How To Address A Toxic Work Environment

March 13, 2023

how to address a toxic work environment

The well-being and happiness of staff are essential to a healthy work environment, and when things are not working well or relationships are breaking down, problems can develop quickly that will have a long-term impact on things like productivity and profit.

HR is in the unique position to be able to deal with problems in the workplace to deal with the elements that create a toxic workplace, and even prevent it from becoming a problem in the first place - if they know what they are looking for. HR staff and managers need to be able to recognize the signs of a toxic work environment before they can begin to make changes.

In this article, we will look at what factors can create a toxic workplace, and how you can create a thorough action plan to improve the culture and ensure that implementation of necessary changes can take place in the most simple way.

What is a toxic work environment?

A toxic work environment can describe any situation in the workplace that leads to dissatisfaction in a team, or a lack of alignment. A toxic work environment can be caused by so many different issues, from poor communication to ineffective leadership - but the upshot of this is that aside from the costs to the bottom line from lack of profits and productivity, according to the SHRM the turnover costs to American businesses because of toxic workplaces is as much as $223 billion.

Examples of toxic behaviors and practices

how to address a toxic work environment

There are certain signs of toxic behavior and practices that are easier to spot, but there are some that are a bit more insidious - however, they all can mean that a problem is brewing that needs to be dealt with.

Weak communication

This can include a failure for strong messages to come from the upper levels of the business, but it can also be about the lack of good communication between employers and supervisors, or amongst peers.

It can include failing to listen, using passive-aggressive language, sending mixed messages, or not providing clarity in all types of communication.

Poor leadership

According to the SHRM, in a survey, it was reported that 6/10 employees resigned because of poor leadership, and it is a well-known cliche that people don’t leave bad jobs, they leave bad managers.

A manager who is struggling as a leader will be unable to admit when they are wrong, they will downplay (or claim) the good work of others, and they will only be comfortable when they are micromanaging. In some cases, they might play favorites and have no respect for staff that is not in the clique.

High turnover

While attrition and turnover are natural parts of the employee lifecycle, unusually high turnover across the business or just from one department or office might demonstrate that there is a problem.

If the work environment is uncomfortable, staff are going to be ready to leave.

Bad employee relationships

The development of a silo mentality is unhealthy as a work environment, but when it starts to become more like a high school with different cliques, exclusion, bullying, and rumors, it can be really uncomfortable.

Employees who have to deal with this sort of bullying behavior are likely to feel tense, especially if they have to suppress their feelings - and this will obviously have an impact on mental health and happiness.

Lack of work/life balance and boundaries

If employees do not have a good work/life balance because they are under too much pressure, they might feel guilty about taking time off that they are entitled to. They might work too much, staying late to keep up with unrealistic expectations.

This can come from undefined roles in the business, as well as a leadership team that is out of touch when it comes to the support that employees need - burnout and absenteeism can follow.

Limited career growth

If employees can see no way to move forward in their personal development, they might feel unmotivated to perform. If a member of staff does not receive constructive feedback, or they are forced to toe the line and do what the management says without the opportunity to grow themselves, they might feel that there is no point in working hard or sticking around.

What are the consequences of a toxic work environment?

Workplace division

While the development of cliques or a silo mentality can be a sign of a toxic work environment, workplace division and that ‘us vs them’ mentality can develop when staff is not all comfortable with working together.

High turnover

Staff will not want to stay in a toxic environment, and they will leave. Businesses run the risk of losing experienced, high-performing staff who know how to do the job - and that is a talent drain that can have long-term effects on the bottom line. Turnover is not just about who is being lost, but also about the costs of replacing them - hiring is expensive.

Decreased productivity

Whether there is too much focus on what is going on with gossip and other problems in the workplace, or staff are just unmotivated and unhappy, the upshot is that the work rate will suffer. New starters who have come in to replace the staff that has left because of the culture will take time to get up to speed, while remaining staff won’t be rushing to hit deadlines if there is no motivation or reward for doing so.

Damage to reputation

If a company is known to have a specific type of culture, it doesn't take long for the information to get out - and that can be damaging to the overall business reputation if the environment is considered to be toxic.

Applications for roles will be affected, and it could even paint the company in a negative light which can impact things like shares.

Increased hiring costs

Whether you are hiring staff at volume or looking to headhunt for a specific role, there are costs involved in recruitment that are unavoidable - and with high turnover, you will be adding to these costs again and again.

No innovation

Unmotivated, unsupported staff are not likely to put their necks out or think outside the box, and when a toxic work environment exists it is likely that the remaining staff are more likely to want to maintain the status quo. Without innovation, there can only be stagnation, not growth.

Loss of profits

All of this can lead to a decline in the bottom line, hitting the profits of the business.

How can you address a toxic work environment?

how to address a toxic work environment

Addressing a developing (or already present) toxic work environment is a multifaceted process, and it needs several different types of input to be successful.

Below are a few structured ideas that can help you as the HR department to work towards a more cohesive and productive work environment. Remember, creating and maintaining a healthy workplace is an ongoing process, not a one-time action.

Gather information

Before you can get started, you need to know what is happening and who is being affected.

This means gathering information, and there are several ways that you can do this.

One of the simplest is through a basic survey. These often work best if they are kept anonymous, but by inviting individuals to report problems and talk about behaviors and incidents that are having a negative effect, you can get more of an idea about where problems are and what you can do about them.

You might also want to have frank discussions with people on the team or in the office. This might be a series of individual meetings, or creating a focus group of individuals that are feeling the same way.

The point of this exercise is to build a picture of how employees are feeling, and why they are feeling that way. You can then decide if this is a problem that is being caused by a certain employee or manager, or is something to do with the business itself - whether that is unreasonable expectations or too much pressure without enough reward or recognition.

Create an action plan

Once you have established a picture of what the problems are in the business, you will be able to start implementing actions to solve it and improve workplace dynamics.

The action plan that you create should have clear goals and steps that need to be completed.

Some actions that you might include are:

  • Establishing some rules and boundaries based on the information that you have gathered
  • Getting employees to sign off on shared values and expectations
  • Communicate openly and honestly about the process (and why it is necessary).
  • Conflict resolution training
  • Mediation (from a professional) where there are personal issues
  • Extra training
  • Specific leadership development
  • Rewards and recognition - either an extension of an already existing scheme or the addition of a discretionary bonus scheme to help build better teams

You can also make this more of an interactive experience by asking staff what they think should happen to help the work environment improve.

Whatever your action plan looks like, it needs to be structured and simple to follow so that you can get the whole business on board for success. The most important actions are the ones that will have the most impact and deal with the biggest problems. These include problems that might have legal ramifications for the business, such as bullying cliques that may be ostracizing other staff members based on protected characteristics.

Implementation and monitoring

As with any change in a business, the key to successful implementation is clear communication. Staff is much more likely to support the process if it understands it and knows what to expect from it.

As each part of the action plan is implemented, HR should keep having regular check-in meetings with key staff members. If time allows, this could be with the whole team, or it could be with nominated representatives who are there to give information on behalf of others.

Another way that the HR team can monitor the culture development and the success of things like training and development for leaders is through 360 feedback. This is especially useful for getting both quantitative and qualitative data about the way employees feel about each other - and because it is usually anonymous it can be more reliable.

If as part of the remedial action that is being taken, you need to deal with a member of staff that is causing problems in the workplace, you need to be able to maintain some level of distance to ensure that those staff members are treated with respect - the blame game is inherently unhealthy in these situations.

Throughout your implementation of changes, constant feedback from the affected members of staff will let you know if the process is working.

Key takeaways

A toxic work environment can be deadly to a company, in terms of reputation, productivity, and profits. Staff who do not build strong working relationships and do not feel treated with respect are much more likely to leave, and this is even more true when they feel that they are not respected by their management.

A toxic environment can be improved, but it is a constant process that needs careful management and the support of the employees. Implementation has to be communicated thoroughly and effectively, with the focus on it being a positive experience for everyone involved.

With the right information, the HR team can step in to improve the situation and develop a company culture built from shared values and vision.

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