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Nothing will send your valued employees out the door faster than a toxic work environment. In fact, according to a recent study by MIT Sloan, toxic work culture is the number-one reason people cite for leaving their jobs – even over their compensation. Not surprising.

What does a toxic work culture look like?

A toxic work environment is one in which negative behaviors such as bullying, rudeness and discrimination are tolerated. These negative behaviors are so pervasive that they result in a toxic work culture where productivity and morale are low, stress levels are high and trust is completely eroded.

Signs of a toxic workplace include a lack of:

  • Trust – often evident in a manager’s micromanaging direct reports or constantly pinging them to see what they are working on
  • Boundaries – because people are expected to be available for work or work conversations and emails 24/7, butting into an employee’s personal time and disrupting work-life balance
  • Acceptance of mistakes – causes employees to be anxious about making mistakes and being called out for it
  • Healthy relationships – seen in scenarios such as gossiping about colleagues, being ignored in a meeting or being publicly ridiculed
  • Engagement – in meetings or with coworkers, for example, never turning a camera on in virtual meetings. Turnover is high.
  • Energy – employees are often dragging, exhausted, nonproductive and unmotivated to do their jobs
  • Accountability – with employees constantly pointing fingers and not accepting responsibility for their actions or admitting to mistakes
  • Transparency – which is evident through the withholding of vital information or sharing it only with those in the “inner circle”

Employees can usually only tolerate a toxic work environment for so long before they leave due to feeling burned out, anxious, depressed, sleep-deprived, stressed out and defeated.

10 ways to heal a toxic work culture

Once you’ve identified that you have a toxic work culture, it’s imperative that you start to take the necessary steps to rid your workplace of its causes. And that starts at the very top of your organization with leaders being open to your employees’ honest and open feedback and then acting on it. Poor leadership is often the cause of a toxic workplace, so it makes sense that leaders can also be the catalysts to turn it all around. Leading by example and making sure to hold every employee accountable for his or her behavior holds everyone to the same code of conduct, no matter what their level in the organization.

Here are 10 ways that leaders can begin to build a healthier work culture:

  1. Encourage healthy conversations by creating an environment where employees are unafraid to express their concerns, without fear of retaliation or of being fired.
  2. Demonstrate gratefulness for staff contributions and show that you value their work product and its effect on your company’s success.
  3. Have a plan for mediation by a neutral third party when an employee raises a serious concern or allegation. This can be an in-house third party, such as a senior employee relations professional or an outside third party who is hired for these types of cases.

This serves a number of purposes, including allowing the employee who has the concern to feel heard. An unbiased third party also follows objective protocols to get to the truth, is able to diffuse intense emotions, and can alert leadership and HR to look at addressing chronic issues.

  1. Promote a healthy work-life balance by discouraging work after hours and on weekends. Managers who expect their staff to respond 24/7/365 lead by fear and need to encourage a healthy work-life balance by allowing employees to go “off the clock” after regular business hours and on weekends. Nothing will create a burned-out workforce faster than ignoring this rule.
  2. Encourage employee use of paid time off (PTO) to relax and go off the grid. Don’t expect employees to take their laptops with them, instead let them know that their team and manager will handle anything that comes up while they are gone. Nothing is worse than offering PTO with the expectation that employees will still be available for that one meeting, one phone call or one pressing question. Hard no.
  3. Provide regular opportunities for employee feedback through regular town hall meetings, surveys, suggestion boxes, team meetings and one-on-one discussions with managers. This is a clear way to nurture employee trust and understand the dynamics of what is happening at all levels of the organization. Once you have that feedback in hand, create a task force to come up with solutions or meet with employees who are disrupting the environment to help them understand what they need to change about their behavior in order to stay employed with your organization.
  4. Deal with culture disruptors immediately. Once an issue is brought to your attention the best thing to do is to take immediate action. Depending on the severity of the offender’s behavior, conduct an investigation with all involved parties to come to an honest appraisal of what actually occurred. Any type of harassment, sexual misconduct, assault, discrimination or violent behavior should be handled with immediate termination of the accused party once the behavior has been substantiated and documented. This also is an opportune time to pull in a third party who is used to handling these types of issues with the proper protocols. Including bringing in legal assistance, when necessary.
  5. Offer regular mandatory training on safety in the workplace, including psychological and emotional safety. Address the handling of bullying, sexual harassment, assault, discrimination of any kind and violence in the workplace in an employee handbook that is given to all new hires on the first day. Have an HR representative touch base with new hires on these policies and have all new hires sign off on having received and read them.
  6. Provide anonymous ways for employees to report misconduct or unethical behaviors either through a hotline or outside entity that will keep the employee safe and free from retaliation.
  7. Coach leaders on ways to diffuse toxic behaviors, so they know how to handle unacceptable behaviors that they either notice or are notified about. Help managers understand the signs of toxic stress and what they should do to address things like suspected substance abuse, domestic violence, mental and other illnesses, and chronic insomnia that can contribute to toxic behaviors.

If you don’t do the things necessary to detoxify your work culture, you’ll find it harder to recruit new employees and the ones you already have will start talking with their feet walking out the door. It takes time, effort and commitment to make changes that will turn your culture from toxic to healthy, but if you don’t, nothing else you do will really matter.


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