You can feel it like an oppressive dark cloud when you walk through the door. You hear the grumbles. You see the rolled eyes and sense the discontent. You see the lack of collaboration and maybe even ill will amongst members of the team that tell you morale is low. You finally face the reality that your team is in trouble and you wonder how things could have gotten this bad.
A toxic workplace doesn’t develop overnight. It’s more like a slow drip than a burst pipe, which is why it can go on for a long time without anyone really noticing. It’s typically not one major event or situation but a gradual decline in morale and behaviours that in themselves, don’t seem so bad, but that cumulatively fill the sink to overflowing.
Signs of a Toxic Workplace
Commiserating colleagues and office gossip – groups of people speaking in hushed tones and conversations halted when someone else enters the room are signs that something is going on. So are team members talking disparagingly about others? Gossip is hard to unearth because people do it with those they feel will share their opinions and or whom they want to influence. Typically, you will hear about gossip from someone else who has heard it but doesn’t want to be part of it.
Cliques are forming – when you see groups of people suddenly sticking together and/or avoiding other groups or individuals on the team, something is going on. This is especially true when the cliques start becoming negative or even hurtful.
Increase in complaints and conflicts – suddenly you’re hearing stories about people not getting along, withholding information, preventing others from effectively doing their jobs, sabotaging their colleagues or “throwing them under the bus” when mistakes are made. You’ll also notice an increase in the amount of workplace conflict.
Increasing incivility – people just being mean to one another, humiliation, exclusion, making fun of others, hurtful comments in public, lack of respect – all these things are evidence that toxicity has not only been allowed, but is perceived as being condoned by management because nothing is being done to stop the behavior.
Decrease in morale – a general malaise among your team (lackluster performance, low productivity, poor energy, low levels of enthusiasm, heightened stress, the sense that people don’t want to be there) without an easily identifiable cause is definitely worth investigating.
Increase in sick time and turnover – when workplaces are toxic, people get stressed and anxious, and this often results in more sick days than usual. People try to avoid coming to work when they feel this way so you’ll see an increase in absenteeism above what is normal. Or, they just choose to leave without saying why. If there’s an increase in people heading for the door, pay attention.
Risks of Allowing a Toxic Environment
When you start to see these behaviours it’s essential that you take action. Isolated incidents with one or two employees can usually be dealt with from a performance perspective, but when it starts to become systemic you need to investigate the cause of the toxic environment.
If you ignore the signs or hope they’ll get better on their own, you risk significant damage to your team and your company. This damage could be irreparable and your business will feel the impact in every way. Allowing things to go on unaddressed implies your consent of the bad behavior and sends a message that it’s OK for people to behave in ways that undermine a positive workplace. The longer this goes one, the more difficult it becomes to reel it back in and reverse the impacts.
There is also a significant risk that these behaviours could escalate into the bullying and harassment realm. If this happens, you could be facing a Bullying and Harassment Investigation that may cost you significant time and money, and potentially create trauma for your team.
Uncovering Root Causes
Getting to the root of what’s happening is easier when signs are just starting to appear, than when they’ve become entrenched and systemic. This information can be obtained in several ways. An anonymous staff survey allows people to speak their minds without fear of being identified. You can gain insights you could not obtain otherwise. One-on-one staff interviews are also an option, if you feel your staff will be honest with you. The benefit is that you can dig deeper with issues raised (which is not possible with a survey) but it may be more difficult for people to tell you the truth as they don’t want to be identified as getting their teammates in trouble. This is especially true if the toxic problem is with management. Employees find it extremely difficult to say negative things about their managers or supervisors for fear of reprisals. If the problem is at the management level, you need to find this out as quickly as possible.
However you choose to gather the information, make sure you ask specific questions that will give you the answers you need, to deal with what’s happening in your workplace.
Prevention and Intervention
Prevention is the easiest way to avoid a toxic workplace. This involves enforcing a strong Zero Tolerance policy on toxic and damaging behavior. Zero Tolerance means you are willing to take definitive action for even minor infractions. When your team sees you taking workplace culture seriously they will be far less likely to go down that road.
If you’ve moved past prevention and toxicity exists in your workplace, you must do all you can to get a handle on what has happened and take restorative action. Gathering information is the first part, writing a Zero Tolerance policy and communicating what this entails should follow.
If the behaviours are broad, stories are inconsistent and incidents are hard to attach to specific people, group training may be one way to approach it. The training needs to outline what behaviours will not be tolerated, and the consequences. It should also include respectful workplace principles that identify behaviours you want to see in your workplace.
If incidents of the toxic behavior of specific people have been verified, those incidents need to be dealt with immediately. Both the people who behaved badly, and those who were affected need attention. The people behaving in toxic ways should be given a warning outlining the behaviors that need to stop and the consequences for continuing. Those who were impacted require reassurance that you have taken steps to address the behaviours and ensure they will not continue.
Toxic work environments are difficult to restore, but it can be done. Even if interventions have been delivered, the team may experience longer-term impacts of having been in the toxic environment, depending on how long they experienced it. Ensuring everyone has the support they need to heal and move forward, in addition to establishing expectations and addressing future behaviours quickly and decisively, will go a long way toward creating a healthy, positive corporate culture in the future.