Every workplace builds and nurtures a culture unique to its leaders, employees, and purpose. But regardless of the team you belong to, building relationships is one key element that must never be forgotten. Tiffany Castagno, CEO and Founder of CEPHR, LLC, joins Dr. Kevin Sansberry II to discuss why toxic working environments can always be abated by genuine connections and integrity. She talks about how having the desire to serve others no matter what it takes leads to healthier teams. Tiffany also explains why toxic workplaces are not necessarily caused by the leaders themselves but by unfair policies instead.
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Dr. Kevin Sansberry II is a behavioral scientist and executive coach with expertise in toxic leadership, human capital strategy, and creating inclusive cultures of belonging to enhance organization performance. Over the years, Kevin has focused on providing research-informed solutions in various settings such as higher education, nonprofit, sales, and corporate environments.
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Transformation Through Relationships with Tiffany Castagno
Our show is with Tiffany Castagno. She is an HR Consultant who supports businesses to build strong brands and organizational cultures. We had an excellent conversation about why it’s important to leverage relationships as we look to transform organizations. I am super excited for you to join me to learn about her journey and experience. Let’s get to it.
Welcome to the show. We have Tiffany Castagno. How are you?
I’m doing well. How are you, Kevin?
Fabulous. I’m really excited to have you here. Some of the work you’ve done, I’ve seen on LinkedIn and I’m looking at how you are curating yourself to be able to evolve the HR professional practice. I’m just so excited for the audience to learn a little bit more about your approach and how you contribute to the world.
Thank you so much for this opportunity. I can’t wait to just dive in and start this conversation.
One of the things that we start with before jumping to work is we jump to the person. I’d really love for the audience to get a little bit of insight about who you are and what brings you to work.
I’m CEO and Founder of CEPHR LLC. I’d like to share what that acronym is because it means something to me. It was a journey to figure out what I was going to name this business. I wanted some cute HR title, but then I realized there are not enough people who look like me, as women, as people of color, so I really leaned in hard to CEO.
This firm is supporting small to medium enterprises. The sentimental value for me of calling it CEPHR, which is the acronym for Cultivating the Evolution of Professional HR is because HR has been on its own journey. We’re not always celebrated and elevated. People are afraid of us, they run the other way when we come, and I really wanted this to be about we’re not just the rubber stamp and papers anymore. We are strategic.
Strategy is one of my greatest gifts. I love creating those experiences with clients, helping them build their teams and cultures, cultures where people want to stay, and their brands. What’s their personal and professional brand. I’m based in Pittsburgh, but I’m originally from Milwaukee, so I am a Packers fan for life. I enjoy serving my clients. I’ve been doing this for years and I serve clients nationally.
Before you started growing a firm, were you in HR originally? Is that where you cut your teeth a little bit in your career?
I was. I go back and forth between whether I’ve had 2 or 3 careers because I had a medical billing career for a while and then I transitioned to legal billing. I count those as two separate careers and then I grew my career journey. I found that I wasn’t having the best experience with employers that I wasn’t getting empathy and follow-up support. I was like, “There has to be more to the employee experience in this,” so I decided to check out this little thing called HR.
I went to school and I was hired by a small trucking company. That is where I finally got the experience and somebody to let me in the door because it was very hard to get in, but that’s where I had my first toxic work experience. Everything I’ve done since then has been to build upon and make the workplace not toxic for people.People need to have a high IQ to be able to serve others and build relationships. Click To Tweet
That jumps into my next question. I appreciate you sharing that because when we talk about toxic leadership behavior and toxic work cultures, talk to me a little bit more about your experience.
The disappointment that I felt and the emotional turmoil that I went through. I was only at this employer for three months. For whatever reason, my manager did not like me. I couldn’t do anything right. She scrutinized my work. She blocked me from talking to people and other people from talking to me, and she would follow me around to make sure we had two levels in this workplace. If I went upstairs to talk to a coworker, even if it was work-related, she would have an issue with that. I couldn’t do anything right, so I would try to confide in some of my coworkers, then that became a problem because she said I was causing drama. All of these things happened in a three-month span.
I’m very young in my career. I just got out of school, excited to have this experience, I’m getting married soon, and I had, unfortunately, a death in the family and had to take some leave. They allowed me to do that, which was good, but she fired me over the phone and said that I had taken too long because the day I was supposed to come back in, I ended up having a migraine because I had been crying a lot from this loss in the family.
It was my first one and I had never experienced that type of loss or grief before. Now, I’m being fired over the phone after a job I just cracked in the career by a boss who consistently wanted to be after me for whatever reasons and who didn’t want me to have friends at work. When I went to file for unemployment, she told them that I was planning my wedding on work time and a bunch of other lies, so that became my crux of how I was going to build my career and change the face of these workplaces. That still sits with me. I felt like, “What did I do wrong?” I took it very personally. I was hard on myself. It was tough.
I appreciate you sharing that vulnerability. That story is very powerful because, based on what you said, it still sits with you and it probably still dictates how you do work and how you work with people. One of the things I saw with that was a humongous blind spot to that leader and to that company. That stuck with you and you’re like, “I want to prevent this from happening to somebody else. I want to make sure that nobody else experiences what I experienced.” As a consultant, what do you think is one of the most effective ways to illuminate blind spots and toxic workplace cultures?
One of the best things, and this is the beauty of what I have with my clients, is to be able to not only co-create a process, so not me just coming in and I’m going to tell you what to do, but I tell my clients right off the bat, we’re going to open up, we’re going to be honest with each other. If something’s not working, I need to know and if it’s not working from my perspective, you need to know, and we’re going to have this open dialogue.
Self-awareness goes a long way to that. We have to have a high EQ ourselves in order to be able to serve others. For me, really digging into and building these deep relationships has helped me to be able to illuminate those blind spots because the thing is, whether it’s me as an HR Consultant, some other consultant, a leader to their employee, people don’t know what they don’t know. You and I can say the same about many things, so it’s my job to help them dig into that.
By building trust, that’s a way that I can help them to be able to move them along if they are struggling with some things. I’ve had people who are like, “You’re my eighth HR person. What are you going to do that the last person didn’t do?” They’ve been very surprised by the relationships we’ve been able to build together. Active listening is a key component of that, too. If I don’t listen and I just projected onto you what I think you need to hear, that’s not going to work out very well for either of us, so that’s my secret recipe there.
Having that skillset that derived from maybe a traumatic experience in your career is a really great lesson learned for the audience to pick up on. If we’re in these toxic workplaces or experienced this toxicity, we must try to find, “What am I supposed to learn in this moment?” If possible. You’ve done that even if you didn’t do it consciously. You’ve done that very phenomenally by creating your business and being able to help this harm from happening again to somebody else in the way you do your work.
Thank you for sharing that. One of the things you left us with is relationships. That stuck out to me as a not a magic bullet per se, but if we had some magic bullet, relationships would be a part of that in some way, shape, or form in any solution. Talk to me about what role do you see relationships playing in the process as it relates to the work you do and as it relates to us trying to shift toxic behaviors.
They’re everything. Sometimes, I feel so cliche when I say this and that people may perceive me as disingenuous, like, “She’s just drinking the Kool-Aid,” or saying the thing. There are all these buzzwords out there, “We left the ones from 2020 behind. We’re never seeing them again.” I still use those. You can’t have a pure deep relationship without authenticity. In order to be able to shape these processes, you have to have relationships. If something’s going wrong in the relationship, I have to know that.
As a leader, you have to be open enough to understand what the nature of the relationship is and be willing to continue to move on that even when it goes wrong to have a hard conversation but to do so respectfully, and that all plays a factor. If you don’t have a relationship, people are likely going to be more defensive with you.You can't have a pure and deep relationship without authenticity. Click To Tweet
They’re automatically going to distrust you even if they have poor behaviors and you’re coaching or counseling them on something. If your relationship is good and you’ve demonstrated that, you are a trustworthy person who has integrity that they’re going to do what they say they’re going to do, that goes so far in the process of building these relationships and removing toxicity. That alone is so key.
One thing I want to point out about your thoughts on relationships, especially how you weaved and how it’s important to be authentic to have authentic relationships. People tend to put things like authenticity and relationships in a buzzword category, but we never put micromanagement as a buzzword category. We put that as a norm.
It’s how we categorize things that are maybe harder to do as temporary versus as norms. Why can’t authenticity be a norm? Why can’t relationships be a norm? Why does that have to be a buzzword? I really appreciate how you’ve normalized it in the way you do your work, so thank you for sharing that with the audience.
I’m trying. It’s important, right?
It is. The more we talk about the normalization of like, “I’m going to be real. I’m going to be human,” but one key I want to tell the audience is, “I’m going to be real and I’m going to be human,” is not, “I want to be toxic and I’m going to lash out on people because I’m real.” There’s a difference between, “I’m real, so I say everything on my mind.”
That’s not what I’m trying to say and I don’t think you’re saying that either. We have to distance these toxic behaviors from what authenticity is. Imagine you’re supporting a leader. You came into an organization and most leaders exhibit toxic behaviors. I’m not even saying that I know they’re doing it. It’s not anything on purpose.
It’s not something that is taken concerted effort, but it’s something that they’re doing and staff have told you, “This is not working for us and it’s really harming us in this way.” They might not use those words, but this is the vibe you get from them. The question I have for you is, you got brought in and you’re supporting the leader who is exhibiting some behaviors that are deemed toxic or unproductive to the staff there. How would you work with that leader?
This happens. I wish it didn’t. It is a huge part of my why. It is removing these toxic cultures. What’s really important is those relationships will come back into the fold there, as well. There’s a couple of things that I do, and this is no secret to people who follow me. It’s that I like to talk about curious questions and powerful questions. I can essentially lead someone to where I think they may need to be, or at least to a middle ground, by asking questions.
One of the things we look at is what is at stake? I’ve had to deliver some very uncomfortable messages to very senior people and even to employees. I have to understand what’s at stake for their reputation. That is a powerful question for me, but then I’m going to ask them a curious question or maybe I’ll say a statement like, “Can you help me understand what happened in this so that I get some context?” Versus me coming at like, “Your employees said that you are just toxic and terrible. Why would you ever say something like that?”
Some of these conversations happen behind the scenes because you get this like, “Why would someone do this?” You have to take out the defense for people and we have to have empathy because maybe it was a one-off and they had a bad day, so I’m going to ask a lot of questions to understand, and I’m going to continue to ask questions and follow up with some more questions until I feel like I’ve gotten a good understanding of where this person is, why this may have occurred and their perspective of the context, which is very important too.
Often, I’ll see employees who come to HR and their motive is to get the leader in trouble. Maybe that leader is toxic, but I have to also explain, “Here’s my role and I’m going to seek to fact find.” Fact-finding is a huge piece of this too. It’s not just about going on a witch hunt. I literally use these words with people, “I’m not here to go on a witch hunt. I really want to understand what happened from your perspective and give you an opportunity to respond.” That goes such a long way. I’ve turned people who I walked in the door, they hated me, to they still keep in touch with me and tell me about their family vacations. It makes a difference in some of those work relationships.
I really appreciate that openness you’ve just displayed related to how you are not judging anybody based on their behavior or behavior that’s being shared with you when you do your work. The tactics or the way you work is something that everyone can implement as it relates to eradicating toxicity, whether it’s a direct report, whether it’s an organization, whether it’s a supervisor. Thank you for sharing that with our audience. What we go to next and one of the things I’m curious about is, what words of wisdom would you want to leave our audience with?Understanding what happened from another person's perspective allows you to give a suitable response. Click To Tweet
We keep talking about relationships, but it’s because they’re the pinnacle of everything we do if you don’t manage them. You and I had a conversation previously about the fact that people don’t often seek to be toxic leaders. There may be some narcissism going on but even narcissists don’t always realize it, so being open, empathetic and feeling safe to do so is very important.
I would say have that self-awareness, that EQ, to check yourself and check your ego at the door. I have no shame to share that with leaders, so if you’re out there reading this, this goes for yourself, too. I don’t tell anybody anything that I wouldn’t practice myself. Think about that when you’re in these exchanges with your employees, your colleagues, your clients, your other stakeholders, vendors, whoever it is, treat people how you would want to be treated, and even better. Be open and empathetic with that.
I want to thank you for really diving into relationships. I love the fact of illuminating blind spots and being honest with what is being observed and experienced by people. It’s honest to ensure that people don’t go through what you went through as an employee. I also liked the fact of you mentioning centering relationships through being authentic.
That’s really important, and then finally, one of the last but the hardest thing you said was, we’ve got to just use our EQ. We can’t judge people. We’ve got to give grace by remaining curious by asking those curious and open questions. I thank you for sharing these tangible and helpful tips for people to actually do something proactive when they’re facing toxic workplace behavior, so I appreciate you.
Thank you for the opportunity to drop some of the nuggets.
As we wrap up, I want to give you space to share any initiatives you’re working on and further, how can people get ahold of you?
I will start with how to get ahold of me. I am on a social media break for self-care. I believe in normalizing that as a huge mental health advocate, but typically very active on LinkedIn, which is how Kevin and I came to be connected, so feel free to reach out to me there. You can send me an email at TCastagno@CEPHRConsulting.com, so those are a couple of good ways to get ahold of me.
I’m working on a lot of return-to-work initiatives for people. I offer a free one-hour consultation, so if you have any questions or thoughts that I can help be a thought partner on, reach out to me. Sometimes people come to me not knowing what they need. Part of my co-creative process with prospects and clients is really just to say, “Let’s talk it out. Maybe I can help you or now is not the right time, but give me a call and I’ll help you sort it out.”
Tiffany, thank you. I’m really glad we were able to cross paths and speak on these issues. I hope we can have another episode in the future.
I would love that. Thank you.
I want to thank all of you for reading.
About Tiffany Castagno
Tiffany Castagno is CEO & Founder of CEPHR, LLC, a Human Resources Consulting Firm that supports Small to Mid-sized Businesses in building out their infrastructures, and a strong Employer Brand and culture. Tiffany has supported stakeholders in organizations of all sizes and industries throughout a 13-year HR career.
Her Why is building more psychologically safe organizations and cultures and stronger leadership to support the people and processes within organizations. Tiffany is passionate about creating safe workplaces and Communities under DEI principles.
She is Co-Author of a Children’s Book, “Can a Zebra Change Its Stripes?” that teaches children about embracing difference. She enjoys serving her community and believes that together is better.