How To Overcome A Toxic Leader: Lessons From Southern Poverty Law Center

1. Audit leadership. It was reported that a number of individuals who worked at the organization witnessed Dees making lewd and inappropriate remarks to female employees. With all of these claims, there should have been some concrete actions taken toward Dees by the organization. Dees was able to continue his behavior because he may have felt he could get away with it and it appears as though he did not face any repercussions. Companies must take frequent audits of the leaders within the organization to ensure that situations like this are not occurring. An audit could range from evaluating the critical feedback given to the manager or any claims made against the leader by employees. If there is a pattern of problematic behavior, HR should consider necessary course(s) of action to take.

2. Assess the diversity climate. For an organization that focuses on teaching tolerance and fighting against inequities, it is particularly crucial to practice what you preach. Conducting frequent assessments of the climate within the organization can allow leaders to gain a deeper understanding of areas that show room for improvement. Employees can complete an anonymous survey in which they answer a series of questions aimed at examining the diversity climate within the organization. There are other metrics that employers can assess, including retention rates, exit-interview data, and amount of grievances and complaints filed, which can be used as indicators of the company’s general regard for diversity. Claims have been made that the SPLC was tampering with exit-interview data, which may signify that there was an awareness of the toxic work culture at the organization. Exit-interview data is rife with important information about the diversity climate and should be examined extensively.

3. Acknowledge and take ownership of any wrongdoing. Organizational leaders should take ownership of wrongdoing in the midst of a public scandal. Research indicates that a full apology is the most effective way to alleviate public anger. In the aforementioned study, researchers defined a full apology as one in which a leader takes “active responsibility and

high sympathy.” Leaders should do so in apology statements to increase effectiveness and reception of their message. In addition to cutting ties with toxic leaders, it is important for companies who find themselves in these situations to issue a heartfelt and sympathetic apology, while also including steps for how they will rectify the situation. Companies may want to look to Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson for advice on this. Johnson issued a well-written apology on behalf of Starbucks detailing how the organization planned to move forward following an April 2018 incident. It’s understandable that companies will make mistakes and have missteps but a lack of acknowledgment or awareness can cause the issue to snowball. Taking ownership of the error can help an organization begin to make the necessary steps towards change.

I am a TEDx speaker, diversity and inclusion consultant, and professor, located in the New York City area. Connect with me on LinkedIn and visit my website at