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Do You Have A Toxic Work Environment (And How Do You Fix It)?

employee in a toxic work environment

It's hard to admit you’ve got a toxic work environment, and perhaps even harder to see it. But, the signs are so often there. And, sadly, they are more common than you might think.

In this article, we share the top signs of a toxic work environment, how it impacts productivity, and clear ways that HR (and employees) can solve it. Let’s dive in.

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What Is A Toxic Work Environment?

A toxic work environment is one where negative, antagonistic, or bullying behavior is baked into the very culture. In a toxic work environment, employees are stressed, communication is limited, blame culture is rife, and people are rewarded (tacitly or explicitly) for unethical, harmful, or nasty attitudes and actions.

Simultaneously, in a toxic work environment, bosses often show signs of favoritism; rewarding certain individuals (often the more cut-throat, Machiavellian types) for doing whatever it takes to get results, regardless of the human consequences of their actions.

How Common Are Toxic Work Environments?

A recent study revealed that 70% of people working in Britain admitted they have worked in a toxic environment at some stage of their career. In addition, Metro reported in August 2021 that almost one-third of workers are leaving their jobs due to toxic workplace cultures.

The 26 Most Common Signs Of A Toxic Work Environment

Signs of a toxic workplace include the following:

TopicSign
CommunicationCommunication is ineffective, or employees feel like they’re being lied to.
Passive-aggressive communication is common.
Tempers are frayed and people argue, rather than debate.
Miscommunications fester – rather than being resolved.
Employees regularly get involved in unhealthy conflicts.
Mental HealthPeople feel like they never get a break.
People feel like they’re ‘walking on eggshells’.
There’s a culture of tactic, or explicit, bullying.
People are defensive a lot or behave aggressively.
Employees show signs of stress or depression.
Lack of motivation is common.
CultureMetrics matter but people don’t seem to.
People are treated unfairly.
Employees feel unappreciated.
Employees behave as if they’re under threat.
Office gossip or ‘cliquey’ behavior proliferates.
Unnecessary micro-management is common.
Employees don’t feel like they’re important.
Employees don’t perceive they have control over their actions, the ability to make decisions, or the ability to make a difference.
BehaviorIt’s not always clear who’s responsible for work and people are afraid to ask.
Employees miss deadlines, and deliver work late, or to a lower standard.
Companies create unrealistic KPIs, or metrics that are impossible to achieve.
Teams fight against each other, rather than collaborating.
The boss behaves irrationally, or unreasonably.
Promotions and pay rises are inconsistent.
There’s high employee turnover.

Often, the saddest sign of a toxic workplace is that employees just don’t want to go to work. They’re demotivated, lethargic, and ambivalent.

Anyone who frequently observes more than six to ten of these behaviors may work in a toxic work environment.

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How Does A Toxic Work Environment Come About?

Often, toxicity begins when the rules of a company’s psychological contract are violated. It may begin as early as the first day – if an employee arrives full of hope and ambition, only to discover that the job as advertised on the jobs board, or the culture they were promised was a lie.

Or it may happen over time, as confidence in the company erodes.

Sometimes, despite their best intentions, toxic workplaces evolve because employees get unhappier and unhappier – creating a festering well of discontent. When this happens it’s often because employees originally believed in the company’s mission but, somewhere along the line, they fell out of alignment.

A toxic work environment may also arise if a high-ranking employee who doesn’t care how people feel rises to the top. Their lack of awareness of the importance of motivation theory and its impact causes them to prioritize results over all else. Human relationships and employee relationships start to suffer.

A toxic work environment can also evolve when there is unhealthy competition for resources. Employees may be competing for budget, time, over-worked people who are critical to projects, or even for a manager’s time or attention.

When this happens, psychological safety starts to disappear.

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Busting Toxic Work Environments Starts With Psychological Safety

HBR says that the highest-performing teams have one thing in common: psychological safety. This is, "the belief that you won’t be punished when you make a mistake”.

Companies who encourage innovation know that a toxic culture is the enemy of innovation, so they do their best to encourage a culture of creativity often known as a freedom-to-fail culture.

Some famous examples of a freedom-to-fail approach include the Post-It note: The attempt to create a super-strong adhesive actually created a super-weak one. (Read more about the Post-It note’s origins and myths here).

Another is Google’s 20% time. Until 2013 Google allowed and even encouraged employees to spend 20% of their time on innovation. This brought them Gmail, AdSense, and Google Talk, amongst others.

But when psychological safety is lacking, a cycle of negativity begins that is hard to stop.

Toxic Work Environments & Employee Productivity

Negativity begets negativity. Employees who are bullied may start to become bullies themselves (even though, technically, harassment is unlawful in the UK). Back-biting is tacitly or explicitly encouraged. Trust erodes and a toxic culture becomes the only way of operating.

While prioritizing results and performance over people may seem, by some organizations, to be a profitable move, over the long term, the risks of creating workplace toxicity becomes increasingly expensive.

Toxic cultures increase workplace turnover

A 2019 study commissioned by SHRM revealed that 49% of American workers have thought about leaving their organization, one in five have left their jobs in the last five years due to the corporate culture, and the cost of turnover due to workplace culture exceeded $223 billion over the past five years.

Toxic cultures reduce trust, which reduces communication effectiveness

The same study said that 60% of employees say that they left their organizations because of their manager, with one in three reporting that their manager doesn’t know how to lead them, and 30% saying their manager doesn’t encourage a culture of open, and transparent communication.

Toxic cultures increase stress

Bupa reports that over 11 million working days are lost each year because of work-related stress, which can also contribute to conditions such as anxiety or depression.

In short, employees in toxic work environments do lower-quality work, engage less, have lower morale and motivation, become apathetic, start later, and leave earlier, are at greater risk of burnout, and becoming increasingly dissatisfied with their jobs, their companies, and potentially even their lives.

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How Should HR Handle A Toxic Work Environment?

Let’s be honest: It’s not easy to fix a toxic workplace. But it is possible.

Writing in People Management, Ed Mayo, author of Values, says toxic cultures can be addressed before it’s too late. “In a positive culture, incidents of potential cheating or bullying are addressed early, before they are repeated, made visible, and scrutinized. There is time then to act. There is no repeating pattern of bad behavior, the hallmark of a toxic culture.”

HR can take positive steps to help identify, address, and remedy the root causes of a toxic work environment by doing the following:

GETTING TO THE HEART OF THE ISSUE:

  • Measure psychological safety.

  • Ask questions. Try to identify the route cause of the toxic behavior. Is it an individual? A department? Or more widely spread?

  • Work with employees to understand their challenges, acknowledge these, and identify potential solutions to put in place.

  • Have careful discussions with all parties involved in antagonistic situations.

  • Consider whether chronically toxic employees can be coached, motivated, or may need to be dismissed for the good of the company.

KNOWING ABOUT (AND SHARING) LAWS, RULES AND GUIDANCE:

  • Know the rules and laws about bullying and discrimination.

  • Refer people to your documented workplace culture and values.

  • Call out behavior that is not okay – and explain why it’s not okay, and what you’ll do about it to prevent it from taking place in the future.

  • Take a long, hard look at the incentives driving behavior. Have serious discussions with senior management if these aren’t in alignment with corporate values.

LOOKING FOR THE POSITIVE SIDE:

  • Remind employees, and managers about the good things teams do, and the organization achieves.

  • Provide rewards for positive actions, and behavior.

  • Create initiatives to encourage collaboration in a safe environment to rebuild trust.

  • Identify opportunities to help employees remember how to have fun, or enjoy work.

  • Encourage a monthly ‘mistakes’ meeting to help employees realize it’s okay to make mistakes, admit them, and find positives in things that have gone wrong.

  • Work towards creating a growth culture rather than a fixed mindset culture.

How Can Employees Help Change A Toxic Work Environment

While HR teams are far more exposed to the consequences of a toxic work environment – not least because they hear about it from multiple sources – it is not fair to expect HR to fix a toxic work environment on their own.

Employees also have the opportunity and, indeed, the responsibility to adjust their attitude, and behavior in a toxic work environment. For example, employees can

  • Think of conflict as a good thing.

  • Talk to people like human beings.

  • Try to see things from the other person’s perspective.

  • Listen with openness and a lack of judgment.

  • Don’t blame. Be curious.

  • Ask what they could do differently next time.

  • Recognize that sometimes anger is masking fear. Their colleagues may just need help or information.

Heal Any Toxic Work Environment Today

Professor Scott Dust, Ph.D, Professor of Management at Miami University in Ohio, reminds us that organizations need to be proactive in managing their culture because it takes a significant amount of time and resources to fix something that’s broken. So whether you work in HR or are an employee in a toxic work environment, be patient but proactive.

And, at the end of the day, realize that if you’re struggling – you need and deserve help.

It’s okay to get help with your HR processes and procedures to relieve the pressure of administrative HR burdens. And it’s okay to get help with mental health at work.

The strongest people are those who admit to weakness: So they can get better.

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