Creating a positive and healthy work environment is essential for attracting and retaining talent to your organisation. Unfortunately, studies conducted in both the United States and here in Australia have uncovered that toxic work environments are increasingly common.
For example, a survey of Millennial and Gen X workers in the US found that 74% and 79%, respectively, have encountered toxic situations at their jobs. Research indicates that toxic workplace culture has a significant deleterious impact on the psychological wellbeing of employees. What might be surprising is that almost 80% of workplaces met the criteria for toxicity! It's clear that addressing workplace toxicity is a critical issue that cannot be ignored. Keep reading to learn more.
what is a toxic work environment?
A toxic working environment is a setting for negative behaviours like bullying, harassment and work overload. It can cause employees to feel stressed, burnt out, unhappy or uncomfortable. In addition, personality conflicts, whether confrontational or passive/aggressive, make it difficult for employees to remain engaged and productive.
Because these types of abusive work environments cause significant difficulties in an organisation, prompt attention is critical.
the undesirable effects of a toxic work environment
A negative work environment can have a detrimental impact on businesses, affecting everything from customer service to product delivery. However, it's the HR department is often hit the hardest. This type of culture can lead to increased absenteeism and decreased employee retention, putting HR leaders under pressure to fill in the gaps. Additionally, toxic work environments can result into:
high employee turnover
A high employee turnover rate could indicate a toxic environment at work, whether physical, social or a combination of the two. By studying turnover metrics, which may be company-wide, limited to one or more divisions or time-sensitive, you may be able to encounter specific issues, such as:
- toxic managers
- poor implementation of a new process
- overwork due to staff shortages
- pay raises that didn’t meet expectations
Increased turnover brings its own share of problems, from increased recruitment costs to poor workplace morale and loss of productivity.
Gallup’s 2022 State of the Global Workplace Report found that 19% of the world’s workers are just plain miserable, and over half feel emotionally detached at work. A toxic or abusive work environment can increase stress levels among workers, causing them to miss work frequently and remain unengaged while they are at work.
Eventually, productivity suffers as employees perform below par and departments are understaffed. Therefore, when studying performance metrics, keep an eye on productivity rates; they may be the first sign of a work environment problem.
negative employer brand
If the work environment in your organisation is unhealthy, it will not take long before the news spreads. The negative impact of this situation can be seen in the poor reviews that exiting employees leave behind, which can hurt your reputation as an employer.
Furthermore, attracting and retaining talented individuals will become increasingly difficult, leading to less desirable candidates. Ultimately, this will result in having more mediocre employees than your business can sustain, thereby affecting quality control and timing.
recognising a toxic work environment
Your HR department may have a good work environment. However, as mentioned earlier, working environments can vary by department. Therefore, you should always be on the lookout for any indication of a toxic work situation. Employee surveys can help identify the undesirable behaviours listed below so you can institute changes before problems escalate.
At one time in our lives, we’ve all experienced a bully — someone who uses their strength, position or knowledge to make another feel inferior. Anyone can be a bully, although managers have the edge when it comes to workplace power. Your organisation's bully could be an IT staff person who makes others feel ignorant about new technology or an administrative assistant who is overly controlling about setting up meetings. Bullies interfere with productivity by making other employees uncomfortable and undermining their confidence.
When bullying is directed at certain people groups, it falls under the harassment category. For example, suppose your workplace bully only picks on individuals of a particular gender, religion or race. In that case, you’re dealing with a violation of human rights, which may have legal consequences.
In addition, a workplace culture of harassment, regardless of the victim, creates an atmosphere of exclusiveness, making it difficult to attract and retain the balance of individuals necessary for operating in today’s global economy.
Managers must allow their teams to work independently, guiding without constant supervision. If you have a micromanager on your staff, chances are their department will have a higher-than-usual turnover or absenteeism rate and a lower-than-usual productivity rating.
Employees who are micromanaged lack confidence and can become frustrated by the over-detailed processes of their manager and requests to review their work. Be on the lookout for team dynamics that include frequently missed deadlines and a constant need for updates.
If your feedback requests reap a lot of comments about a lack of communication between management and staff, it could point to a toxic work environment. Unresponsiveness of leadership is a common complaint among employees. By ignoring survey results and suggestions, your company is, in effect, ignoring its employees. Eventually, they will search for another employer — one that considers their opinions.
lack of work/life balance
While you may think a busy worker is a happy worker, that’s not always the case. Employees saying they're too busy to talk, taking work home and staying late indicate something is wrong. In fact, employee burnout could be just around the corner.
Many times, this type of toxic work behaviour takes its lead from management or even the CEO. Boasting of coming in early, staying late, working through lunch and never taking a day off are signs of a poor work/life balance, not an exemplary work ethic.
Cliques, or in-groups, are bad for teamwork. Cliques can form based on any number of commonalities: work departments, classes of employees or even something as innocent as who likes the same restaurant for lunch. However, once cliques become exclusive, leaving one or more employees out, they can create toxic work environments.
no chance for growth
Another toxic work environment is one in which there is no prospect of promotion and no way to develop future skills. Everyone is familiar with the phrase ‘dead-end job.’ If that expression crops up during exit interviews or worker surveys, your company needs to invest in training and development programs.
Career progression opportunities ranked fifth on Randstad’s Employer Brand Research Report of important drivers for choosing an employer. This type of job improvement was more relevant for higher-educated adults and one of the top three motivators among Latin American workers.
how to prevent a toxic work environment
To foster a work environment that's both positive and engaging, it takes more than just the leadership's support and commitment. Every team member must contribute and be involved. Consider these actionable strategies to positively affect your work environment.
base policies on actions, not words
Company policies should show zero tolerance for bullying and harassment, and management must offer total support. And while writing it down is easy, following through can be more challenging.
Your employees should be apprised from day one of onboarding that your company doesn’t tolerate bullying or harassment, regardless of the class of employee. In addition, infraction penalties should be handled impartially, whether it’s mandatory training sessions or harsher consequences like suspension or termination.
aim for diversity in your talent search
Studies show that the more diverse an organisation's workforce, the greater its strength and resilience, including the ability to sustain a positive work environment. Therefore, work with leadership to set diversity goals based on your location’s demographics.
To increase diversity in your organisation, you must ensure applications, job descriptions and every aspect of the recruitment process champions rather than hinders it. Use the expertise of an HR solutions partner to help revamp your parameters if necessary.
excel in onboarding
An employee’s first look at their new work environment occurs during onboarding. According to a Gallup survey, employees who experienced a good onboarding process were much more likely (over two and a half times) to engage in and enjoy their work.
What makes up a great onboarding experience? It could include anything from a timely welcome letter to efficient HR processing and IT set up. While many onboarding steps are consistent across companies, you’ll have to adapt others to fit your organisation’s operating model, especially when dealing with remote onboarding requirements.
Providing a mentor is an easy way to help acclimate the new employee to various workday hurdles, like navigating maze-like hallways and finding a lunch spot. Choose positive employees who project the image you want and have a good history with the company.
It’s much easier to stop a downward trend than to figure out how to fix a toxic work environment. Through the mapping of your employee’s journey, you can discover what your employees are thinking at each stage of their employment journey: applying for a job at your company, onboarding, career development and separation.
Employees who have experienced bullying or harassment may be unwilling to point fingers. To support accountability in the workplace, your organisation should have a process in place by which employees can report misconduct confidentially and with no threat of retaliation. Creating a ‘safe channel’ makes it easier for employees to express concerns.
If you’re not holding exit interviews, start now. It’s one of the best ways to discover why employees are leaving and your last chance to leave a good brand impression. It’s even more important if the cause of resignation is due to a toxic work atmosphere.
In addition, consider assigning a team member to track company reviews on public job sites. Both positive and negative comments can be helpful as you look for ways to improve working environments.
use people analytics
By comparing who is leaving with why they’re leaving, you can maximise the benefit of your employee intelligence. People analytics lets you use employee data to understand their likes, dislikes and behaviours, so you can identify if a toxic work environment is contributing to turnover.
- if new employees are leaving, you might have a flawed onboarding process
- if you're losing long-term employees, they may feel undervalued or unsupported
- a loss of some of your more diverse employees may point to a problem with harassment or an exclusive work culture
- attrition among high-level employees may indicate lower-than-average salaries or a lack of promotion opportunities
Once you’ve gathered your data, review it with an expert to ensure you’re interpreting it correctly. Only then can you make practical suggestions to improve the company’s working environment.
invest in your people
While a pleasant work environment is important to employees, our employer brand research found that pay and work-life balance remain the primary incentives. By identifying and meeting employee needs, you will be able to maintain productivity and job satisfaction while also saving on recruitment and turnover costs.