Of Toxic Workplaces and Turning Points

By Ingrid Vaughan

A toxic workplace is more like a slow drip than a burst pipe and doesn’t develop overnight. The condition is not typically highlighted by a major event or situation, but more subtly defined by a gradual decline in morale and behaviours that cumulatively fill the sink to overflowing.

The True Cost of Toxicity
That said, what is the real cost of a toxic workplace—or more positively, the potential to be found in turning things around? In a 2015 article in Inc. Magazine titled, “The True Cost of a Toxic Work Environment” by Will Yakowicz, the author cites a study on the impact of abusive and uncivil behaviour on employees by Christine Porath, a Georgetown University professor of management, and Christine Pearson, professor at the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University,

Having interviewed and surveyed 14,000 CEOs, managers, and employees for the study, Porath and Pearson unsurprisingly found that incivility demoralizes people. More pointedly from a productivity perspective, nearly half of employees “decreased work effort” and intentionally spent less time at work, while 38 percent “intentionally decreased” the quality of their work.

Even the employees who are not feeling specifically targeted or marginalized by a toxic environment will be negatively impacted. “Just being around it, witnessing it, hearing it, would have very similar negative effects—in taking people off track, a lack of commitment and potential retention issues,” says Porath. “In a toxic workplace, it’s about having to live in that environment, even if you are not the one always experiencing abusive behaviour.”

This being the case, the greatest opportunity for the HR professional and leadership within organizations is to remain participatory and observationally vigilant, as preventative versus reactionary measures inevitably yield greater outcomes. Here are some common signs that your culture is headed toward the rocks:

Signs of a Toxic Workplace

Gossip is all the talk: When groups of people speak in hushed tones and conversations halt when someone else enters the room these can be signs of definite discontent. 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 who has heard it, but doesn’t want to be part of it.

Cliques begin to form: 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.

Complaints and conflicts surge: You are suddenly 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 also notice an increase in the amount of workplace conflict.

Incivility is on the rise: When people are just being mean to one another via humiliation, exclusion, making fun of others, hurtful comments in public or lack of respect. All of 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 behaviour.

Decrease in morale: You witness a general malaise among your team—lacklustre 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, this is definitely worth investigating.

Increase in sick time and turnover: You see an increase in absenteeism and turnover beyond what is normal. When workplaces are toxic, people get stressed and this often results in people either becoming ill or avoiding coming to work when they feel this way. Similarly, others just choose to leave without saying why. Whenever there is an increase in people rushing for the door, pay attention.

Risks of Allowing a Toxic Environment
When you start to see these behaviours—especially if they are becoming more frequent —it is 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 it is imperative that you begin investigating 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. Inaction conveys acceptance at the highest level. This damage can be irreparable and your business stands to feel the impact in every way. 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 WorkSafeBC investigation that may cost you significant time and money and create even further trauma for your team.

Uncovering Root Causes
Getting to the root of what’s happening is easier when signs are just starting to appear, rather 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 and provide insights you could not obtain otherwise.

One-on-one staff interviews are also an option, if you feel your staff will be honest and open. 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 holds especially true if the problem is 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.

Whichever way 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 behaviour. Zero Tolerance means you are willing to take definitive action for even minor infractions. When your team sees you taking workplace health 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 the only way to approach it effectively. 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 verifiable incidents of toxic behaviour of specific people have been identified, those incidents need to be dealt with immediately from a performance perspective—both the people who behaved badly and those who were affected need addressing. The people behaving in toxic ways should be given a warning outlining the behaviours 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.

Don’t Give Up
Toxic work environments are difficult to restore, but it can be done. Even if interventions have occurred, 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.

As principal of SMART HR, Ingrid Vaughan’s focus is building systems and processes that keep organizations’ HR running smoothly, and providing tools to help manage teams in a powerful and effective way.

(PeopleTalk Winter 2017)

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