally, and then how the general public will perceive it. But it’s not just about the perception. It’s just about doing what’s right and being honest about it. And I’m sure there are people who were probably in that meeting when that was mentioned that wanted to say something and didn’t, and it was probably a myriad of different fears that they had in terms of not speaking up and saying anything.

What is the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?

I always kind of refer back to my childhood, and how I was raised by my mom and dad, Tom and Christine Bennett. My dad’s a military veteran. He was in for over 25 years. And my mom was a very hard worker. A solid person. Just an overall genuine person. And they’re Christian believers, and they always believed and instilled in both me and my two sisters to be honest and good people.

But it goes without saying that anyone who is ethical should also be honest. Honesty is one of those very important things that any effective ethical leader has to have, because employees can trust honest and dependable leaders. Ethical leaders give context and facts transparently no matter how unpopular they may be. That’s the best piece of ethical advice I’ve ever been given, and have always tried to keep that with me and model some of those same behaviors to staff and employees that I manage and work with. I always try to model that behavior to others as well.

Is there anything I didn’t ask you, Thomas, that you wanted to highlight?

I think ethics is a very important topic that should be discussed more and incorporated in business today. We’ve seen a lot of these kinds of unethical situations happen in the workplace that have played out in the media, like I mentioned earlier with Enron, and Lehman Brothers, and WorldCom

Listen to the full interview, with bonus content, here:

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Mark W. McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA, is the general manager of C+C's Boston office. C+C is a communications agency all about the good and purpose-driven brands. He has more than 20 years of tech and fintech agency experience, served as the 2016 National Chair of PRSA, drove the creation of the PRSA Ethics App and is the host of EthicalVoices.com

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