Understanding and Preventing the Toxic Workplace

Understanding and Preventing the Toxic Workplace

Charles Goretsky Charles Goretsky
16 minute read

When considering the staffing challenges organizations face due to global talent shortages, high employee turnover, skills obsolescence, and rapidly evolving job changes related to automation and AI, maximizing employee retention and productivity are often cited as the key elements of maintaining a sufficiently sized workforce. In the face of these issues, providing a positive and constructive work environment should be a corporate priority. However, report after report continues to show that employees in many organizations face workplaces rife with negative experiences and influences – what is referred to as a “toxic workplace.” This phenomenon is called out in research and position papers by the most reputable public health, mental health, academic, and business organizations as a major problem that must be addressed for the benefit of those employed and the organizations themselves. 

The challenges companies face are well-defined and have been discussed in the context of “toxic leadership”, where an individual manager/leader’s style and behavior drive employee productivity, engagement, and retention in a downward spiral. A toxic workplace, however, transcends the impact of a single individual, and while it often involves such leadership behavior, others in the organization translate it as an appropriate way of working and interacting with peers, subordinates, and even customers.

Defining a toxic workplace

Various experts define a toxic workplace similarly, with the American Psychological Association (APA) describing it as “an abstract term to describe infighting, intimidation, and other affronts that harm productivity.” Wharton (UPenn) describes it as one where employees are subject to psychological, emotional, or even physical abuse or experiencing “corrosive” pressures. Healthline refers to a sense of feeling “psychologically unsafe,” which is a recurring element of definitions by mental health experts and organizations. That term reflects on employees feeling a lack of comfort in making mistakes, taking risks, raising issues, accepting others’ differences, asking for help, supporting (vs. undermining) others' ideas and efforts, and feeling valued as a colleague.

MIT Sloan research found that such a work environment was defined by a lack of inclusivity, workers feeling disrespected, unethical behavior, abusive managers, and a “cutthroat” environment driven by excessively competitive behaviors. Other research has described a lack of inclusivity, collaborative behaviors, and outright bullying or harassment by managers and/or peers. The Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) defines bullying as “repeated, health-harming mistreatment by one or more employees of an employee: abusive conduct that takes the form of verbal abuse; or behaviors perceived as threatening, intimidating, or humiliating; work sabotage; or in some combination of the above.”

Clearly, some of the behaviors described are openly hostile and damaging, and it may appear to the casual observer that such antagonism does not rear its head in corporate environments. However, while such conspicuous behavior is more common than many might believe, the other more nuanced and often less visible examples in a toxic workplace (discrimination, bias, dismissiveness) are well-documented and widely reported.

How common is the toxic workplace? 

Unfortunately, the experience of toxicity and abusive experiences are relatively common. The WBI reports that 30% of adult Americans are bullied at work, and 43% of remote workers experience the same. The APA found that 18% of employees described their workplace as either somewhat or very toxic (up to 19% in 2023), although it was somewhat more common in lower-skilled jobs (22%) than in office jobs (15%). The research further reported that harassment, verbal abuse, or physical violence was experienced by 30% of workers in the past year alone. 

According to the "Workplace Stress" survey conducted by Monster, 42% of surveyed workers had left their jobs because of experiencing an over-stressful work environment and further reported that 61% of workers had experienced illnesses attributed to such stress. Interestingly, the source of the stress was relatively balanced between supervisors (40%), heavy workloads (39%), poor work-life balance (34%), and their relationships with co-workers (31%).

The Society for HR Management (SHRM) investigated the toxic workplace phenomenon and found that nearly 20% of employees quit due to a problematic culture, and 60% resigned due to their managers. Perhaps more troubling are the findings that nearly 25% of all surveyed employees “dreaded going into work,” didn’t feel safe voicing their opinions, and felt they were not valued and respected in their workplaces. The issue, of course, is that these toxic workplace experiences and perceptions are well-established as major drivers of turnover.

The impact of a toxic workplace

A toxic workplace has been linked to significant negative outcomes for companies and employees. The adverse impacts on desirable organizational outcomes, for example, include toxic work cultures being demonstrated as the top driver of employee attrition, substantially higher than the effects of either a lack of recognition or job insecurity. One study linked workplace ostracism, incivility, harassment, and bullying to having statistically significantly negative effects on employee job productivity. Other research studies have demonstrated a similar effect on worker burnout.  

Equally concerning is the impact of a toxic workplace on employee health. A substantial amount of research has linked mental and physical health issues, including The U.S. Surgeon General’s Office, which linked toxic work cultures to complaints of chronic stress from workplace abuse that led to depression, heart disease, cancer, and other illnesses. In that research, it found that 84% of survey participants' workplace conditions had contributed to at least one mental health challenge. And research from Stanford University demonstrated that people whose work demands prevented them from meeting family obligations were 90% more likely to self-report poor physical health. Even in situations of individuals in highly demanding roles without bullying or harassment, such stressful conditions raised the likelihood of a formally diagnosed illness by 35%. And a point that will likely resonate with many working parents and partners, the SHRM study found that for 30% of employees, the workplace culture caused them to be irritable at home. 

In an interesting side note of the negative impacts on employees, the WBI study found that about 65% of bullied targets eventually lost their jobs due to either quitting to avoid abuse or being subsequently terminated by the employer. The latter impact can be theorized as being based upon the harassed employee either withdrawing from normal duties and responsibilities or ineffectively fighting back against such treatment.

Causes of toxic workplaces and environments

The causes of toxic workplaces and environments

Given the preponderance of toxicity reported in many organizations, business and HR leaders should be alert to this phenomenon's symptoms and root causes. Not surprisingly, there is no single cause of such an environment, and experience demonstrates that it often exists in certain corners or functions of an organization rather than across an enterprise. But understanding the range of possibilities can help HR leaders pinpoint problem areas and work to negate or minimize the issues.

Leadership inattention or ineffectiveness

A frequent complaint emerges from a leadership overfocus on driving results without attending to how individuals and teams are accomplishing those. With high-yield-production teams, top leadership may be reluctant to deal with concerns related to management methods when those lead to exemplary results. Such a lack of sensitivity to the impact of aggressive managerial or team member behavior on the productivity, performance, or sense of safety that others experience might be seen as “unnecessarily “upsetting the cart.” Similarly, issues arise when high-performing team management occurs in a vacuum, without concern for the impact of its actions on peer teams’ performance, which can create trouble spots for the larger organization.

Related to this, it is common to hear about managers who are not well-equipped to deal with such behaviors on their teams, being unsure or instinctively repulsed and unable to manage and stop such behavior. When top performers or more senior team members' behavior disrupts the contributions of others, less capable or experienced managers might choose to avoid conflict or constructively address and manage such situations as they arise.

Managerial behavior 

Less capable or attentive managers can be observed to provide unclear or unreasonable expectations, work assignments, and work hours when balancing workloads and production expectations from above. Leaders who lack empathy, fail to communicate and listen effectively, do not provide necessary resources and support, or engage in bullying behavior (e.g., “just get it done or else”) can create an atmosphere of toxicity. Supervision of employees that is over-controlling or involves micromanagement can communicate a lack of trust, disempower employees, and lead to stress, frustration, and burnout.

Cultural and hiring standards

Without proper levels of managerial guidance or attention to hiring employees who have demonstrated behaviors consistent with a company’s core values, it is difficult to build a consistent, positive, and constructive culture.  Incompatibilities can arise due to common issues such as managers hiring in their own mold vs. actively seeking out diversity in thought, perspectives, experiences, and backgrounds. Enterprise-wide hiring standards should include a priority on values-based management where a focus is placed on individual or team achievement but not at the expense of others, other teams/functions, or the larger enterprise. This starts with the matching of properly skilled candidates who embody the corporate values.

Unhealthy competition

When there's an excessive focus on competition without collaboration, it can create a “cutthroat” environment. Employees may feel pressured to undermine each other, contributing to a toxic culture. Lacking clear guidance and guardrails for what constitutes “healthy competition” runs the risk of supporting a culture where winner-takes-all and can lead to employees undercutting other’s efforts, negatively impacting team success, innovation, performance, and productivity. When coupled with a low tolerance for mistakes or missteps, particularly in environments where innovation and creativity are critical, this can be a formula that quells risk-taking, collaboration, and cross-functional problem-solving and encourages a “me-first” mentality amongst the workforce.

Workplace monitoring

Here’s an interesting one – with the increased availability of network monitoring software that became popular during COVID and the necessary emergence of remote work, employees are responding negatively to the use of such software to monitor their work hours (vs. schedules), activities (web sites visited, keystrokes, screen time, emails), etc. 60% of surveyed employees felt stressed (vs. 35% who said they were not monitored), 45% feel that it impacts their mental health (vs. 22%), and 23% feel the surveillance makes the workplace toxic.

elements of building a culture for a non-toxic workplace

The core elements of building a culture, capabilities, and standards for a non-toxic workplace

Building a non-toxic workplace culture involves cultivating an environment where employees feel valued, supported, and engaged. The core elements of establishing a healthy workplace, culture, and standards should be developed and integrated into all employee-facing processes and expectations.  In addition, as leaders and managers set the tone for acceptable behavior and expectations, they should be selected, developed, and managed carefully.

1. Leadership and Communication

Effective leadership is fundamental to a non-toxic workplace. Leaders should model transparency, open communication, and empathy. Regularly communicating the organization's vision, mission, values, and expectations fosters employee trust and alignment. Leadership selection criteria should include considerations of past feedback and demonstrated competencies and strengths as leaders, motivators, coaches, and developers of high performers. Management and Leadership Development programs should emphasize constructive leadership behaviors, promotion standards, and compensation structures should be designed to reinforce the desired behaviors and regular managerial assessments should include 360-degree or upward feedback that monitors the quality of their leadership from their subordinates' viewpoint.

2. Inclusive and Diverse Culture

Prioritize diversity and inclusion to create a workplace where individuals from diverse backgrounds feel welcome and valued. Encourage collaboration and respect for different perspectives, fostering a culture that celebrates diversity. Create programs that develop and support the promotion of properly skilled managers and leaders of diverse populations. Leadership oversight and governance of the full range of diversity considerations – of not only personal characteristics but also of thought, perspectives, experience bases, problem-solving approaches, etc. can drive the necessary acceptance (and expectations) of different styles and methods and processes of performing work, continuous improvement, and solution development.

3. Clear Mission, Values, Policies, and Associated Competencies

Develop an enterprise mission statement that communicates a consistent, organization-wide direction and purpose, associated values that guide managerial and employee behavior, decision-making, and relationship management, and a competency model that provides specific direction and performance/behavioral expectations for employees and leaders. Leverage those values and competencies in the performance management, employee and leadership development, and succession planning/promotion decision-making processes. Uphold strong ethical standards and values. Establish clear and consistently enforced HR policies and procedures, including guidelines for behavior, conflict resolution, and expectations for performance. Clarity in these areas promotes fairness and helps prevent misunderstandings or misinterpretations.

4. Employee Recognition and Development

Acknowledge and provide appreciation for employees' contributions through regular recognition and reward programs. Link such recognition to not only goal achievement but also for exhibiting the appropriate values and behaviors such as teamwork, support for others, and constructive relationship management. Invest in professional development platforms and experience opportunities to encourage and help employees grow in their careers, showing a commitment to their continued success. Facilitate cross-functional collaboration, stimulate network building, and motivate employee mobility to institutionalize the acceptance of diverse backgrounds, perspectives, work methods, and cooperative behaviors.

5. Work-Life Balance

Promote a healthy work-life balance by encouraging reasonable working hours, providing flexibility when possible, and discouraging a culture of overwork. Support employees in balancing their professional and personal lives and overall well-being through flexible policies and practices aligned with work schedules, locations, and time away provisions. Support managerial decision-making of this with staff load balancing, scheduling, and project management technologies.

6. Wellness Programs

Implement wellness initiatives to support employees' physical and mental health. This may include access to mental health resources, wellness programs, and initiatives that promote a healthy lifestyle. Encourage employee utilization on an ongoing basis and train managers to recognize signs of distress and need for support in physical, financial, and mental health.

7. Proactive Listening Systems

Establish open channels for employees to provide feedback and express concerns. Establish continuous listening strategies for early detection and identification of issues impacting employee productivity, performance, and safety (physical and psychological). Be prepared to act on feedback to show that the organization values and considers the opinions of its workforce. Leverage multiple avenues and methods for understanding the employee experience (EX) and engage leaders at all levels to participate in collecting and receiving feedback on such data.

8. Continuous Learning and Improvement

Cultivate a culture of continuous learning and improvement. Encourage adaptability, innovation, and a willingness to learn from successes and failures. This mindset contributes to a dynamic and positive work culture. Encourage post-project reviews, work process design and improvement efforts, upward feedback (from employees to managers), design thinking, and other creative methods to gain valuable insights into improvements that can be made to workflows, HR processes, IT systems, etc. Through the active and regular use of such techniques, respect for employee input and democratization of critical process and infrastructure improvement ideation can be implemented.

Measures and sources that can reveal a toxic workplace

The monitoring of organizational health is an essential element of understanding where and to what extent toxic behaviors and sub-cultures may be operating within an enterprise.  As top leaders rely upon their direct reports, who rely on their direct reports, etc. for insights into organizational health, the management chain of a given organization tends to be a less reliable “source of truth” for such cultural issues. As a result, the development of metrics that can serve as warning signs of difficulties has become a must-have. Employee surveys are only a starting point, as they tend to be used with entire employee populations and in larger organizations often involve long time lags to develop, test, deploy, and interpret. Other measures and listening methods can serve, especially when integrated with each other, as powerful sources of insight and early warnings of issues that require further investigation. 

Higher or increased volumes of negative actions or responses should act as signals of issues and should be centrally tracked, monitored, and reported for trends over time.   

  • Employee engagement and pulse survey scores (enterprise-wide, business unit, function, location, department, manager)
  • External legal and regulatory agency filings and complaints (Wage and hour, Worker's Compensation, EEO, OFCCP, etc.)
  • Lawsuits (discrimination, unlawful termination, whistleblower, etc.)
  • Internal employee relations complaints (harassment, unfair treatment, discrimination, etc.)
  • Managerial effectiveness measures (upward feedback, goal achievement, performance ranking, etc.)
  • Turnover rates (existing and new hire employees, no-show/job abandonment rates, involuntary termination rates)
  • Absenteeism, sick leave utilization rates
  • Medical and psychological benefits utilization rates
  • System log-on, building access data (nights, weekends, scheduled days off) 
  • Exit interview/surveys (manager or co-worker difficulties, workloads, work-life balance)  
  • Transfer-out rates

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