Six months back you landed your dream job, the pay was great with an incredible job profile and a company brand name to match. Now you are not sure what you have gotten yourself into. You are perpetually asking yourself – should you continue or quit? You are asked to compromise personal values on a daily basis for showing loyalty to your boss and company. The situation that you are in, is not out of the best practices of human resource management or ethical culture, you have joined a dysfunctional organization. Putting it another way, an organization with a deviant corporate culture.
Employees face incredible personal and professional risks on joining an organization with a deviant culture. On the face of it, initially, everything looks unbelievably good. As the layers are peeled off, the employees feel they are in a sinister environment and are swallowed in quicksand. The walls of silence maintained ensure that employees do not discuss these concerns openly and fear of retaliation forces them to comply. Employees deceive themselves into believing that these unethical activities they are doing are just for a short time, and the situation will improve in a short while. A cold hard look is required in such circumstances, to understand the symptoms and take a decision.
The paper “Organi-cultural Deviance: Socialization of Individuals into Deviant Culture”, describes the process of individual indoctrination into the culture. A new employee goes through five stages of socialization into the workplace according to Wanous research. These are:
a) confront the reality of the new job –newcomers adjust their expectations to the reality of the job;
b) achieve role clarity-newcomers learn and negotiate the expectations and requirements of their roles in the organization;
c) locate oneself in the organization-newcomers learn how their work contributes to the work of the organization;
d) assess success-newcomers assess the value of their contributions to the organization; and
e) during the stages of socialization, the individual learns the language of the organization.
The above mentioned process is adopted by employees in a regular organization in the probation period, that varies from 3-6 months in most companies. In a deviant organization culture, the employee starts feeling the social pressure to comply to unethical practices and lose individual identity in this period. The process of indoctrination describes how the individual “self” is socialized into a deviant organization culture. The stages are as follows:
1) Stage I - In normal course of action, an individual has various separate identities, that they maintain to lead a fulfilling life. For instance, the employee has a work identity, a social identity, a family identity etc. In a deviant organization, these identities are slowly stripped away, and the employee is completely dependent on the organization identity. The employee is lured by big rewards to compromise their individual identity for the organization.
Since, the employee is still in probationary period, the fear of job loss makes them succumb to group think. The organization or group attempts to brain wash the individual by giving justification of the behavior for altruistic purposes. For instance, they will ask to humiliate or harass another person or employee, to improve the harassed person’s behavior. The justification given will be that it is for the betterment of the victim, rather than accepting that they are indulging in socially unacceptable behavior. Further on, they are asked to indulge in degrading activity for the sake of fun. In the book “The Wolf of Wall Street” Jordon Belfort describes activities at Stratton. He mentioned that seniors in the company had free for all sex discussion in the morning meetings and to boost morale arranged depraved acts. For example, in one case, they cut hair of female employee with her agreement in the conference room. Women employees especially have a tough time as they are mostly treated as sex objects.
2) Stage II - In this phase the employee becomes dependent on the organization and the psychological chains tighten. The idea initially sold to the individual is that the group has an altruistic purpose and is for the benefit of the society. The individual is forced into thinking that the rules of the group must be obeyed at all personal costs and no dissenting views are permitted. Employees are rewarded amply for complete compliance and punished severely for disagreement and disobedience. The individual is encouraged to share vulnerabilities and weaknesses with the group, and these are used to exact compliance to group. Simultaneously, fear and threat are used if an individual wishes to leave the group. The group follows its own code of conduct and uses loaded language and signs to communicate.
In this situation, the individual is indirectly commanded to put his/her personal and family needs over the group or organization. An article of Vanity Fair titled “Lehman’s Desperate Housewives” narrates the situation from Vicky Ward’s book -”The Devil’s Casino: Friendship, Betrayal, and the High Stakes Games Played Inside Lehman Brothers“ at Lehman before collapse. It says -
“Lehman Brothers C.E.O. Dick Fuld expected his top executives to get married, and stay married. For their wives, the firm was both fishbowl and shark tank, with unwritten rules about the clothes they wore, the charities they supported, and the hikes they took at the company’s Sun Valley retreats.
One of the senior executives wife described her child delivery with these words -
“I was in labor with our daughter and had to lie there without him … but I wouldn’t get mad at him—he had called the entire Hong Kong office in for a meeting. We knew that it would have been used against him. If you made a personal choice that hurt Lehman, it was over for you.”
Stage III – In the last stage, the indoctrination is complete. The individual’s motivation, judgments and perceptions are transformed as the person becomes a member. The individual derives his identity from the group or organization and opinions from outside the group are completely discarded. Any information that contradicts the groups perception is considered harmful for group unity and the sender/ giver of the information is attacked. The individual has no freedom of action and blindly obeys instructions of the group. Unfortunately, the leaders and existing members of the group have so ingrained the thought pattern of socially and psychologically harmful behavior that they lose insight of right versus wrong.
For instance, as in the case of Enron or the more recent “News of the World” phone hacking scandal, seniors knew of the unethical and fraudulent activities being conducted in the organization. Some even know the details but will not take any concrete action to bring change.
Whether this culture sets in large organizations or small social groups, the psychological pattern is established for deviant behavior. The longer the person is a member of the group, the less probability exists of the person being able to see a true reflection of themselves. All inputs from group outsiders of logical, rational and socially acceptable behavior are disregarded and members adopt a posture of willful blindness. The members continue to compromise their morals for financial, physical and social security.
Deviant cultures are set up by leaders in powerful positions with derailment attributes. However, once the culture is established in a social or corporate organization, it is hard to re-establish normal behavior patterns. People have a choice to either comply or be isolated. To avoid the social, physical and financial threats most compromise their morals and show unquestioning alliance to the more powerful people. Either an internal revolution by the members or intervention from external parties can break the psychic trap established in such organizations. An individual’s best option is not to join such a group or organization, and if they have mistakenly joined it, leave at the earliest possible point. Else, the life course for unethical and criminal behavior is established without a return ticket.