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Toxic Workplace Cultures

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Only the luckiest of us have never experienced them, but those who have tend to say one thing: avoid toxic workplace cultures like the proverbial plague. For others still, they may not even realise that their workplace is toxic at all. At HR:4UK, we’re on hand to help you spot the signs, and what employers and employees can do to combat the onset of toxicity.

What is a ‘Toxic Workplace Culture’?

Company’s cultures can be their greatest strength or, when things go wrong, their worst weakness. It encompasses the workplace’s overall ethos, the values, initiatives and attitudes that prevail around the business. Typically, a company culture stems from the top; from managers and executives that set the tone for all those beneath them.

Workplace cultures become toxic when a company environment becomes dominated by practices, policies and management styles that propagate unhealthy habits and exacerbate conflicts between and among team members. It often manifests in rigid, outdated policies or practices that put corporate interests ahead of employee wellbeing or satisfaction, such as a requirement to work a grueling amount of hours, to attend a physical office without any legroom for compromise, and offering perks and benefits that are easy on company finances but do little to meet employee’s needs.

The effects of an environment that imparts a sense of negativity, mistrust and insecurity can be far-reaching. Employees can become highly stressed, resulting in absences, lateness, reduced productivity and, ultimately, a high staff turnover rate. Unity and cohesion are vital to working teams, but a toxic culture can wear away the threads that bind colleagues together. People end up feeling demotivated, underappreciated, undervalued and taken advantage of by the business once that sense of solidarity ebbs away. In the end, this leads to a workplace that is not conducive to success, neither for employees nor employers themselves.

Thankfully, altering a company culture can begin to be altered with a few simple steps: more on which below.

What are the signs of a Toxic Workplace Culture?

  1. No set of core values
  2. Management doesn’t follow core values
  3. Workplace gossip runs rampant
  4. Managers publicly criticise employees
  5. High staff turnover
  6. Employees often absent or late
  7. Employees often work late or don’t take breaks
  8. Unfriendly competition
  9. Employees leave negative reviews of the business
  10. Employees aren’t acknowledged or rewarded
  11. Little or no hiring or promotion from within
  12. People work late on the weekends
  13. The business ‘hires for culture’
  14. Lack of communication
  15. No trace of Diversity, Equality & Inclusion policies

The Solutions

  1. Lack of Core Values

An instant ‘red flag’, a lack of defining values should set alarm bells ringing from the get-go. Why? Because the best way to understand a business, either as an employee or a customer, is from its values as much as its product. They are the bedrock of the organisation, the principles by which a culture can form. Without it, subcultures will arise which may prove detrimental to the business as a whole.

The first thing to do, then, is to draft up a set of values that employers feel will define and shape the company both now and in future. These values should then be disseminated throughout the team, from the very top, through HR, management, long-term employees and new staff. Then each value should be meticulously gone over with each member of the team until all are united in a common set of goals. 

  1. Management Doesn’t Follow Core Values

Direction always comes from the top, and if the head is rotten, the body is sure to follow. Nowhere is this more true than with managers who don’t abide by the rules they enforce on other employees. Moreover, if the leadership considers managers to be somehow exempt, then a sense of resentment, distrust, unfairness and outrage is soon to be next. Following that, authority will become discredited and a clear rift will form between leaders and staff.

The solution? Accountability. Ensure that everyone is placed on a level playing field, and that all are held to the same standard. Managers should be leading by example, not placing themselves on some unreachable plateau.

  1. Workplace Gossip Runs Rampant

Who doesn’t love a bit of office gossip? Well, quite a lot of people in actuality. Gossip leads to cliques, to individuals being singled out and treated differently and ultimately fosters an environment of mistrust and division.

The best way to combat it is to tackle the problem head-on. Identify the individuals who contribute most to the rumour mill and speak with them privately to dissuade them from such behaviours. Once this has been done, you can then make a formal address to everyone so that each person knows that gossip is not to be tolerated.

  1. Managers Publicly Criticise Employees

“To err is human, to forgive divine”, or so thought Alexander Pope in 1711. When employees do err – as they inevitably will – reprimanding them in public, or in front of other colleagues, will not only shake their confidence and their ability to perform their task, but may even call into question their level of competency in the eyes of fellow staff.

Instead, one should always seek to praise in public and correct in private; reframing mistakes as potential learning experiences and an opportunity rather than a cost. By doing so, you afford your workplace the freedom necessary to take risks, grow and thrive.

  1. High Staff Turnover

If the revolving door is always in motion, then beware: issues abound. A surefire way to tell if your business has a toxic workplace is if the hiring, firing and quitting is never ending. A toxic culture will drive employees away, put new employees off – 33% of workers say that they left a job in the first 90 days because the culture was not as anticipated – and even cause workers to switch industries entirely[1].

In order to solve the problem, you must first understand the root of the issue. Speak to your employees, find out where their grievances lie and take the appropriate steps to address them. The root causes could well be in this very list.

  1. Employees Are Often Absent or Late

When employees routinely show up late or not at all, you know you have a problem on your hands. On the one hand, it may be a case of laziness or disengagement; on the other, a lack of discipline and standards from management.

The way to confront the problem is to enact to a rigid set of standards from the top-down. Managers should be first at the scene, because, if they are not, then employees beneath them will soon follow suit. Once this has been established, you can then discuss with frequent offenders as to the cause of their routine lateness. If it’s a simple time conflict, such as dropping the children at school, then perhaps an adjusted start time is the best course of action. If not, then disciplinary action may be the next route.

  1. Employees Often Work Late or Don’t Take Breaks

Generally speaking, if staff continue to work through their lunch or stay after their allotted hours, it’s because they feel as if they don’t have the time to stop working or believe that management doesn’t really approve of them taking personal breaks in the first place. This can make employees feel as though their only value stems from their work output at the expense of their individual wellbeing. Moreover, the practice only serves to limit productivity rather than enhance it: the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology conclusively found that those who take relatively frequent breaks are more productive than those who do not[2].

The answer to this particular problem is a simple one: encourage breaks. Occasionally providing food for the office is another great way to formalize the lunch break period, and also a method by which you can encourage employees to socialize and therefore promote cohesion within the business.

  1. Unfriendly Competition

Competition can be very healthy for a business – it can inspire hard work, motivate employees and even bring colleagues closer together in their shared enterprise. However, when things turn toxic, competition can be a very bad thing indeed. Rather than seeking to work for a common good, employees can instead turn against each other and start to undermine one another, and ultimately the company itself.

If you notice unhealthy competition, then it may well be that management is placing too much value on performance and not enough on an ethic of co-operation. Try not to make favourites and encourage and commend all employees on their performances, even if they are not the outright best in their field. It can be surprising how much of an impact a few choice words of praise can make to the long-term performance of an employee.

  1. Employees Leave Negative Reviews of the Business

Without a shadow of a doubt, anonymous reviews have created windows into a company’s culture like never before. Anyone can post about their experiences with your business, so be mindful of your company’s image. Take the steps to craft an atmosphere of positivity and soon you will notice that reviews can work both ways, and positive reviews can help encourage prospective candidates. If, however, your team is unhappy with your management style, competition within the business or discouraged by the high staff turnover rate, then those prospective candidates will be the first to know.

The only real solution to this issue is to make sure that you take the necessary steps to ensure that your workplace remains one in which all staff, from the management on down, can be proud. 

  1. Employees Aren’t Acknowledged or Rewarded

Another of the tell-tale signs that your workplace is a negative one is when good work is either unremarked upon or, as is often the case, it comes with the punishment of additional work instead. Similarly, focusing only on the highest performers can leave the rest feeling undervalued and underappreciated, and lead to a work culture founded on negative competition and animosity between colleagues.

To combat this, ensure that your middle and senior managers give constructive feedback to all employees, and reward them when they perform well. Positive reinforcement is a highly motivating force, and one that allows employees to not only feel valued and appreciated, but also that they trust and respect management.

  1. Little or no hiring or promotion from within

If you find that all of your new hires and from outside the business, particularly at management and leadership level, then the image you’re promoting is one that current employees are either not good enough for a position of authority or that they don’t matter. In both cases, this results in a lack of ambition or aspiration in the general rank and file of the company which will ultimately cause it to become stagnant.

  1. People work late on the weekends

If your work day finishes at 5, but the majority of your team stays well beyond that, then that should be a cause for concern. It can indicate that your team feels as though they have too many responsibilities, or that management has unrealistic expectations of the wider staff. While targets and reports can help your growth stay on track, don’t ignore the possibility of employee burnout.

To resolve the issue, make sure that managers set realistic expectations about what can be achieved and reassess workloads to avoid overworking your employees unnecessarily. If the team is still too overburdened, consider hiring new staff to help share the workload.

  1. The business ‘hires for culture’

Every business wants their staff to fit in to their wider company culture; however, hiring based on cultural fit alone is an outdated strategy that may mean that you miss out on top talents. While superficially it may seem as though having everyone be similar-minded might bring harmony to the workforce, in reality it can lead to stagnation and decline as new ideas are shunned.

Instead, hire based not only on being a good cultural fit but also for people who bring fresh ideas, perspectives and experiences.

  1. Lack of communication

An overall lack of communication is another surefire indicator that the business has a negative culture. Whether across and between management or to the average employee, communication is key. Without it, productivity and end product can be harmed, decisions can go awry, ideas can be stifled and your business becomes a less welcoming environment to work in.

Instead, put time and effort into creating team-building activities and companywide initiatives; encourage your employees to be open and honest with each other, even about mistakes, and think about implementing open-door policies for management staff so that employees always feel that they have the capacity to air a grievance, ask a question or raise a concern. Transparency and engagement are the end goal, and whatever steps your business needs to achieve them is well worth the short-term costs.

  1. No trace of Diversity, Equality & Inclusion policies

As previously mentioned, different voices and perspectives are crucial in creating a welcoming, inclusive environment wherein everyone feels given the tools that they need to succeed.

By enacting a Diversity, Equality and Inclusion (DEI) policy (or policies), you give staff the room to thrive.

Conclusion

If your business has any of the above issues, you now have the tools you need to start changing them. However, do always note that crafting a positive work environment free from toxicity is an ongoing task, and problems will always arise despite your best efforts.

With this in mind, why not get in touch with our professional team of dedicated experts who are always on hand to help guide your business on the right path. You can email us at [email protected] or alternatively, give us a call on 01455 444 222.

Footnotes

[1] Jobvite. (2018) Job Seeker Nation Study. https://web.jobvite.com/rs/328-BQS-080/images/2023-01-2018JobSeekerNationSurvey.pdf

[2] Lyubykh, Z., Gulseren, D., Premji, Z., Wingate, T. G., Deng, C., Bélanger, L. J., & Turner, N. (2022). Role of work breaks in well-being and performance: A systematic review and future research agenda. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 27(5), 470–487. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Zhanna-Lyubykh/publication/361913348_Role_of_work_breaks_in_well-being_and_performance_A_systematic_review_and_future_research_agenda/links/62ccaad63bbe636e0c56a9ba/Role-of-work-breaks-in-well-being-and-performance-A-systematic-review-and-future-research-agenda.pdf

Angela Clay

A qualified employment law solicitor and our managing director, Angela has unparalleled legal expertise and decades of experience and knowledge to draw from. She’s a passionate speaker and writer that loves to keep employers updated with upcoming changes to legislation, and is a regular guest speaker on BBC Leicester Radio.