Michael Cruz from Summer Friday tells us how to avoid a toxic workplace culture

Michael Cruz

Here at Business Leader, we recently spoke to Michael Cruz, Partner & Head of Content at advertising agency Summer Friday about how to avoid a toxic workplace culture and create a working environment where employee wellbeing is the priority.

What were you doing before you founded Summer Friday and what were your reasons for founding the company?

Before founding Summer Friday, the world was in a completely different state. COVID-19 had just ramped up, and talks of shutdowns were being heard nationwide. It was April 2020 when DRUM, the agency I’d worked to build, suddenly shut down. Countless employees across three cities learned over an email that they would no longer be employed. Our clients, with whom we had just began to establish solid relationships, were also told we would no longer be honoring our agreements.

I wish I could say this situation is rare for large agencies, or even unexpected, but unfortunately that’s not the case. Too many agencies fall by chasing profits while neglecting to build proper relationships that are sustainable amongst clients and even staff. As you can imagine, this type of structure is not something I want to be a part of again.

Summer Friday was born out of necessity and was built on the premise of care. The health, welfare, and protection of our employees and our clients are our north star, and the reason we stood up an agency in mere weeks at the height of national uncertainty.

What are the signs of a toxic workplace culture and how can companies avoid the creation of one?

Many would claim that toxicity is hard to identify, but I’ve learned through my experience that most toxic behaviors originate from fear. So, while I’m sure there are many indicators, fear is pervasive and a massive sign of a toxic workplace culture.

There’s fear to speak up, stand out, disappoint, or be rejected. Fear of being wrong, judged, manipulated, or used. You can quickly identify fear amongst employees, leaders, and even clients.

Each fear can highlight an area in the organization that’s in need of improvement. For example, if your team is afraid of speaking up, this may be a sign of management not being receptive, flexible, or collaborative.

From an organizational standpoint, there’s always an eagerness to dive into a solution and add process, without focusing on the core issues. Regardless of whether at work or in life, everyone has a need for connection, variety, significance, certainty, growth, and contribution. If we can focus efforts to ensure these needs, the outcomes become everlasting.

How has Summer Friday created such a positive workplace culture and what have been the benefits of this?

I’ve asked myself this question many times, and I’m just now starting to uncover the powerful and positive influence our collective traumatic experience has had on our team. At our previous agency, many of us were surrounded by fear, silenced by ego, and lacked connection, significance, or certainty with little to no opportunity for real growth, neither personal nor professional. Simply put, our needs were not met.

Summer Friday was built to meet those core needs and to go beyond career development into personal development. This truth has emboldened our team and given each of us a powerful voice at the table. We lead with empathy and train emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence is most often defined as the ability to perceive, use, understand, manage, and handle one’s own emotions, allowing us to properly observe, respect, and manage others. This has been the most effective approach toward creating a positive workplace.

The benefits have been tremendous. In just one year, we’ve grown our business exponentially and have built strong relationships with our clients and our team. We experience support, honest communication, authentic expression, and—best of all—no fear.

Are businesses with a toxic workplace culture sustainable, even during times when the economy is in a bit of a slump?

Working in a toxic environment is draining, inefficient, and demotivating, but getting a paycheck is still security that many will choose. I believe that companies with a toxic environment can and will survive this economic slump, but it will come at a high and unnecessary cost.

Loyalty is important, but the kind of loyalty that’s formed from a toxic environment is not healthy. Those organizations push out the talented, driven, motivated employees and end up with those who are not interested in solving problems, innovating, or doing any more than the job requires. While many businesses can function this way and be profitable, the bigger question becomes: why would they want to?

Perhaps the thought is that there is no simple roadmap to addressing all the festering issues, or that senior management doesn’t see the point since it doesn’t seem to affect profits. Whatever the excuse may be, I’m here to clearly state there is a shift that is happening. A shift in the way we consciously consume and the way we are choosing to work and live. So, my hope is that the day will come when businesses with toxic environments can no longer survive, even in the best of economies.

Do you believe the pandemic has accelerated a shift to more inclusive workplaces?

The pandemic has forced many companies to go fully remote or to adopt a hybrid model, broadening their search for talent. This has led to more diversity, while remote work has forced better communication and encourages autonomy. This autonomy in many ways has empowered people to focus on their mental health, work-life balance, and their overall needs.

Organizations with the proper leadership and mindset have evolved to respect the needs of their employees and have gone so far as to develop their own mindfulness practice. This form of leadership is exactly what allows for authenticity and ultimately brings with it a great level of diversity.