A toxic work environment can have far-reaching consequences that devastate employee morale, productivity, and overall company success. When negativity, poor management, and unhealthy competition run rampant, the signs are clear. It becomes necessary to take swift action to detox your company and move toward positive change.
In this blog, we'll explore the most effective strategies to fix a toxic work environment, offering insights and practical solutions to help you cultivate a healthier, more supportive workplace culture.
By understanding the root causes of toxic workplaces and implementing targeted interventions, you can transform your toxic work environment into a space where employees can thrive, collaborate, and contribute to your organisation's success. It's time to take charge and create a workplace that everyone can be proud of.
Recognise the Signs of a Toxic Work Environment
The first step is to recognise a toxic workplace when one has formed inside your company. Signs of a toxic work environment will be evident. The larger a business, the more likely some pocket of toxicity will form around a clique or bad manager, but sometimes the rot spreads deep before it can be identified and reversed. The signs of workplace toxicity have been thoroughly documented, now, and you can quickly identify a team, a location, or an organisation that has grown toxic.
The following signs of a toxic workplace should all be red flags when it comes to the quality of your internal company culture.
- High Employee Turnover
- Absenteeism and Frequent Sick Days
- Isolation, Cliques, and Factions
- Drama, Office Gossip, and Blame
- Hustle Culture
- Fear Based Leadership
- Meetings about Meetings
- Poor Communication or Passive-Aggressive Communication
- Distrust and Fear of Open Communication
- Disconnected Management
- Role Conflicts
- Wage Gaps, Favouritism, and Targeting Policies
You can recognize trouble by the signs of a toxic work culture within a bsuiness. If people are doing everything they can to get and stay away from the workplace, if leadership leads on a "because I said so" reasoning, or if employees are afraid to talk openly because they can't trust speaking at work, something has gone terribly wrong. If there are cliques and factions with some individuals isolated, if there are meetings about meetings that just happened, or if management has no idea what's going on with their subordinates, the toxicity has set in.
It's also important to remember that a toxic workplace can even come from everyone doing their best. Hustle culture leads to burnout and chronic stress from poor mental and physical health. Communication issues can lead to conflicts. These toxic workplace cultures can be just as harmful as factions and favouritism.
Once you recognise toxicity, you can start taking measures to reverse the damage and build a new, more robust and supportive company culture.
Taking Responsibility for Cultural Outcomes
Once you have identified a toxic workplace culture, take responsibility. While the source may be with one toxic manager, an unpleasant clique, or the simple folley of hustle-culture, changes must come from the top, down. The execs of any business are essential to building, implementing, and personally modeling the solution.
When it comes to taking responsibility for a toxic workplace, ask yourself: "If not me, then who?" If there is no higher effective authority, then you have become the leader or team of leaders responsible for healing the toxicity in your unhealthy work environment - whether or not anyone has contributed to the issue personally. Taking responsibility allows you to free up your ability to make specific decisions and sweeping changes by not worrying about all the toxic environment sources - only the solutions.
Plan a Company Culture Detox
Plan for your "detox". A company can detoxify itself to become a positive workplace culture by rebuilding employee relationships with management and workload distribution. You will need sweeping changes, to implement new policies, and prepare everyone to stick to the new way until it becomes as routine as the old way once was.
A company culture detox is accepting that large-scale effort is necessary to remove toxicity from the workplace in favour of positive changes, and that everyone must play a part.
Put together the solutions you want to implement and the outcomes you want to see. Write a new set of policies and prepare to hold everyone to standards of both good conduct and a respectful response-system should toxicity be reported.
Bring In a Third Party Consultant
Sometimes, it's hard to see toxic work culture on the inside. You are too close to the issue, and your view of workplace norms may already be skewed by being inside a toxic structure or part of a toxic routine. You may be snowed by the toxic perpetrators who are good at being two-faced up the chain, or internal relationships may be masking the problem.
You may also be unable to get honest communication feedback if the current team already feels unsafe or disheartened about reporting the toxicity they are aware of. They may also be too immersed in toxic work norms to know what should be reported.
The best way t identify all the pockets and sources of the toxic atmosphere is to bring in an outside team. A third party will have a fresh perspective and will be able to quickly identify where the toxic behaviors are coming from, even if the source is highly manipulative toxic employees or a deeply entrenched value set in your corporate culture.
Audit HR Protocols & History
When toxicity runs rampant, HR is often to blame - either for being part of the drama or by not doing enough to respond to reported toxic behaviors. There are so many ways that human resources could have contributed or failed to prevent toxic culture that a full-scale audit is called for. They are responsible for employee's sense of psychological safety and each HR professional must adhere to the core principles of creating a safe environment.
Determine if toxicity reports have been coming in and how they were handled.
- Have employees reported incidents of bullying, harassment, discrimination, burnout, or other toxicity issues?
- Was anonymity maintained during the process?
- Were investigations conducted discretely, or at all?
- Were measures taken to stop or change the toxic behavior, or was it facilitated?
- Has someone been keeping HR from effectively making changes or enacting consequences?
- Have issues been reported to managers that didn't make it to HR?
When employees see that HR is under audit, they will take the detox more seriously, knowing that HR will eventually play a key role in preventing toxicity and finding solutions to potentially toxic situations.
Implement New Policies from the Top Down
Build a new set of anti-toxicity company policies. Outline the proper way to interact with one anther, how to maintain clear communication, and what to do if workplace bullying, harassment, favouritism, and other situations occur.
Related: The Ultimate Guide to the Open Door Policy in the Workplace
Then implement these policies from the top down. Rule changes don't mean anything unless they are adopted by every level of authority inside the organisation - otherwise, you create an "above the law" line that will slowly creep downward from one management level to the next. Have all exec-level team members agree that these policies are valuable and begin modeling them for the company as they are implemented for everyone else.
Related: How to Build a Comprehensive Anti-Harassment Policy
Educate Your Team on Non-Toxic Conduct
Don't just build policies; provide training. This can be extremely useful for people whose views of workplace norms have been skewed by long-term exposure to a toxic workplace (possibly yourselves included).
Training can rebuild those norms by giving your team examples of the behaviors and ways fo speaking that can diffuse a toxic situation, mediate conflicts, and respectfully report issues that can't be solved with politeness in the moment of occurrence.
Structure Consequences for Toxic Behavior
Once everyone is familiar with the new protocols and has been through training, create and enforce a structure of consequences. Repeated incidents of bullying, insulting, shouting, or asking too much of employees, playing favourites, or harassment will be answerable. First, there will be warnings, then demotions, then a consistently toxic individual can be removed from the company if they are unable or unwilling to change.
This not only discourages toxic behavior, it also shows your once-downtrodden team that you are going to bat on their behalf and bulliers, harassers, and cliques will find no shelter under the new policies - other than a willingness to change. Consequences can sometimes even help to rehabilitate someone who had "gone toxic" in the previous environment but is capable of being a better person when situations change.
Improve Communication and Consistency
Improve consistency across the board. Toxicity can stem from role conflicts and miscommunication. If employees are assigned work that doesn't fit their role or if there are communication problems that result in conflicting information or orders, toxicity will result.
Seek to identify all points of inconsistency and provide more streamlined systems. Improve your use of software, planning, and messaging - and encourage team members to come forward with logistical complaints/requests to help you shake out the kinks in a once-obscure situation.
Cultivate a Safe and Respectful Workplace
Focus on safety and respect. Everyone should feel safe in the workplace, and safe to report issues if they think there might be a problem. Protect anonymous reporting and provide discrete harm-none investigations of issues.
Protect a right to personal space, personal life, and identity. Provide spaces where people can experience momentary privacy in the workplace and ensure that HR maintains its discretion about personal matters.
Use new language, putting respect and safety ahead of other company values, and encourage people to practice these measures in every team.
A View of Wellness and Work-Life Balance
Finally, refocus on wellness and work-life balance. Once you have created a place where toxicity will struggle to take root gain, you can begin rebuilding a nurturing and supportive company culture in its place.
Make sure that everyone's roles are well-balanced and that their workload is reasonable for each person or team to achieve in given timelines. Make sure each person is getting paid for all their hours and that their work-life separation is respected when they log off and go home. Ensure there are company perks that promote healthy lifestyles and monitor employee wellness for ways to help everyone feel enriched rather than stressed by their overall relationship with the company.