How Employers Can Rehabilitate a Toxic Workplace

by Don Alix

A McKinsey study from July found that toxic workplace behavior is the strongest predictor of employee burnout and intent to resign, with more than 60% of negative workplace outcomes resulting from toxic workplace behavior. In fact, according to a study from MIT Management Review, a culture employees describe as toxic is 10 times more likely to lead to turnover than compensation. 

To avoid the toxic workplace trap, employers need to understand what constitutes a toxic workplace, investigate the causes and pursue lasting cultural change.

Defining a Toxic Workplace

Toxic culture can be described as a culture of unapproachable leaders, a lack of flexibility, bullying environments and a lack of appreciation for employees. Once a culture becomes toxic, the toxicity can perpetuate itself. Employees grow demoralized or bitter and pass on that attitude to new employees, continuing the cycle.

Many characteristics of a toxic culture may feel subjective, so use numbers and company reputation to confirm the problem. Poor retention statistics and employee satisfaction surveys or disparaging online reviews from current and former employees can all point to toxicity.

Toxic work cultures are an obstacle to productivity, retention and recruitment. On the flipside, engaging, supportive workplace cultures, which focus on the employee experience, lead to increased engagement, productivity and business success. Positive cultures also help companies stay competitive. Gallup found this year companies that prioritize employee engagement see a 23% increase in profitability.

Changing a Toxic Culture

Culture impacts every employee and department within an organization. That makes culture both incredibly important to daily business operations and a challenge to change. However, with leadership buy-in, clearly defined policies and a plan of action, employers can shift the culture and reengage the workforce.

The first step is admitting the problem. Leadership should publicly acknowledge the issue, apologize if appropriate and ask for employee input. Expect that employees may seem skeptical or even suspicious of these changes. Because toxic cultures often promise results without follow through, leadership may need to win back trust over time.

Next is to identify the major complaints from workers. Factors that can contribute to a toxic workplace include an excessive workload, lack of recognition, fear-based leadership, absence of training or resources, and unhealthy competition. Especially in a toxic culture, workers will likely hesitate at first. A survey or candid conversation with an HR representative can convince employees to be open about their experience. If workers seem reluctant to share, leadership should consider an anonymous survey to prompt more honesty.

An anonymous survey can also empower workers to point to specific personalities who exacerbate the issue. At the same time, as no single person can cause a toxic workplace, accountability remains critical especially in cases of harassment or verbal abuse. Even the best HR teams cannot help a manager improve or address employee concerns without organizational buy-in and that individual’s willingness to change.

Finally, businesses should use the results to create a plan to address the complaints. Specific solutions will differ between businesses and teams. For instance, in an organization where employees feel overworked, hiring more employees can immediately relieve some of that pressure. On the other hand, if employees complain about slow-moving projects and too little work, restructuring teams could be a better solution. 

Presenting this plan to employees must include inviting their feedback to rebuild the relationship with management. The process of fixing a toxic culture will itself improve trust in the organization, proving to employees that leadership cares enough to change. As HR implements these policies, it’s important to keep the lines of communication open and to set up regular check-ins with employees and supervisors to make sure that culture is changing. Honest, two-way communication will also help with rebuilding trust with employees. 

Toxic workplaces undermine success. Positive cultures allow employees to thrive. By understanding a toxic workplace and acting to fix it, employers can change their culture for the better.  

Don Alix is a district manager with Insperity, a leading provider of human resources offering the most comprehensive suite of scalable HR solutions available in the marketplace. He joined Insperity in 2011. Alix graduated from Arizona State University earning a degree in marketing.

Did You Know: More than 60% of negative workplaces’ outcomes result from a toxic work culture, demonstrating the importance of employee engagement to profitability and productivity. Employers can rehabilitate a toxic workplace by implementing a “people first” approach that focuses on the overall employee experience.

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