Picture a toxic work environment. What comes to mind? It’s definitely not that time when you had one disagreement with your team during a meeting. Or, when a colleague missed a deadline and you fell behind schedule.
But what if you always disagreed with your team, and people were rude and disrespectful to each other? What if there were colleagues who took all the credit for your hard work, and were unfairly promoted simply because they’re best friends with the boss?
A toxic workplace is not a bad day at work. It’s an environment that creates burnout, stress, and frustration. It’s an environment that makes people less productive. That makes them leave their jobs.
The good news is that there are things you can do to correct a harmful environment or prevent one from forming in the first place. You need to start with understanding what toxic looks like. Then, with proper HR processes and training, you can partner with employees to build and maintain a healthy workplace.
Toxic workplace culture isn’t always easy to spot
Some bad behaviors are obvious—sexual harassment or physical bullying in the workplace is never acceptable. And your response to those types of situations should be clear-cut and well-outlined in your HR policies.
Some signs of a toxic workplace can be a lot less obvious, though. Consider things like forced overtime, favoritism, or narcissistic conduct from leaders. Even though these behaviors are more subtle, they can still have harmful effects. If you don’t fix them, you risk serious consequences.
Why you need to fix the toxic workplace
Unhealthy working conditions make life miserable for employees. And they can have many negative impacts. A toxic working environment takes a toll on health as workers experience stress, anxiety, and even dread.
It also undermines employee morale because no one wants to stay in a place that’s harming their physical, mental, and emotional health.
And word gets around. Consider the high-profile criticism of some top companies. Amazon employees called out their controlling and overly demanding working conditions (claims of things like timed bathroom breaks and unreasonably high workload expectations.) And Uber made headlines for accusations of ignoring reports of poor conduct of high-performing employees and allowing retaliation against those who spoke up.
A bad culture, left unchecked, will hurt your overall brand. You’ll struggle to find new employees and may even lose customers.
Toxic person vs. toxic culture: Know the difference
Before we dive into how to recognize and address a negative culture, let’s make one distinction. When we talk about toxic culture, we’re not talking about one person with a bad attitude. If one person is behaving badly, that’s a personnel problem. We’re talking about how the entire organization operates.
If the company tolerates the bad conduct, or if it’s happening around the company, that’s a toxic culture. That’s the problem we want to tackle: How to eliminate or prevent a culture that fosters bad behavior.
8 red flags of a toxic workplace
To battle workplace toxicity, you have to be able to see the red flags. These are not things with clear HR procedures and discipline processes attached. But they are indications that something is wrong. And recognizing them could keep you from escalating things to the level of discipline.
Keep an eye out for these eight signs: they could warn you of a toxic work environment.
- Cliques and culture of gossip. People are being excluded. Employees spread rumors behind others’ backs.
- Poor communication. Employee input seems to go nowhere or there’s a lack of transparency around crucial processes or events.
- Mistrust of leadership or between coworkers. People don’t trust others to follow through or treat them with respect.
- Lack of empathy from leadership. Leaders put deadlines or personal reputation before their employees’ well-being.
- Frequent employee turnover. You’re seeing high levels of burnout or a high number of people who quit after just a few months at your company.
- Subtle workplace bullying. Conduct that’s threatening, humiliating, or intimidating—including verbal or emotional abuse.
- Poor work/life balance. People are working chronic overtime or expected to answer work calls and emails at all hours.
- Unequal enforcement of policies. Exceptions to discipline or other policies are made for high performers or “favorites.”
Any of these should be a sign that something needs to be fixed. The good news is there are things you can do to tackle these issues. Or, even better, prevent them from happening in the first place.
How to fix (or prevent) a broken culture
The key to stopping or avoiding a toxic workplace culture is to have strategies for doing so in place. You need to take steps to see where problems are happening. You also need to educate people on how to recognize problems and behave in ways that encourage a healthy and productive work environment.
If you’ve noticed some red flags, or want to ensure they won’t occur, you can follow these strategies.
1. Craft and enforce a policy for serious violations
Incidents, like sexual harassment, racism, discrimination, or physical violence, are not just red flags—they’re serious offenses and you should take action immediately. It’s best to consult a lawyer to ensure you comply with local regulations and design a clearly defined policy.
This way, you show employees that you won’t tolerate blatant mistreatment and will root out such problems right away. Keep in mind, though, that a rigid, zero-tolerance policy doesn’t necessarily guarantee that you won’t have to deal with a toxic work environment.
Make sure people feel comfortable reporting issues. They should know that the company will take all necessary steps and investigate any incidents with discretion. If they worry the company will take drastic, even unnecessary, measures, they might hesitate to report inappropriate behavior.
2. Train for leadership skills
Behavior, good and bad, takes hold when it’s modeled by leadership. If you want your employees to know what’s tolerated and what kind of culture you’re encouraging, you need to make sure managers are part of the solution.
Offer leadership training. You could cover things like diversity and inclusion to make them aware of treating team members fairly. Teach communication skills to help leaders maintain transparency and build trust within teams. Focus on emotional intelligence content so they can recognize toxic behavior in themselves and others, and be a part of fostering a safe working environment.
3. Offer soft skills training for all
It’s important for everyone on the team—not just leadership—to understand good communication and how to work well together. Help employees maintain a healthy workplace by offering soft skills training.
This is particularly important for companies that are scaling. In small teams, it’s easier to spot potentially inappropriate behaviors or toxic habits early on. But as teams get bigger, it’s hard to keep track of everything. And that’s how a toxic work environment could start to emerge without you even noticing it.
What you can control, though, is what kind of abilities you help your people grow.
You can teach things like how to speak up and communicate effectively around difficult issues. Or, you can train your teams on how to resolve conflicts gracefully. Offer classes on mutual respect and empathy, helping people understand how to treat others fairly.
4. Focus on diversity and inclusion
This topic is increasingly front of mind for many organizations. And with good reason. A place where people are discriminated against or feel excluded is the definition of a toxic work environment.
Making room for everyone’s voices and creating a workplace that feels safe benefits your people’s health and your company’s performance. Research shows that diversity boosts innovation, growth, and a company’s bottom line.
Show employees you stand behind your values by conducting regular workshops on diversity and inclusion. And offer training on identifying and eliminating biases.
5. Listen to concerns
One of the best ways to keep tabs on what’s happening in your culture is to ask. Give employees the chance to share concerns by gathering regular feedback. Conduct surveys or 360 reviews to ask people about what they’re experiencing.
Providing a safe forum for people to share will help employees see that you care about their experience. You’ll also get a sense of emerging issues before they become systemic problems, and you can address them and make course corrections.
Be proactive about creating a healthy workplace
Identifying toxic issues in the workplace is an important first step in creating a healthy work environment. But you can’t leave it at that. You need to find ways to fix the issues and prevent them from happening in the future.
With remote work on the rise and job-hopping becoming more common, employees are much more likely to leave if toxic behaviors crop up and persist. Simply upping the job perks won’t cut it. What you need, and what you ultimately want for your company, is a place where people are treated fairly and feel safe.
When people have a positive work experience, they stay and contribute the best they’ve got to give. And your organization and your employees thrive. Even if they have one bad day at work.