A toxic work environment is detrimental to both employee wellbeing and the health of a business. Yet, it’s easy for leaders to miss or ignore the signs of a toxic workplace, where sometimes signals are subtle, although no less damaging. Toxicity in the workplace is a systemic problem that can spread surreptitiously, and ferreting out toxic people is more important than ever because toxicity can rapidly lead to employee departures.
Turnover due to workplace culture over the past five years has cost businesses $223 billion, according to research from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). The business impact of toxic work culture can be significant and should not be underestimated.
A toxic workplace often has a high turnover rate. In today’s jobs climate, people have choices, and they are not hesitating to walk out the door for a better situation, especially if they are dealing with a toxic work culture. According to research from Breathe HR, “more people are quitting their job due to poor workplace culture this year (27%) than last year (21%).”
Replacing employees is expensive – especially top talent. It’s much more cost-effective and good for business to deal with problems and the people who cause them swiftly.
Like all problems, the first step in dealing with toxicity at work is to recognize that it exists – and won’t resolve itself without mindful intervention. The second step leaders must take is to learn the common signs of a toxic work environment so that problems are quickly identified – and dealt with before things become unmanageable.
Toxic people at work are at the heart of the problem. Sometimes toxic people are part of the rank and file, but leadership isn’t exempt. Research shows that managers see toxic employees with good political skills in the office as top performers. And top performers often get promoted.
Stephen Boardman, the communications director for the Service Employees International Union, says, “My definition of a toxic workplace would be a place where employers use their power and leverage to take advantage of and abuse their workers.”
The first approach with a person exhibiting toxic behaviors is coaching. Still, if they are not capable or willing to change – if they don’t take the problem seriously – the solution is to work with your human resources department to take more drastic measures.
People avoid speaking up in a toxic work environment. It doesn’t mean that people don’t talk; they’re just doing it in whispers.
Career coach and Forbes contributor Kara Dennison says, “Leaders can be sure employees are talking, and it will only serve the company well that employees feel comfortable that their voices are encouraged and heard.”
Leaders must encourage open dialogue and welcome negative feedback as an opportunity to improve culture. Active listening and taking concerns seriously not only calms a situation in the short term but can help to avert much bigger problems when issues are dealt with swiftly.
Unhealthy culture makes for a toxic workplace. If you have employees who appear unhappily stuck in a rut, consider whether it’s because of their choices or caused by a toxic manager who may be stifling growth.
According to SHRM, “…it is imperative for workplace decision-makers – from human resources professionals to people managers – to be deliberate and persistent in creating a culture that can produce innovation and growth. The alternative is highly costly, in more ways than one.”
Never underestimate the value of healthy workplace culture. Recent research shows 77% of employees agree a strong culture allows them to do their best work, 76% see the impact in productivity and efficiency, and another 74% draw a correlation between culture and their ability to serve their customer base.
In short, creating a strong workplace culture is the antidote for a toxic workplace.
Toxic work environments are not about one or two people not getting along with others, although one toxic employee certainly can cause a lot of havoc. As Benjamin Franklin wrote in Poor Richard’s Almanack, “The rotten apple spoils his companion.”
Toxicity at work is a systemic disease. To save their organizations significant costs, assure employee wellbeing, and improve productivity and innovation, business leaders must know how to identify and address toxic behavior in the workplace. It’s an infectious problem remedied only by creating a strong, healthy culture.
How to get started? Our recommendation is simple: survey your team. If you’ve never done an engagement survey, our Benchmark Assessment will enable you to spot teams where potential trouble may lurk. You can then follow up, either with another short survey to diagnose the problem, or meetings with team members to suss out the issues. Whatever approach you choose, the important thing is to act. Toxicity at work is more likely to grow than resolve itself.