Leading sports brand Nike’s chief executive Mark Parker has held a rare meeting with his entire head-office staff base to apologise for the rise of a toxic workplace culture.

Parker – who has served as CEO since 2006 – has reportedly been upset by revelations about the growth of a ‘bro culture’ within the company, which first came to light when a group of female managers presented him with the results of a secret survey they had carried out among their female colleagues.

In one article on the scandal, a former employee is quoted as saying, “He’s one of the nicest, most genuine people I've ever met. To have him as the figurehead for this is so unfortunate. He’s so not one of the bros.” After receiving the secret survey results, Parker himself seemed mortified, saying: “It has pained me to hear that there are pockets of our company where behaviours inconsistent with our values have prevented some employees from feeling respected and doing their best work.”

One casualty of the furore is brand president Trevor Edwards – long considered Parker’s natural heir – who will be retiring in August. In a staff-wide email announcing Edwards’ impending departure, Parker gave little doubt as to the extenuating circumstances, writing: “We are going to be doing a comprehensive review of our HR systems and practices along with elevating our complaint process for matter[s] of respect issues.

“We will increase and invest more heavily in our diversity and inclusion teams and networks and additionally will immediately put in place an enhanced process to encourage our employees to speak up and make their voices heard.”

Clearly, Parker is as surprised as anyone about the decline of workplace standards at the firm he has run for 12 years. So what can leaders do to spot the warning signs of toxic behaviour and nip it in the bud?

The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy & standards Kate Cooper says: “One thought that occurs to me about this story as a general point is whether behavioural standards in the workplace are slipping, or if in fact the bar is now being raised, because it’s becoming more and more acceptable to report upon incidents of misconduct. Another is that perhaps it’s unrealistic for us expect Parker to know about everything that goes on in such a large organisation as Nike, as though nothing would be kept from him.”

Cooper explains: “when you have multiple reporting lines and various policies and procedures governing how complaints are escalated, there are bound to be filters going all the way up through the organisation. So, while Parker himself may be surprised, I’d be willing to bet that not many employees further down the ranks are. And that is one of the biggest flaws that can creep into large organisations.

“One contingency against that type of cultural rot is to create an environment in which it’s okay to have frank, open and honest discussions about these matters. That will instantly open up all sorts of opportunities for senior figures to tune into – and listen to – informal commentary at grassroots level about how the organisation works… or doesn’t. It is through those informal channels that so much tends to be given away, or exposed.”

Cooper notes: “keeping an eye on emerging types of humour is a useful indicator. What makes people laugh in an organisation when their guards are down will give leaders a strong insight into what groups of workers consider acceptable. Plus, never underestimate the value of role-modelling: exhibiting behaviours that are respectful, steering clear of any that aren’t – and being willing to challenge unacceptable behaviours yourself, so that the seeds of toxicity never have a chance to germinate into an endemic malaise.”

She adds: “deal with it head-on. Don’t just think, ‘Oh, they probably didn’t really mean that’, and walk away with a shrug. Intention is not important here. What matters is the impact that unacceptable behaviour has upon those within in its orbit. And that’s why it must be talked about and challenged.”

For further thoughts on ethical leadership, check out these learning resources from the Institute

Image of Nike ‘swoosh’ courtesy of pixfly, via Shutterstock