A Toxic Workplace: ‘It Could Never Happen Here,’ Right?

No business owner or manager wants to look out over their organization and grimly say, “This is a troubled place.” Yet every work environment has the potential to turn toxic, and sometimes it happens so slowly or quietly that leadership doesn’t even realize things have gone wrong until there’s a dramatic incident or lawsuit.

As a specialist in organizational effectiveness and leadership development, I've seen that every employer needs to be on the lookout for the telltale signs of toxicity. Although it might be comforting to think, “It could never happen here,” the truth is, it could. How do you know when a work environment is going bad? In the broadest sense, the two main indicators are shouting and silence. Obviously, if you have employees angrily yelling at one another or, worse yet, having physical altercations, toxicity levels are dangerously high. Sometimes, competition among co-workers or business units can create “shouting” in the sense that complaints and disagreements become commonplace — and they start escalating. Detecting “silence” can be more difficult. Sometimes a workplace is literally quiet because no one is speaking to one another. Everyone is tucked away in their own isolated workspaces, plugged into headphones and isolated from management and co-workers. This might not be a bad thing for some types of positions, but this atmosphere can be a breeding ground for misunderstandings, suspicions and flat-out wrongdoings to occur. Silence can also take place in a work environment overcome by gossip and misinformation. No one speaks openly; instead, hushed conversations take place behind closed doors or in isolated areas. And these discussions sow the seeds of distrust and disgruntlement. Suddenly you’ve lost one or more good workers because of things they heard through the grapevine, rather than valid organizational communications. Another sign of a toxic work environment isn’t necessarily shouting or silence. It’s cold, hard numbers — turnover numbers. If your turnover rate is steadily rising and you can’t keep positions filled, one reason might be that new hires can’t get comfortable in your workplace. This is a major problem for morale, and skyrocketing hiring and training costs can break the budget. When looking for the causes of rising toxicity, sometimes the answers are obvious. If you have one employee whose name is always attached to drama, conflict and heated disputes, well, that individual probably bears some portion of the blame for the discord. Conversely, when an organization is struggling to succeed, an entire workforce might grow weary and unhappy. This can quickly turn the working environment toxic. Ultimately, management is responsible for organizational performance, so that’s the best place to start looking for sources of toxicity. It might be one individual or more in a leadership position who’s largely contributing to a bad environment, and it’s particularly urgent to address it immediately. The importance of addressing the problem was recently illuminated by the Society for Human Resource Management in its report that was released in September, “The High Cost of a Toxic Workplace Culture: How Culture Impacts the Workforce — and the Bottom Line.” The report found that 58% of employees who quit their jobs due to poor workplace culture did so primarily because of their managers. SHRM estimated that the cost of this turnover to employers was a whopping $223 billion in the past five years. These results were echoed by survey results released in October 2019 by staffing services firm Robert Half. That poll found that 49% of 2,800 professionals surveyed had quit a job because of a bad boss. It also found that younger workers (ages 18 to 34) were more likely to quit over a bad manager than older ones. In other words, if someone in leadership is causing a toxic work environment, your organization could see its talent — particularly younger talent — fleeing for the door. What's the solution? To detoxify a workplace, first, identify the cause, and then tailor a solution to it. If you believe one or a few individuals are creating a toxic environment, the issue becomes one of performance management. Meet with the person or people in question. Carefully explain your reasons for concern, and lay out the steps toward resolving the situation. Be careful: Someone who’s already behaving inappropriately at work might be unable or unwilling to react reasonably when challenged. The risk of an employment lawsuit is high. Document the discussions, as well as any disciplinary measures taken. Consider termination only after making a good-faith effort to help the employee change their behavior — ideally under a formal performance improvement plan. When the cause of a toxic work environment appears to be more widespread, the solution must also cover a broader range of corrective strategies. Communication is always the best first move. Conduct an employee survey to gather data and get specific answers as to why employees are unhappy or anxious. Hold town hall-type meetings in which management can answer questions and hear opinions and suggestions. Establish an anonymous way for workers to report bullying, gossip and fraud. When you start nailing down specific reasons for toxicity, the ways to resolve it should become clearer. You might need to adjust workloads or schedules if employees feel overworked. Or you might have to retrain managers who play favorites or simply lack the people skills to positively motivate the employees working under them. Perhaps the most obvious solution to a toxic workplace is fun. If you can get people to relax and enjoy one another’s company, the bad vibes and negativity will quickly fall away. Of course, this is easier said than done. But look for ways to bring positivity to your workplace. Among the easiest approaches is to openly recognize the accomplishments of individuals and teams and cheer for them. A little appreciation goes a long way. Don’t let your workplace teeter on the edge of toxicity.