Each year, the Oxford English Dictionary selects a Word of the Year based on its ability to reflect the ethos of that year and its potential as a term of lasting cultural significance. Though previous words, such as “selfie” and “post-truth,” have revolved around politics or pop culture, the Word of the Year for 2018 could not be more relevant to business. After narrowing all of 2018 down to a few phrases and going through rounds of debate, Oxford has chosen a word that speaks to what we’ve gone through this last year and, more importantly, where we need to go. The Word of the Year 2018 is toxic.
With one word, Oxford called out the elephant in the room: toxic behavior has infiltrated the business world. Though initially used to describe the substances and waste generated by mass industry, more and more people in the world today use ‘toxic’ to describe workplace afflictions. As people in 2018 demanded safe and welcoming workplaces, denounced company leaders for enabling harassment, and took to protest in the Google walkouts, the world became awake to toxic work environments, toxic masculinity, and toxic culture. Regardless of fault, corporations have become a focal point of harmful behavior, and people are tired of it.
According to the Gallup 2018 Global Emotions Report, fewer and fewer people today are well-rested, respected, or finding enjoyment in daily life. Instead, they’re reporting record-high levels of worry, sadness, stress, and anger. As headline after headline hits businesses for the decisions they’ve made or the cultures they’ve enabled to fester, it’s important to recognize the financial and reputational costs of bad business. But to avoid future financial and reputational fallout, business leaders need to recognize the sheer anger emerging from consumers and workers, and the ways they communicate this through turnover, legal actions, and protest.
Companies need to recognize that we have ignored the ‘intangibles’ of business far too long. As scandals and bad press drive employee and consumer trust to record lows, priorities that once belonged solely to HR are moving to the core of executive strategy. This year, Oxford and Gallup made clear that the toxic behavior is spilling into global consciousness. Likewise, Deloitte and McKinsey have stated that CEOs need to prioritize social responsibility, diversity, and inclusion. Times have changed, and the way that businesses engage culture and ethics today will make or break how they perform tomorrow.
People are fed up with toxic behavior and looking for ways to trust businesses again. While 2018 was the year that the world began to speak up against toxic behavior, people will soon start asking what we do about it. In 2019, everyone from the consumer to the CEO will be looking for solutions that finally bring safety, responsibility, and trust back into business.
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December 31, 2020
December 10, 2019