Toxic work culture: Why employees hesitate to speak up
Interviews / Opinions

Toxic work culture: Why employees hesitate to speak up

, Content Writer

The Moment You Realized Your Workplace Was TOXIC became a viral series of TikTok videos, with hundreds of users sharing their own stories and experiences of toxic workplaces.

In fact, the hashtag #toxicworkplace on TikTok has collected more than 490M views and is used in millions of videos worldwide. These numbers prove that many people experience toxicity at their workplace, no matter the industry or location.

Fortunately, in 2023, people are more “toxic aware,” according to The Muse. They recognize unhealthy patterns, believe they deserve better, and by pursue change for themselves and others.

And this is why people are now more willing than ever to quit their jobs, leading to high employee turnover rates for organizations.

According to a survey conducted by Careerplug, “72% of employees have left a job because of a toxic workplace, and 51% said they plan on leaving their current job for the same reason.”

Also, “45% of employees in the software industry who are working in companies with toxic work culture plan to quit their job because of toxicity,” as said in a survey by TalentLMS and Culture Amp.

However, an impressive 84% of employees are optimistic about staying in their current job if their employer puts effort into creating a better work environment. And this is why businesses should focus on offering a positive workplace culture for their people and tackle once and for all any toxicity that is present.

Toxic work culture: Why employees hesitate to speak up

What employees think about a toxic work culture

A toxic workplace isn’t just a toxic coworker or a bad day at work. It’s how the entire organization functions. And this is why sometimes it’s hard to spot a toxic work culture and even harder for employees to speak up.

According to TalentLMS and Culture Amp, 49% of surveyed employees in the tech industry said they don’t do or say anything because they think it won’t make a difference or because they’re afraid of the consequences. Also,”45% of employees in toxic tech companies say that leadership is unaware of the toxicity and lives in a bubble, thinking the company culture is healthy.”

No matter how committed your people are to your organization when facing a toxic work culture, they will most likely end up saying nothing. And this will result in feelings of frustration, stress, discomfort, and burnout which will lead them to quiet quitting—or actual quitting.

What makes a workplace toxic

Dr. Andre Martin suggests that when there are signs of toxicity, it’s probably because of certain leaders or teams.

In Defining and Decoding Company Culture, from TalentLMS’ podcast series, Keep It Simple, he discusses that it’s necessary to assess leadership regularly in order to maintain a positive workplace culture. And consistently measure employee sentiment.

At the same time, it can be tricky to identify toxicity in a work culture. Toxic behaviors, like lack of transparency, can be challenging to pinpoint and address. So, it’s necessary to be cautious about the following:

  • Leadership based on fear: Leaders might motivate their teams through fear, not reward. They might even demonstrate a “do as I say” approach to rules.
  • Zero recognition of excellence: As leadership motivates by fear, recognition of high-performing employees is absent. When people are not rewarded for their efforts, they will soon stop doing excellent work.
  • Rise in gossip: When there’s a lack of transparency among employees and leadership, rumors spread, leaving employees with vague expectations.
  • Toxic competition: Healthy competition works well as a motivator, for instance, in gamification activities. But in toxic work cultures, managers might bring employees against each other in a negative way, leading to fights, drama, anger, and frustration.
  • Extreme favoritism: Fueled by unhealthy competition, favoritism in wages, time off, benefits, and other discriminatory treatments can create a highly toxic environment for teams.

Why companies should care

Leadership shouldn’t turn their back on any of these signs mentioned above, no matter how big or small they might be. If the slightest toxic flags are ignored, companies risk having some serious consequences like:

  • Productivity and morale drop: Employees feel less motivated, discouraged, and disengaged in toxic work culture. Almost half of TalentLMS and Culture Amps’ respondents claim that toxic culture pushed them to quiet quitting.
  • Employee wellbeing suffers: When morale drops, job dissatisfaction rises, and motivation levels drop. Employees start feeling stressed, overwhelmed, and frustrated in toxic environments. Toxic workplaces lead to employee burnout, especially in 46% of employees in the software industry.
  • Toxic behaviors persist and expand within the organization: Toxicity tends to spread and can become an integral part of how teams function. Unsurprisingly, half of the employees surveyed believe that their company will remain toxic in the future.
  • Company reputation is at risk: Once toxic, always toxic. If there’s a toxic culture in the workplace, it’s hard to change the minds of current employees and potential new hires. Negative workplace reviews might harm your reputation.
  • Potential legal issues arise: Severe incidents, such as sexual harassment, are considered crimes and might be reported to the police, leading to necessary investigations and fines or other legal consequences.

You can’t fix what you don’t know is broken

The first step in addressing a toxic situation in the workplace culture is to identify any issues. This can be done by creating a healthy and trusting environment in which employees will feel safe to speak up when they notice inappropriate behavior.

The goal is to pinpoint these red flags before they scale. Or, to prevent them from arising in the first place.

Invest in employee training

Train employees, especially team managers, and leadership, on trust, respect, and fighting biases. When they clearly understand what’s appropriate behavior and what’s not, it can be easier for them to be specific about any violations that might occur in the workplace environment.

By implementing a well-rounded training and development program in a toxic work culture, you can prevent (or control) a harmful or unhealthy work atmosphere. And to achieve that, it’s necessary to provide your employees with suitable courses and tools.

For example, you can offer ready-made online courses on employee conduct, workplace behaviors, policies, and procedures through your LMS. Or, be more specific and offer courses on biases, sexual harassment, compliance, and more. These are your key weapons to fighting toxic elements in the workplace.

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Establish clear policies for dealing with toxic behaviors

It’s not enough to let people know what’s appropriate behavior and what’s unacceptable in the organization. Such policies are not meant to be only on paper. They should be well-defined but also clarify what employees should do if they encounter or witness toxic behaviors.

Your policies should focus on:

  • Code of conduct
  • Sexual harassment prevention
  • Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI)
  • Ethics
  • Conflict management

Communicate the importance of such policies even from onboarding, as well as the consequences of being non-compliant.

To achieve that, include in your employee handbook useful information about what to do and whom to report to in case they witness negative behavior. Encourage employee efforts to report toxic elements among teams. Conduct anonymous surveys regularly so that employees will feel completely safe and comfortable addressing any violations.

Promote work/life balance

Among the top contributors to a toxic culture at work is expecting employees to work longer hours without pay. Foster a positive work environment by actively promoting work/life balance among your employees.

Create training programs focused on wellness and wellbeing, reducing stress, maintaining a work-life balance, and more. At the same time, offer flexible and customizable benefits whenever possible, such as flexible work models, fitness opportunities, or mental health support in an inclusive way. Such benefits boost and strengthen the workplace environment and culture by reminding employees that you value their wellness.

Enforce meaningful communication

It’s essential to encourage employees and leadership to communicate in meaningful ways. Proper communication is crucial, but it’s essential to do it well.

The key element in meaningful communication is quality rather than quantity. Thus, you need to make sure your employees know all they need so they can:

  • Perform their tasks effectively
  • Have a clear understanding of which situations might affect their job
  • Be aware of what expectations they should meet
  • Ease worries and stay intact of any rumors spreading around

In order to foster meaningful communication and assist your employees in having the knowledge they need, you must plan ahead. Schedule employee meetings and 1:1 sessions to support struggling or excelling employees. To do so more effectively, invest in communication tools to make communication timely, like videoconferencing tools, messaging apps, and call centers.

At the same time, conduct training sessions focused on the importance of effective communication and how this can be achieved among teams. In that way, gossip and rumors will belong to the past. And if any rumors start, your employees will be ready to address the issue before it escalates.

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Be clear about your company values

Your organization’s company values are powerful identifiers for your people to attach themselves to. Core company values like making customers happy, being top experts in the industry, fostering a strong continuous learning culture, or creating positive experiences for each other help your teams bond, not compete negatively.

As such, they should be clearly communicated from the start, i.e., during onboarding, and regularly reminded at every chance. Include them in your strategies, training, and team activities.

For instance, it’s impossible to foster a continuous learning culture if your employees don’t receive training and development opportunities. Or, it can be tricky to satisfy customers if your people aren’t motivated to solve problems independently.

In case you don’t have a clear idea of your core values, or if you don’t have any, create them and actively include them in your day-to-day. And encourage managers and leadership to manage in their name.

The antidote to a toxic work culture…

…is building a healthy work culture. A strong, positive company culture develops on the solid grounds of shared beliefs and attitudes. It’s an authentic and very effective tool for ensuring business success.

By dealing with toxic signs in the workplace, you increase employee engagement, productivity, loyalty, and retention. You also facilitate recruitment and boost your brand reputation.

A healthy work culture is your biggest ally in achieving success.

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Elena Koumparaki - Content Writer

Elena blends, real-world data and storytelling for impactful L&D and HR content. Always on trend, her engaging work addresses today's needs. More by Elena!

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