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Do You Have a Toxic Culture Alarm System?

March 16, 2022

By Mary E. Corrado, courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

With the recent time change we were all reminded to check the batteries in our smoke detectors and carbon monoxide alarms.  But there is one alarm that many of us might not have or think about, and that’s a toxic culture alarm.  How are we warned if our organization’s culture is becoming toxic?

Ludmila N. Praslova, PhD SHRM-SCP, professor and director of graduate programs in industrial-organizational psychology at Vanguard University, recently wrote an article published on that outlines how important it is to have a toxic culture alarm system at work. She calls it the Canary Code – a principle that supporting the inclusion of the most marginalized, diverse talent supports all.

The Canary Code was named for the canaries that years ago warned coal miners that carbon monoxide was building up in the cave. Canaries are very sensitive to airborne poisons, so if the air became toxic, the canaries would get sick or die before miners were significantly affected. This gave the miners time to evacuate safely (and thankfully, with enough notice, to revive the canary).

Those in the autistic community are often called canaries since they are much more sensitive to the environment around them than the average person. Praslova explains that “I did not know there were others like me, with similar stories—hypersensitive pattern-thinkers. Women of my generation were unlikely to be recognized as autistic in childhood, and media misinformation delayed adult self-realization. Many of us discovered our neurodivergent identity and the rich culture associated with it much later in life.”

Overly sensitive employees like Praslova are often excluded from employment despite the fact that these “canaries” can be up to 140% more productive than typical employees, generate higher-quality creative and innovative thinking, and discover causes and effects that others miss.

Praslova explains that “excluding ‘canaries’ removes the ‘early warning’ system, creates suboptimal work conditions, and endangers the wellbeing of all.” Essentially, it disables the toxicity alarm.

How to implement the canary code – a toxic alarm system – in you organization:

  1. Participation: Allow your employees to design how they work. Everyone works differently and thrives in different environments. This can drive productivity up by 32%.
  2. Focus on Outcomes: Focus less on how and where the work gets done, and instead focus on the outcome of the work.
  3. Flexibility: When we think of flexibility most of us today think of work from home options, but it should go beyond that.  Consider each employee’s unique needs and design flexible job options around that.  Consider job sharing options, part-time options, and even flexible benefit options to meet each individual’s needs. Design flexibility around the diversity of your employees.
  4. Focus on Organizational Justice: When employees perceive injustice in the workplace, it can quickly become toxic. Ensure you have equality in pay, benefits, time off, promotion opportunities, etc.
  5. Transparency and Clear Communication: Trust is essential in the workplace and without it, toxicity occurs. Transparent organizations see less employee stress and improved performance.
  6. Valid Tools for Decision Making: Ensure that the tools you are using for decision making do not exclude the neurodiverse talent you have. Don’t make decisions based on a “perceived fit” with leadership. Avoid stereotyping when considering promotions and instead use evidence-based best practices.
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