Company Culture

Can a company recover from workplace toxicity?

Once toxic, it’s difficult to undo the harm. The first step, Mazzoni Center's new leader says, is to listen to those affected: "From there you can chart the path."

The first step to rectifying past organizational wrongs: listen.

(Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko from Pexels)

Written by Technically Media CEO Chris Wink, Technical.ly’s Culture Builder newsletter features tips on growing powerful teams and dynamic workplaces. Below is the latest edition we published. Sign up to get the next one.


The workplace toxicity at the Mazzoni Center has festered for years. Now, its case study for organizational leaders is emerging.

In 2017, sexual assault allegations and accusations of racial discrimination at one of the country’s oldest and largest LGBTQ health services nonprofits set off a chain of events that resulted in the departure of at least three C-level executives, staff walkouts and unionization. The weakened Philadelphia nonprofit was also hit by the pandemic badly — a third of its staff was furloughed and there were widespread pay cuts. The organization’s 2020 income was below $17 million, down from almost $19 million in 2019, according to its 990.

After a yearlong search and tortuous gossip about the decline of a once-great institution, Mazzoni argues it’s charting a new course. In January, the board announced its new president Sultan Shakir, a veteran of far smaller DC-based LGBTQ youth advocacy nonprofit SMYAL — which had $2 million in 2019 income, a tenth of the size of Mazzoni.

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Given Mazzoni’s dismal failings at many of the workplace priorities of the era — on communication, responsiveness and inclusiveness — an undertone of Shakir’s hiring is his identity. He’s a queer Black Muslim man who grew up in economically battered North Philadelphia. From Broad and Erie, teenage Shakir took the Broad Street subway line south to the city’s Gayborhood to find the first “out, proud gay Black men” of his life. One Mazzoni insider said the search committee called Shakir their “unicorn.”

He’s well-regarded and he boasts real outcomes from his time in DC — including establishing the organization’s first of several queer-focused youth homeless facilities. The Mazzoni job is a major promotion by many standards: the top job at a major institution with intricate and sensitive medical and health services.

“I met the kind of person who will drive from Connecticut past New York to come to Philadelphia because the care here is so comprehensive and culturally competent,” Shakir said of Mazzoni’s clients. His job is “matching the great care and the unmet expectations for community.” Many stakeholders, including current and former staff, remain traumatized, though.

He’s confronting on a grand scale something a growing number of leaders confront: What does it take for an organization to recover from controversy?

Tiny mistakes balloon when ignored over time. Companies employ flawed humans who cause irreparable harm. Unchecked bias and shifting landscapes can mean a treasured workplace can become toxic.

Once toxic, it’s difficult to undo the harm. The best most organizations accomplish is to clear out staff tainted by scandal, atone for sins (publicly, whenever possible), address core issues — and listen. What can Mazzoni teach the rest of us?

Shakir says he shares his email and phone number directly with stakeholders — and responds.

The first lessons predate Shakir’s hiring and are emblematic of the reckonings of recent years. Diversity of opinion is paramount, and leaders ignore employee criticisms at their own peril. No leader ought be defined only by their identity, but given Mazzoni’s dismal record on representation, Shakir’s lived experience gives him a shot at rebuilding trust.

He’ll only get there with real change. Shakir pledges a more comprehensive report on what has changed at Mazzoni since its abuses. One important early example Shakir cites is a clearer and better-vetted method for staff and clients to report concerns. Shakir says he shares his email and phone number directly with stakeholders — and responds.

This month Shakir begins a “listening tour,” which includes a series of meetings with current and former staff and clients, among other stakeholders.

“The first step is to find out how people are feeling about what happened and what is left resolved about what happened or what didn’t happen,” he said. “From there you can chart the path.”

One big lesson Shakir has already learned is the difference between personal and organizational responsibility. Nearly all of Mazzoni’s leadership has turned over from its damning cycle of turmoil. That means he can remind his team of an important point: “We did not commit this harm, but it’s our duty to make sure the organization takes responsibility for it.”

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