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Fostering a Culture of Accountability at Small Breweries

The recent outpouring of stories about sexism and harassment makes it plain that breweries must do more to cultivate environments where people look out for each other. Here are concrete suggestions from experts on how to get there.

Kate Bernot May 24, 2021 - 11 min read

Fostering a Culture of Accountability at Small Breweries Primary Image

As allegations of sexual harassment, misconduct, and abuse rocked the brewing industry in May, small breweries around the world pledged to do better to create inclusive, safe environments.

Next question: How?

In the Craft Beer & Brewing® Magazine Brewing Industry Guide, we previously published guidance on how small breweries can enact policies and practices that can help avoid harassment incidents in the first place, noting that fun, casual workplaces with readily available alcohol are often the most vulnerable. However, any business will find such anti-harassment policies to be more effective when supported by a culture of accountability that ensures safety, dignity, and opportunity for all employees.

The term “culture” can sound vague and nebulous. But Dr. J. Jackson-Beckham, principal of Crafted For All—a consultancy that helps beverage businesses become more inclusive, equitable, and just—says culture is practically built and made every day. According to Jackson-Beckham, workplace culture is made up of two components: policies and values.

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“Policies are the rules and the norms, whether written or unwritten,” she says. “In addition to those, there’s a set of beliefs, values, or rationalizations and thinking that support and sustain those policies.”

Here, Jackson-Beckham and Joshua Lance, CEO of Table HR—a provider of independent human-resources services to food and beverage companies—share steps for building a culture of accountability that reinforces your brewery’s existing policies.

Make Culture a Daily Practice

For an anti-harassment or anti-discrimination policy to be more than a dusty document in a binder, company leaders need to draw tangible connections between policy and practice. Too often, employees hear about a company’s values and beliefs during the onboarding process … and then never again.

“We’re seeing this play out right now,” Lance says. “You had breweries that may have had these [policies] in place, but then ignored them and didn’t bring them up again. They’ve got the policy in place; they kind of put it in a book, close the book, and move on.”

Jackson-Beckham recommends periodic refreshers on company anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policy, whether verbal or via small videos. These refreshers should be clear, applicable to daily work in the brewery, and should take into account that individuals have different learning styles. Some might prefer an online video; others might prefer a group discussion.

Regardless of their format, these refreshers should connect policy to company values and beliefs. It’s not just a matter of the policy existing, but employees need to understand why it exists and what that means for a brewery. Most people do not become who they are by reading books or listening to lectures; they learn from the norms, behaviors, and speech of the culture around them.

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Connect the Dots

Explicitly making a connection between a brewery’s mission and employees’ behavior is critical, Jackson-Beckham says. It makes a handbook more than a compliance document; it makes it something people believe in.

“It’s an especially important piece for leaders specifically,” she says. “They have to connect [the] dots between this piece of policy, this piece of training, this particular outcome, and this way that you do your job.”

This means making the abstract tangible and applicable to an employee’s job function.

“Everyone sees the grand picture and the corporate values on their first day,” Jackson-Beckham says. “But it’s really about doing it on the micro level and saying, ‘By the way, when you do this, that’s because of this, and the end result is this.’”

Breweries often fall into a trap she calls “task-cicity”—a play on “toxicity”—which is “the condition of being absolutely obsessed with tasks that have immediate and tangible outcomes.” Building and reinforcing culture unfortunately doesn’t have an end date or deliverable; it’s a constant process with a moving goal line. That’s difficult for many leaders to prioritize, but, as Jackson-Beckham puts it—and as the industry has seen firsthand—“the cost of not doing it can be absolutely catastrophic.”

Promote Accountability as Positive, not Punitive

In the context of an outpouring of sexual harassment and abuse claims, calls for accountability have taken on an aura of retribution. Both Jackson-Beckham and Lance say that this shift obscures the positive and proactive effects that building a culture of accountability have on a company.

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“When people think of accountability, it’s like, ‘Let's bring up people’s wrongs and hold them to account,’” Lance says. While that can be part of a culture of accountability, it’s not the full picture. “Accountability is not just getting people on their ‘wrongs,’ but it’s getting people on their ‘rights’ and saying, ‘Hey, you stepped up and lived our core value,’ or ‘You lived out that policy we just talked about.’”

Except in the most serious circumstances, most workplace situations are teachable moments, Lance says. Let’s say there’s an incident where a manager asks a customer to leave after that customer directs inappropriate comments to a bartender. That’s a moment for the brewery staff to meet as a team and discuss how policies and values were put into practice and where there could have been opportunities to do even better.

“When I talk about accountability, I like to talk about it as a performance of responsibilities and expectations,” says Jackson-Beckham. “I love the idea of understanding that accountability is about the realization of potential, about the fulfilment of expectations.”

When an employee meets or exceeds expectations, that’s a moment to touch on a culture of accountability. On the opposite end, when an employee fails to meet expectations, that’s a moment that requires them to be held accountable for the mistake.

Prevent the Expectational Void

Of course, employees can’t meet or exceed expectations for behavior if those expectations aren’t clear. Jackson-Beckham says there should be no uncertainty when it comes to what behavior—from staff, vendors, and customers—is in line or out of line with company policy and values. Policy and values should be communicated clearly and practically so that they can be applied to situations including the taproom, events, festivals, production areas, collaboration brew days, and so on.

“How can you be accountable for expectations and benchmarks that are not clearly articulated to you?” Jackson-Beckham asks. She urges breweries to create “logodynamic” cultures in which communication flows up and down as well as horizontally across tiers of the organization, inviting feedback and specific questions. “If all we say to each other is ‘You are expected not to harass people,’ that is not a terribly logodynamic environment that allows people to be accountable, to fulfill their potential, to reach expectations.”

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When expectations aren’t clearly articulated, employees will fill them with their own assumptions and norms. Employees should know exactly what type of behavior and speech is acceptable and in line with company culture and values, and what is not. They should also have a venue to ask those questions if they’re uncertain.

“When you have a whole organization of people filling this culture vacuum with whatever the hell they want to, you can get this very dysfunctional environment,” she says.

Create a System that Doesn’t Entirely Funnel to Owners

So, what if owners are indifferent to issues of harassment or discrimination? Or what if owners are the problem? These questions have also been at the heart of the recent reckoning in the brewing industry, and in a sense, they are somewhat unique to brewing.

Notably, the brewing industry has a high percentage of owners relative to its overall workforce. In most other fields, companies tend to be much larger, with a higher ratio of employees to owners. This aspect of the craft brewing shapes the way it thinks about worker protections, Jackson-Beckham says.

In small breweries, where there might be only one owner and a handful of employees, it’s critical that there are other avenues for handling sensitive feedback that don’t channel directly to the owner.

As Lance explains, that what services such as Table HR do: They act as the third-party, external HR contact for small hospitality companies. Table HR provides its clients’ employees with a hotline number that they can call or text to share concerns or issues—either with their names attached or anonymously. That feedback can then inform a conversation between Table HR and owners that addresses issues from a more neutral perspective.

Think Proactively

Lance says that while conflict management is obviously part of what human resources does, he’d like to see the perception of the field shift from one of fear—“Oh no, I have to talk to HR”—to one that sees human resources as a tool. Third-party human resources, by virtue of being external to the company, would ideally be seen as a more neutral party.

“You don’t just have to go to HR with major, serious issues,” Lance says. Raising concerns before they escalate can help raise early flags and, ideally, avert crises. “If you have a coworker and you’re just not hearing each other or you’re having a conflict, that’s what HR wants to hear about. Let’s get some help there.”

Jackson-Beckham also says breweries should begin to think of good human resources as more than a protection against lawsuits or scandals.

“If you are only looking through the lens of legal and [revealing] legal exposure, you have not taken care of your people,” she says. “This is so important in what’s going on right now because the legal environment has such a strong impact on how we’re thinking about things. We need that to be, like, the starting point.”

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